Osborn Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborn, Jr., sounded a timely warning about the dangers humankind was posing to the earth with the publication of his book Our Plundered Planet. His work called for an international effort to conserve resources, find substitutes for those resources nearing depletion, improve methods of distribution, and curtail the global population explosion.

Summary of Event

Henry Fairfield Osborn, Jr.’s Our Plundered Planet (1948) has been called one of the classics of the environmental revolution. Along with William Vogt’s Road to Survival (1948), Harrison Brown’s The Challenge of Man’s Future (1954), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Lewis Herber’s Crisis in Our Cities (1965), and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), Osborn’s book shares the honor of having alerted the American public to the horrors facing humankind if needless environmental destruction continued. The ideas expressed in these seminal books have become part of the public consciousness and are addressed in articles, television and film documentaries, and classroom lectures; on the Web; and elsewhere. Our Plundered Planet (Osborn) Natural resources Overpopulation Ecology [kw]Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet (1948) [kw]Our Plundered Planet, Osborn Publishes (1948) Our Plundered Planet (Osborn) Natural resources Overpopulation Ecology [g]North America;1948: Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet[02270] [g]United States;1948: Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet[02270] [c]Natural resources;1948: Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet[02270] [c]Environmental issues;1948: Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet[02270] [c]Publishing and journalism;1948: Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet[02270] Osborn, Henry Fairfield, Jr. Vogt, William

When these books were published, science and technology had helped bring about a tremendous increase in world population while at the same time finding new and improved ways to exploit the environment to support these growing numbers. Human beings, according to Osborn, were becoming their own worst enemies, victims of their own success as the dominant species on the planet. They were cutting down the forests, exhausting oil and coal supplies, polluting the air, overcropping and overgrazing, and poisoning the soil and water with chemicals.

Osborn and his work were of special importance to the ecological revolution. He was one of the first who had the broad knowledge to enable him to call attention to what was happening to the entire planet; consequently, he had the prestige to demand immediate, positive action on an international scale to stop the destruction before it was too late.

The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs in 1945, just a few years before Our Plundered Planet was published, had made many people aware for the first time that human beings actually had the power to destroy the environment and bring all life to an end. Ironically, it was the creation of the most destructive weapon ever imagined that motivated people in every nation to work together to promote world peace and international cooperation to save the environment.

Osborn warned that humankind was on a collision course with disaster. Nuclear war was only one of many possible apocalyptic scenarios. World War II had been triggered largely by population Overpopulation pressures in Germany and Japan. The biggest problem was that human beings were too successful as a species. In the future, he cautioned, there would be more and more people with less and less to support them. Other species would be wiped out, with unforeseeable consequences. All over the world, the same stories were being reported: All kinds of living things were being extinguished in one way or another by human beings. In some cases, people were killing these creatures directly; in many more cases, people were killing them by destroying their habitats.

In this book, Osborn cites many examples of how the environment is being destroyed by desperate people who are so concerned about immediate self-preservation that they cannot concern themselves about the wasteland they may be leaving to later generations. Osborn displays the range of his concerns as well as the scope of his knowledge by discussing each portion of the world in detail. In separate chapters, he discusses the unique problems of Asia, the Mediterranean lands and Africa, Russia, Europe, England and Australia, and finally the New World—which, he says, is no longer new but is already experiencing the same kinds of ecological devastation that have plagued Asia and Africa for centuries. In addition to describing the current ecological problems of each of these vast areas, he discusses their histories, sometimes going back to ancient times to explain the intimate connection between ecology and history.

The author picks out some examples of intelligent conservation of natural resources; most of his descriptions, however, concern the sad results of the ignorant or arrogant misuse of nature. He writes with scientific authority but with a clear and effective style.

Man’s misuse of the land is very old, going back thousands of years even to the earliest periods of human history. It can be read in the despairing chronicle of ruins buried in sand, of rivers running in channels high above their surrounding landscapes, of ever-spreading deltas, of fallen terraces which once held productive fields or rich gardens.

Osborn concludes by stating his conviction that there can be no hope for the future unless people realize that humankind is a part of one great biological scheme. This is the fundamental concept of the ecological revolution in which Osborn played a leading role.

