False facts that actually changed the world

We thought nature was endless, and now things are extinct

Drive across the US today, and it’s no big deal. There’s highways and rest stops as far as the eye can see, but just imagine what it must have been like a few centuries ago. Vast herds of buffalo, flocks of thousands of birds, dense forests … paradise on earth? Absolutely, until mankind came along and ruined the heck out of it.

What New World settlers found was so incredible that they developed what the British Association for American Studies calls the “myth of superabundance”: a belief that this unsettled world was limitless, and that there were so many resources that there was no reason to think we’d ever use them all up. We began making decisions based on that principle right from the moment we set foot on the East Coast, when we decimated beaver, elk, lynx, and bear populations, and completely wiped out the passenger pigeon.

Obviously the myth of superabundance couldn’t be less true. And spoiler alert: we used everything up. Even as the promise of wealth and limitless natural resources drove people west, the National Park Service says that loggers destroyed entire forests, bison were hunted from a population of around 60 million down to about a thousand, elk and beaver were poached relentlessly, and herds of livestock destroyed wild grasslands. Preservationists fought against those practices, and they had an uphill battle. Fortunately, they persevered — somewhat — and it’s why we have national parks and protected areas today.