A century after the trailblazing conservationist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Half a century before, Maya Angelou urged us in her cosmic clarion call to see that “we, this person, on this minuscule and with less globe” must correct our course before we destroy ourselves. Our kith-hitched globe, the ecologist and conservationist William Vogt (May 15, 1902–July 11, 1968), composed a masterwork of admonition and actionable vision that shaped the ethos of the modern environmental movement and encouraged the generation of pioneers who set it into motion.
During his long recovery from paralytic polio as a child, William had fallen in love with the natural world, escaping his confinement through books about the wilderness and its wondrous creatures. A century before the Oxford Children’s Dictionary discarded dozens of words related to nature as irrelevant to the imagination and its prosthesis in language; the small bedridden boy grew especially enchanted by the feathered creatures of free flight that he met on the page.
Literature remained his portal into life as he set out on a literary career in New York. But nature beckoned, the birds beckoned. At thirty, Vogt abruptly left the city for Latin America, traveling on a Peruvian commission to study bird populations on the guano islands. In the three years he spent there, laboring in the salty air on the hot, barren rocks, he arrived at an empirical proof of Muir’s insight — Vogt discovered that when changes in ocean currents diminished the population of plankton and anchovies, millions of birds fled the islands in search of food, leaving their defenseless chicks to die in “pitiful, collapsed, downy clumps” that broke his heart.
He saw in this heartbreak a miniature of the whole — the intricate interlacing of creaturely destinies on a planet of finite resources, growing populations, and infinite interconnectedness of needs.
Vogt spent the next decade and a half developing these ideas by devouring countless books and scientific papers, talking with scientists and sea captains, farmers and diplomats, presidents and sheepherders in Patagonia, engineers and trappers in Manitoba. In 1948 — the year the great nature writer Henry Beston cast his poetic hope that “perhaps there is still time to take a stand for the Kingdom of Life [which] needs defenders” and that “perhaps, mighty as its enemies may be, allies will come who are even mightier” — Vogt distilled his learnings in Road to Survival (public library). This mighty manifesto roused a generation of allies to stand for the Kingdom of Life.