Our Plundered Planet received widespread praise in the United States and abroad because of its important subject as well as the author’s dignified and learned style. It was a selection of the Book-Find Club and received a citation in the 1949 Gutenberg Awards. It has been translated into many languages and is regarded as a classic work in the field of ecology.


Ecological awareness has served as a recent means of uniting governments in the awareness that they have common environmental interests that cross national boundaries and cannot always be resolved by national action alone, but through cooperative efforts. Regard for the future of the planet has united people across class, racial, and political lines. The publication of Our Plundered Planet was significant because it contributed so strongly to international ecological awareness at such an early date.

At the time Osborn published Our Plundered Planet, the world’s future looked grim, from both a political and an ecological perspective. Many people expected civilization to end through a nuclear Armageddon involving the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and a number of European nations. There were others who predicted that the quality of life for all human beings was sure to plummet because of the earth’s expanding population and shrinking natural resources. Partly because of the eloquent warnings of visionaries such as William Vogt, Rachel Carson, Osborn, and others, the doomsday predictions made in the years following World War II did not materialize. Enough people listened to the warnings to start working together in a variety of ways.

Our Plundered Planet set an example that many other writers and educators were to follow. Osborn’s father, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr., had been well known in the field of paleontology. Osborn, Jr., had the authority and the vision to speak not for a merely personal, factional, or national interest but for the entire human race. He not only demanded action to save an abused and plundered planet but also demanded that other concerned citizens raise their voices in protest. This demand for sanity and social responsibility rose to a crescendo during the turbulent 1960’s and would continue to shape the course of modern history. Our Plundered Planet (Osborn) Natural resources Overpopulation Ecology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asimov, Isaac, and Frederik Pohl. Our Angry Earth. New York: Tor, 1991. Two well-known writers who were influenced by Osborn offer solutions to the ecological problems created by human population increases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Harrison Scott. The Challenge of Man’s Future: An Inquiry Concerning the Condition of Man During the Years That Lie Ahead. New York: Viking Press, 1954. This classic work in the field of ecology examines the problems of the relations between population and natural resources. Brown calls for “population by permission.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. This best-selling book utilized many of Osborn’s ideas. Carson shocked the nation into demanding government action to stop the use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), a pesticide that was killing birds and mammals and even threatening human life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (December 13, 1968): 1243-1248. An essay that attracted wide attention with its appearance in a prestigious scientific publication. Hardin claims that there is no scientific solution to the population problem and calls for coercion to limit growth. Stresses the role of educators in teaching birth control.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKee, Jeffrey K. Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003. McKee explores the cause-and-effect relationship between human population growth and the squeezing out of animals and plants, all to the detriment of a healthy and sustaining life on Earth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Edited by Philip Appleman. 2d ed. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 2004. A classic often referred to in works on population growth, environmental destruction, and related subjects. Malthus states that a portion of humanity is doomed to misery because population tends to increase geometrically, while food supply increases only arithmetically.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nader, Ralph, Ronald Brownstein, and John Richard, eds. Who’s Poisoning America: Corporate Polluters and Their Victims in the Chemical Age. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1981. Seven case studies of chemical pollution by big corporations. Ralph Nader, an advocate for consumer rights and environmental protection, contributes a chapter in which he states that culprits must be made accountable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Odum, Eugene P. Fundamentals of Ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1953. 5th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2005. A classic text in ecology that utilizes the ecosystem approach.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osborn, Fairfield. Our Plundered Planet. 1948. New York: Pyramid Books, 1970. Osborn’s classic work, in an updated edition that includes a bibliography and list of further readings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vogt, William. Road to Survival. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1948. A classic in the field of ecology. One of the first books to show humankind as part of the total environment and to warn of the grave dangers of “using” the environment irresponsibly.

Lindeman’s “The Trophic-Dynamic Aspect of Ecology” Is Published

Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments

Carson Publishes Silent Spring

Udall Publishes The Quiet Crisis

Bookchin Publishes Crisis in Our Cities

Greenhouse Effect Is First Predicted

Zero Population Growth Movement Begins

The Population Bomb Is Published

Categories: History