“Our responsibility to the coming millions,” the president said, referring to Americans in the next century, “is like that of parents to their children….In wasting our resources we are wronging our descendants.”

That was President Theodore Roosevelt, speaking on January 22, 1909. It sounds as if he understood what we now call “sustainability,” the idea that we shouldn’t waste stuff later generations will need. He did understand, but his notions of what we would need were often mistaken. For instance, in his seventh annual message to Congress, on December 3, 1907, he urged legislators to save natural resources in several ways: by developing the Mississippi and other great river systems “as national water highways” for barges to carry bulk commodities such as corn and coal; by using the dams built for this purpose “to produce hundreds of thousands of horse-power”; by building levees along the Mississippi that, “taken together with the control of the headwaters [by dams], will at once and forever put a complete stop to all threats of floods in the immensely fertile delta region”; by developing irrigation “far more extensively…than at present”; and by doing much more “reclamation of swampland” by draining wetlands to make them into farmable fields.

Environmentalists today pay tribute to Roosevelt’s name for many good reasons–but they’re also beavering away to undo many of the things he called for in 1907. We breach dams to make rivers free for fish again. We know that riverside levees don’t stop floods, as Roosevelt thought–they just make the waters rise higher; accordingly midwestern towns such as Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and Valmeyer, Illinois, have abjured flood prevention altogether and moved themselves up onto bluffs. We suspect that railroads do less damage to the environment than the barges now traversing our “national water highways.” We now protect swamps against development and even go out of our way to unreclaim them. Last April the Nature Conservancy bought 7,527 acres of farmland along the Illinois River, across from the town of Havana, in order to reflood it and restore the backwater lakes that occupied the area when Roosevelt was president.

Shortsightedness doesn’t seem to have been TR’s problem. He approached these interrelated problems in the “holistic” manner of today’s environmentalists. He was looking to the long-term future. His agenda was even mildly anticorporate, since the new government-created waterways would allow barges to compete with the railroads, which had had a transportation monopoly. And yet from our vantage point 90-some years later, he got so much wrong. He didn’t foresee that public sentiment and priorities would change or that the railroad monopoly was about to be broken anyway, by highways of concrete and air.

We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves for being smarter than Teddy Roosevelt. We’re in no better position to predict the 21st century than he was the 20th. We don’t know what inventions will transform the next hundred years. We don’t know what our descendants may need or want. We’d like to plan for generations to come, but any master plan we draw up may well suffer the same eventual rejection and reversal as TR’s.

One advantage we have over him is that we have his example, which ought to make us consider the possibility that we too may be mistaken about any grand solutions we propose. But humility isn’t a popular attitude these days, if it ever was. Many environmentalists, appalled by environmental destruction, are still calling for long-range master plans. Writing in E magazine in December 1998, Dianne Dumanoski, coauthor of Our Stolen Future, argued that we must “reinvent ourselves and our global civilization…developing a broad, compelling, and coherent vision that will provide a map for the human future.” She offered few specifics, but her list of “obsolete and increasingly dangerous concepts” included “current notions of individualism, private property, and unmanaged markets and global free trade.”

No doubt global civilization will change, but only a tyrant beyond the wildest dreams of Joseph Stalin could “reinvent” it, and probably not for the better. Roosevelt had a “broad, compelling, and coherent vision.” So did the people who committed urban renewal half a century ago. How many times do we have to make the same mistake?

Even if we can agree that big plans for protecting the environment are just too 20th century, we still need to come up with modest plans–plans that, if they turn out to be mistakes, will at least be smaller mistakes. Here are four ways to plan more modestly that I’ve encountered in recent books.

1. Prioritize. The enormous new coffee-table book Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions tackles perhaps the most serious environmental problem–the prospect of mass extinction–in a plain, practical way. “To achieve maximum impact with limited resources,” the four authors, including Oxford’s Norman Myers, explain in their introduction, “we must concentrate heavily (but not exclusively) on those areas richest in diversity and most severely threatened.”

