It has become a more common sight every year. Husks of retail giants, the likes of Sears, Kmart, JC Penney, and Macy’s appear scattered across the landscape like Elephant Graveyards. Yet with every retail store shuttered, it seems that another comes to take its place. They do not reuse the skeleton of their fallen brethren, instead these companies build their own new stores or malls in the hope of capturing the fancy of an new demographic even if it is just down the street. Each one is bigger than the last, and more land is taken up to construct it. They tempt fate, as first they seek to saturate a marketplace and then they cannibalize one another. All the while none of these companies ever believe this latest endeavor could not also end in failure; each one thinks itself, like the character in Percy Shelley’s poem the new Ozymandias, “. . . King of Kings, Look upon my works, ye mighty, and Despair!”
What happens when these newly constructed stores go out of business? For starters, we, the community are stuck with them. Even if we were to tear down the excess, in many cases the damage has already been done to the environment. The wastefulness and need to expand in the name of gaining market-share has cost the indigenous flora and fauna of our nation dearly.
A recent study published in “Global Change Biology,” for example, examined the threat of climate change and habitat loss to east coast migratory bird species. It was found that numerous species, including warblers, vireos, and flycatchers are in danger of losing breeding ground due to deforesting for land re-purposing. Areas that were once forests, or even relatively undeveloped rural space, are being transformed into semi-urban developments.
Amphibians such as the Cascade frog of California are currently in danger of an extinction crisis, as they also suffering from habitat loss due to deforestation and vegetation management.Since the 1970’s over 200 amphibian species have gone extinct, and hundreds more are currently under threat.
An honest dialogue needs to be had in America about the issues of urban sprawl and development. We as a society have become so accustomed to convenience and comfort that we do not care about the consequences to maintain our lifestyles. Every new building constructed, whether it is on used or fresh ground, has a cost to the environment. When crucial topsoil is paved over with asphalt and concrete, valuable arable land is irreparably damaged. The loss of farmland leaves shock waves through the entire country; it can damage the economies of the entire region and can culturally impact areas where agriculture is the traditional way of life. Not only that, but improperly maintained roads and developments can irreversibly damage local water and environments with oil runoff and trash.
The unfortunate truth is that it has taken far too much to convince the general public of the United States that we face critical environmental issues. Were it not for the publishing of Silent Spring, it may have been too late to save the Bald Eagle, but this was thankfully not the case. However, that was 55 years ago, and unfortunately we must learn these lessons again once more.
The Mission Blue Butterfly is another prime example. Found only in the San Francisco Bay Area, the population suffered considerably due to habitat loss from urbanization over the past century. Now declared endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is attempting to ensure the species’ survival through habitat conservation and recovery programs.
Advocates for new development will make all sorts of excuses: that the land wasn’t being used anyway, or that there is not an immediate environmental impact. Yes, creating a new strip mall in an unused grassy field may not have an impact today or tomorrow, but the effect it has on our natural world will only escalate. The more open space we eliminate, the more farm land we degrade, the more habitats we destroy, all build up into greater environmental disaster.
It is of course always important to discuss the greater consequences that society has on our climate and environment through carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, but it is equally important to engage with the smaller details of our daily lives that affect our surroundings. We need to ask ourselves, “What is truly necessary and what would be more prudent for our environment?” If we can answer that question, then perhaps it will not be too late. But time is running out, lest we become too much like Shelley’s old poem updated and presented here:
I met a traveller from a land of consumers
Who said: a vast ruin of concrete rebar
Stands in the desert. Near it on the sand,
Half sunk, shatter’d signage lies, whose neon
Lighting and chipped paint and embossed letters
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“Half off Wednesdays and Price Match Guarantee:
Where America Goes to Shop.”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.