Monday, October 5, 2015

Big Questions for Environmentalists

Nathanael Johnson has some interesting thoughts about environmentalism in a world of sophisticated science and postmodern philosophy:
We are living in a moment of crisis, both environmental and philosophical. The green philosophy about what to do with land, and how best to feed ourselves, is somewhat up for grabs. There’s a growing acknowledgement that the old ideas about "saving nature" or "returning the land to its original state" are misguided. There is no "original state," just a lot of different landscapes, depending how far you turn back the clock.

Saving nature sounds objectively honorable — above the sway of human desires — but it’s not, because people define what "nature" means. And the land we save almost always ends up being the type of nature that the people with political power happen to like. If we were capable of making non-anthropocentric decisions to preserve biodiversity, we’d be converting habitat to foster a thriving diversity of slime molds and dedicating national parks for bacterial mats.

Without the ideal of pristine nature as our lodestar, many greens are groping awkwardly for a new goal. Should the aim be justice — working with the land in whatever way most effectively reduces inequality and human suffering? Should the aim be beauty — preserving the species and landscapes that inspire us? Or should we double down on trying to find an objective, non-anthropocentric way to define nature — even if that means nurturing landscapes that we find ugly and uncomfortable?
To take a simple example that I have written about before, consider deer in the eastern woodlands. Ecologists think that the high deer populations we have now in some eastern areas have never been seen before in the history of the world. Does that make them unnatural? High deer populations are bad for certain other organisms, including oak trees, possums, and rare plants like the small whorled pogonia. Should we care about that, or by intervening to protect biodiversity are we reshaping nature according to our own ideas of what is natural? Since humans have been the primary predators of deer for the past 13,000 years, by ceasing to hunt are we returning things to nature, or interfering with nature? Since deer hunters mostly come from rural areas, are restrictions on deer hunting a sort of urban imperialism?

How should we manage fires? Should we even try?

Should we be trying to eradicate or restrain invasive species? If so, how far back should we go in defining "invasive"?

If we can, should we try to bring back species that we once exterminated?

All of these questions circle back to the issue Johnson raises, the loss of scientific faith in any single "natural" order. Leaving any particular part of the world alone will not return it to a state of pristine wilderness, if such a thing can be said to exist.


G. Verloren said...

An objective approach is impossible, so scratch that off the list.

That leaves us with subjective approaches, so we have to decide what we value. Biodiversity is important from a practical standpoint, because one never knows what lifeforms might ultimately prove useful to humanity in the future, but there are limits to what we can do, and we have to make meaningful and difficult choices about what we invest in saving, and what we allow to disappear.

I cannot help but compare this situation to that of human languages in the world today. There is a particularly sobering quote, by anthropological documentarian Phil Borges, about the rate of language loss in the modern world.

" A fact came out of MIT, couple of years ago. Ken Hale, who's a linguist, said that of the six thousand languages spoken on Earth right now, three thousand aren't spoken by the children. So that in one generation, we're going to halve our cultural diversity. He went on to say that every two weeks, an elder goes to the grave carrying the last spoken word of that culture. So an entire philosophy, a body of knowledge about the natural world that had been empirically gleaned over centuries, goes away. And this happens every two weeks."

That thought, as jarring and bewildering as it is, nevertheless can be reflected upon in differing lights. Some, quite naturally, will look upon it with extreme sorrow, mourning the continual loss of unique and irreplaceable aspects of our collective human existence. In that light, our species losses something of immeasurable value with each language lost, and with each culture snuffed out by the cruel march of time.

And yet, at the same time there are other ways to consider the matter. Although often a beautiful and unique expression of a culture, we must also remember that ultimately languages are tools. They exist solely for the purpose of allowing humans to communicate with each other.

So while the number of languages in the world may be rapidly dwindling, it is vital to realize that at the same time the number of language barriers is decreasing as well. Having fewer different languages means that more people share languages - that more people are able to communicate where before they overwhelmingly couldn't. And that's the entire point of language - allowing different people with different experiences to mutually understand each other.

So returning to the notion of environmental concerns, we have to accept that there is going to be loss of species and of landscapes. That is inevitable and unavoidable. There will be limits to how much we will be able to influence the ongoing ecological changes of this planet, and we need to focus our efforts on promoting those changes which most benefit humanity, and preventing those changes which most harm us.

The simple fact is that we have been shaping the course of our planet's ecology for many millenia. Things haven't really changed in that regard since the dawn of civilization. The only difference is that now, we're more aware of our influence as we exert it, and we now have the means to willfully choose how we shape the world.

G. Verloren said...

Now, all that said, if you're looking for practical proposals, I have a few basic notions.

First, preserve at the very least the DNA of every species we can, for scientific purposes like finding new medicines or devising ways to balance future ecological problems via extant biological systems. It's simply in our best interest to do so.

Second, do everything that is just as much for our own good as much as it is for the environment's. All the standard environmental wisdom applies here - pollute less, create less waste, stop overfishing, stop bulldozing millions of acres of endangered species and ecosystems for unworthy causes, et cetera. Such behaviors are self desctructive, so even if we only care about ourselves, these all need to stop anyway.

Third, promote a culture of appreciation of non-human life. Trying to return the world to some nebulous prior state as imagined in a mythic past is foolish, but that doesn't mean we can't still appreciate and respect the world around us, even when it's unnatural. If a local species is valued by the population for its beauty or cultural impact, that should be appreciated and supported - even if the species is actually invasive. It's no different than a region being proud for their signature cuisine, or for their local architecture. The wildlife we choose to foster and promote is just as much a part of our culture as any human artifact is.

People have always drawn inspiration from, and taken pride in, the animals around them. They adorn our flags, they decorate our holy places, they represent qualities and attributes which we find desireable and worth striving to embody, and we use them as a way of reflecting upon who we are, as well as who we wish to be. Our environment shapes us just as much as we shape it, and we should value the creatures and landscapes that surround us for the incredible impact they can have on our lives - from the exotic and flashy, all the way down to the humble and mundane.