As it happens, these areas are surprisingly small and surprisingly rich. The world’s known living species include 300,000 vascular plants, 9,881 birds, 7,828 reptiles, 4,809 mammals, and 4,780 amphibians. Two-thirds of them live on just 1.4 percent of the world’s land, an area roughly the size of Alaska plus Texas. (So far there’s no hot-spot analysis for freshwater or marine organisms or for invertebrates.) Many hot spots are islands, including the Philippines and Madagascar. Most are tropical or Mediterranean in climate, including Central America, southern Florida, and western California. Each of the 25 hot spots has its own chapter with specialist authors.

The task of preventing large numbers of extinctions by limiting human activity is more manageable than it sounds at first. But it’s still not easy. Among the most serious cases is the Philippines, where just 8 percent of the original tropical rain forest remains, and “the loss of only a little more forest habitat may bring about the first major extinction spasm of the twenty-first century.” (Another 20 percent is regrowing, though it’s unlikely to be left alone.) Field Museum mammalogist Lawrence Heaney and the other authors of the Philippines chapter write, “The greatest threat to biodiversity [on the islands] is maintenance of the status quo–simply continuing to do things as they have been done during the last several decades. The factors most at fault are commercial logging (both legal and illegal); a level of severe rural poverty that in turn is associated with subsistence farming in upland areas and with high rates of population growth; overhunting and overfishing; and lack of land reform or a market-based economy….The Philippines is, in many ways, the hottest of the hotspots, and one of the first nations to stand at the brink of ecological crisis.”

Likely victims there include the Philippine eagle, a top predator that nests only in old-growth forests and reportedly has been reduced to just 30 breeding pairs. As Heaney and Jacinto Regalado Jr. point out in their earlier book, Vanishing Treasures of the Philippine Rain Forest, the eagles’ nesting areas are watersheds for coastal cities, so making sure they’re not logged would directly benefit Filipinos as well, by guaranteeing the source of their drinking water.

The MacArthur Foundation has used the hot-spots concept to focus its biodiversity grant making since 1989. Hotspots’ authors describe its $150 million support for field conservation efforts as “almost certainly the single most effective set of investments in biodiversity conservation over the entire period.” The book–which, at nine pounds and about a foot square, could itself serve as a coffee table–is part of Conservation International’s five-year effort to raise $200 million to do more.

2. Trade off. If there’s anything environmentalists can’t stand, it’s industrial farming, and often for good reason. But industrial farming does one thing well–it frees up land for other uses. The Illinois River acreage that the Nature Conservancy bought this spring was prime farmland. If we still had to feed oats to millions of draft horses, or raise crops at prepesticide, prehybrid 1910 yields, we probably couldn’t afford to turn it back into the more diverse–and to environmentalists, more desirable–habitat of a swamp.

In his book Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists: A Conservative Manifesto, engineer-lawyer Peter Huber makes a similar but more radical case–that mining fossil fuels and building materials is good for the environment because it consumes less land than the alternatives. “What we mine from the depths of the Earth now substitutes directly for what we would otherwise have to reap, harvest, gather, scrape, and flood from a vast area on the surface. …The more energy rich the fuel extracted the less disruption there will be. Generally speaking, the greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy per pound of material that must be mined, trucked, pumped, piped, and burnt. Coal is the least good hard fuel by that standard, oil is significantly better, and nuclear is millions of times better still. Strip mining is more environmentally disruptive than shaft mining, even if shafts are more dangerous for the miners. It is better to drill for oil in a desert, or over permafrost, than in a Louisiana bayou. There is a lot less life in those places to disturb.”

Is Huber right? I don’t know. I don’t even know if anyone has seriously tried to weigh the bad environmental effects of concentrated fuels (carbon dioxide, toxic and nuclear pollution) against the good ones (land freed for uses other than producing animal feed and biomass fuels). Huber is characteristically content to make his outrageous assertion as if it were fact, but he isn’t necessarily wrong just because he doesn’t want to do the work of pulling the figures together. Those for whom the environment is a practical project rather than a substitute for religion have to acknowledge that good things sometimes come out of not-so-good ones, that nothing is perfect or perfectly safe.

The very idea of weighing costs and benefits has a bad name among forward-thinking environmentalists, who’ve seen too many industrial products go on the market even though their benefits were exaggerated and their risks were understated or not studied at all. In the 1920s, for instance, lead became an accepted gasoline additive despite considerable evidence that it would cause a public-health disaster. But the evidence fell short of absolute proof, and so the disaster went forward.

Peter Montague tells this tale in his contribution to Protecting Public Health & the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle, coedited by Carolyn Raffensperger, a former Chicagoan who’s now coordinator of the Science and Environmental Health Network (www.sehn.org). The book’s 29 contributors hope to turn the tables by using the precautionary principle, which comes in many versions. Protecting Public Health & the Environment uses the one formulated at a January 1998 conference held at Wingspread: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

The academics and activists writing in Protecting Public Health & the Environment want all technology to be regulated in roughly the same way as new drugs and cosmetics. Nothing should go on the market, they say, unless its producer can persuade federal regulators that it’s safe. This is a profoundly status-quo idea, and it appeals to those who’ve come to see change as a threat, not a promise.

But there’s nothing golden about the status quo. When regulators are presented with a new drug, they can go wrong in two different ways. They can approve it and later find that it’s unsafe, in which case people may die from taking it. Or they can not approve it and later find that it’s safe–in which case people may die from not having been able to take it.

Each kind of mistake has to be weighed against the other. But the precautionary principle’s advocates pay far more attention to the first kind. They ask whether a new chemical, drug, technology, or government regulation is perfectly safe–a question appropriate only for well-off Americans who are generally happy with the status quo–instead of whether it offers more benefit than risk, compared honestly to all the alternatives.

The advocates are right to complain that such comparisons are often made dishonestly and without consideration of all the alternatives. (That seems to have been the problem with leaded gas.) But an abstract new principle won’t make corporations honest or disinterested, nor will it change the fact that few benefits are ever attained without some degree of risk. Trade-offs happen, whether they’re considered or not. As it now stands, the precautionary principle is a bumper sticker trying to pass as a philosophy.

3. Take nature as inspiration, not gospel. “Biomimicry” is one of the principles espoused by the authors of Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. (The others are radically increasing resource productivity, shifting the economy from goods to services, and investing in natural capital.) Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins write, “Science writer Janine Benyus points out that spiders make silk, strong as Kevlar but much tougher, from digested crickets and flies, without needing boiling sulfuric acid and high-temperature extruders. The abalone generates an inner shell twice as tough as our best ceramics, and diatoms make glass, both processes employing seawater with no furnaces. Trees turn sunlight, water, and air into…wood, a natural composite with a higher bending strength and stiffness than concrete or steel. We may never grow as skillful as spiders, abalone, diatoms, or trees, but smart designers are apprenticing themselves to nature to learn the benign chemistry of its processes.”

Fair enough. Anyone engaged in a creative process such as industrial design is well advised to seek inspiration anywhere she can find it. But the quest to be inspired by nature is often confused with the currently faddish idea that what we do must somehow be judged by how it compares to nature–in other words, “imitating nature” is a mandate rather than an option. Interviewed in Conscious Choice last April, Hunter Lovins described Interface Carpet Company of Atlanta: “Interface is looking to nature as the mentor, and asking ‘How would nature do this?’ ‘How does nature provide floor covering?’ And ‘How can we change our business model so as to do more of what nature does?’ In nature there is no waste.”

But nature is way too ambiguous to be anybody’s mentor. For starters, is there really no waste in nature? It all depends on how you look at it. From one point of view, the frog’s reproductive strategy is stupendously wasteful: tadpoles are produced by the millions and die by the hundreds of thousands every spring. Nature wastes tadpoles like crazy. From another point of view, the frog’s reproductive strategy isn’t wasteful at all: the organic matter that made up the dead tadpoles is consumed by bacteria. So nature doesn’t waste organic matter. The only way we can say, “There is no waste in nature,” is to arbitrarily choose the second point of view–which is reading into “nature” what we’re predisposed to find. (“Waste” is ambiguous too. When he wanted to build dams to generate electricity, TR might well have thought of himself as emulating nature by not wasting the energy of flowing water. He wasn’t thinking about wasting fish.)

Interface’s visionary CEO, Ray Anderson, is one of Natural Capitalism’s heroes, and rightly so, because he found ways to produce carpet with a closed-loop system that emits no pollutants. But closed-loop manufacturing is a great idea because it saves resources and solves pollution problems and costs less than conventional manufacturing–not because it resembles a particular natural process of which we’re fond.

Previous generations saw nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Anderson sees it as a “myriad of symbiotic relationships.” The truth is, “nature” is a Rorschach blot. We can find our own values expressed in nature if we know where to look–and where not to look. But the values aren’t inherent in nature; they belong to us.

4. Annoy your friends. Journalist Gregg Easterbrook has built a career on pointing out to environmentalists that many environmental trends are positive. It’s as easy as going to www.epa.gov to find out that the air is cleaner now than it was 30 years ago, though many educated people still seem to enjoy believing that it’s dirtier. But someone needs to say it.

Similarly, Peter Huber challenges the libertarian and conservative readers of Hard Green, many of whom think government has no business buying and preserving natural areas. He insists that private conservation isn’t enough. “Some values depend on doing things on a scope and scale that is inescapably public….As we grow older and richer, we resolve to conserve more: more law, more history, more freedom, and more public land, too.” Unfortunately Huber’s rationale relies on a naive Roosevelt-era view of what conservation means. “The one thing that big government is capable of doing well is doing nothing,” he writes, “which happens to be the paramount objective of conservation.” If only that were true. No one who’s spent even one afternoon lopping off shoots of invasive European buckthorn in a nature preserve could have written that. Just leaving wild places alone won’t conserve them; we have to manage them too.

The authors of Natural Capitalism also succeed in questioning assumptions held by their readers. Writing for an audience accustomed to business bashing, they’ve filled their book with stories of companies like Interface that are already mitigating climate change and preserving the environment–and making a profit–by using fewer materials and less energy. They tell of a Lawrence, Kansas, Wal-Mart where the daylit side of the store racked up more sales than the fluorescent-lit side, and of Dow Chemical, which is profitably leasing rather than selling many of its toxic or flammable organic solvents. Customers who lease get company experts who deliver the solvent, help with its application, help recover it afterward, and take it away to be reused. “The customer never owns it and is never liable for it.” The customer has no interest in wasting the stuff, and Dow’s own business incentives have changed in an environment-friendly direction too. When it sold solvent, it made more money the more solvent it made. But when it started leasing the stuff instead, it made more money the less solvent it made. And then there’s DuPont, which figures that it makes more money by making its plastics thinner and stronger. “On average, for every 10 percent of material reduced there is a 10 percent increase in value and price.”

There are plenty more examples they haven’t included. Ed Avis recently reported in Crain’s Chicago Business that Equity Office Properties Trust spent $100,000 to install more efficient lighting in the Civic Opera building–and recouped 92 percent of its investment in just one year. And Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center (www.elpc.org) has taken the lead in promoting profitable energy efficiency, starting with its own office space.

Setting priorities, allowing trade-offs, and questioning the conventional wisdom are ways of thinking humbly and practically about environmental problems. They don’t require that we speculate a lot about the unknowable future, let alone what people will value most in 2101. They don’t add up to a big plan. They don’t guarantee that we’ll always do the right thing–nothing does. But it would be nice to keep our future mistakes small enough that we don’t leave as much for our great-grandchildren to undo as Teddy Roosevelt left us.

Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions by Russell Mittermeier, Norman Myers, Patricio Robles Gil, and Cristina Mittermeier, distributed by University of Chicago Press, $65

Protecting Public Health & the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle edited by Carolyn Raffensperger and Joel Tickner, Island Press, $30

Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists: A Conservative Manifesto by Peter Huber, Basic Books, $25

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Little, Brown, $26.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.