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Anne Dyroff
12/1/13

Reflection Paper Week #15
The readings assigned for class over the past 15 weeks have brought up many interesting ideas about nature. Many of the given articles touch on the questions of ‘what is nature’ and ‘what is the human place in nature’. The many authors have presented a variety of different perspectives on the topic of nature. After a semester spent debating nature, I have realized that I do not have a solidified definition of nature or the role that humans have in nature. Despite not having a solid position on the human place in nature, the readings from this semester have taught me about the advantages of learning from multiple perspectives.

In, “The Sand County Almanac,” Leopold views the destruction of nature as the result of humans viewing themselves as conquerors of the natural world. Bill McKibben has a similar view that the destruction of nature is largely anthropocentric. McKibben takes the idea of humans adversely affecting nature by stating that nature has ended. Richard White, on the other hand has a more optimistic opinion of the human relationship with nature than Leopold and McKibben. In, “The Organic Machine,” White believes that we cannot understand human history without natural history, and we cannot understand natural history without human history. Leopold and McKibben seem to view humans as separate from nature, while White views humans as having an intimate relationship with nature.
As Robert Gotlieb points out it in, “Nature in the City,” nature is one of the most complex words in the English language. The complexity of the word “nature” is partly due to the way its meaning and reference points are continually changing. Nature is not only in the eye of the beholder, but also in the language used to describe what one sees. The complexity of defining ‘nature’ is exemplified every week in class when many of the same questions are asked. Does nature still exist? Does nature only exist in the absence of human presence? Are humans a part of nature?

What I believe this course truly taught me is less about nature, and more so about the process of learning. This course was educational in that it made me to constantly second guess myself. Throughout the year, I would read an article from one author and completely agree with them, and then completely switch my views on nature after reading a different author’s essay. Having read a number of contradictory articles, I have realized that it is important to consider multiple perspectives on a topic before making a decision. Before taking this course my opinion was that nature was the outdoors. I now realize that my pre- senior seminar concept of nature was very basic. I now see that there is much more to consider when forming an opinion on nature. This realization of the increased complexity of nature can transcend to almost any subject. I believe that many times people, authors, scientists, and activists become stubborn and only consider their own opinions. If people were more open minded, I feel as though problems would be solved much more quickly.

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The case for reviving extinct species is a thought provoking one. On the one side, bringing back species that have gone extinct may be beneficial for current species and ecosystems. Monbiot communicates how successful the reintroduction of the wolves in 1995 was for the Yellowstone National Park. “The wolves killed many species but gave life to many others.” They stopped deer from destroying all vegetation. Vegetation regenerated and trees grew taller. The numbers of birds and beavers increased. Beavers built dams in rivers that become home to hundreds of other organisms. Thus, the ecosystem became once again balanced. As Steward explains, there may be other extinct species that can be reintroduced to benefit current ecosystems. For instance, in the past, passenger pigeons were keystone species in the eastern United States and parts of eastern Canada and Mexico; they existed in great numbers and kept the numbers of other species in check. They attracted a large number of predators and hosted different species of parasite, promoting biodiversity and enhancing ecological health. However, due to habitat destruction and over-hunting, passenger pigeons were completely wiped out by 1914.  By reintroducing them now we would think that, similarly to the case of the wolves, biodiversity and the health of many ecosystems could be restored. In this way, the manipulation of natural organisms through the use of genetic engineering would be justified. We have altered and destroyed their habitats to achieve economic gains for thousands of years. Why shouldn’t we interfere with their intrinsic make-ups now in order to bring them back? Today we have the technology to reverse the damage we inflicted on these species, so why not to reverse it? Isn’t it our moral obligation after all?

Reviving extinct species, however, creates many questions that remain unanswered. What would happen if a reintroduced species negatively interferes with current species that are essential for the ecosystem? What if they become a threat for today’s endangered species? The restoration of an extinct species could drive other species to extinction, destroy habitats and potentially spread diseases. These once native species will now become invasive ones, having similar detrimental effects than the invasive species we accidentally bring from other countries. Moreover, species that existed hundred of years ago may not be able to adapt to the present ecosystems, in which case all efforts to restore them will be worthless.

Just because we currently have the biology and the technology to bring back species that we have wiped out, it doesn’t mean that we have to. Focusing on reviving a single species blinds us to the fact that nature is a complex web of interconnected parts that inevitably but not always positively influence one another. The wolves that were reintroduced in the Yellowstone National Park positively impacted an otherwise unbalanced ecosystem. However, there is no reassurance that this will be the case for every extinct species we wish to bring back. Instead of embracing de-extinction, we should focus on conserving and protecting the health of current species and ecosystems, which are already in need of attention. Today, we are losing habitats for animals that are alive. How can we defend the introduction of new species that we feel the need to protect when we fail to protect species that are becoming endangered in front of our eyes? Don’t we have a moral obligation to protect these species as well?

Steward Brand conveys that we now have the ability and the moral obligation to bring back species that have disappeared due, in part, to our actions. However, both Monbiot and Brand forget that ecosystems are extremely complex. Any attempt to reintroduce extinct species must be approached thoughtfully. Reviving species that have been gone for a long period of time from an ecosystem can have unpredictable and destabilizing results. Therefore, I wonder whether reviving extinct species could become an immoral act if once again we destroy what we so fondly aim to protect.

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 http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_goodall_on…

Another TED talk here, this one demonstrates that the only true difference between human beings and chimpanzees is our sophisticated language. They are in fact the closest living relatives to humans. I found this argument to be essential in the process of understanding humans and nature as two interconnected entities. We may believe that wild species are different from what we call human societies. However, they are our origins, our past from which we have evolved. Humans are, therefore, a continuation of the “wild”, a continuation of what we define as nature.

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Prior to this course, I used to believe that humans were the ones to blame for the destruction of the environment. Humans, I thought, had the moral responsibility of protecting nature: conserving wild species, maintaining the air and water clean from industrial emissions, and so on. I thought of nature, thus, as those wild areas that needed to exist as untouched by humans, free from our destructive interventions. However, throughout the semester my views on the human place on nature have gradually changed to the point I now find myself utterly baffled by what nature actually signifies.

All through the semester, we have analysed the views of numerous romanticists, environmentalists, social advocates, scientists about the human place in nature. We have discussed what humans should and should not do in regards to the protection of the environment. We have progressed from reading about Thoreau’s desire to live in the wild while isolated from the society, to reading about biomimicry and the design of green cities. We have evolved from idealizing our natural surroundings to view them as integrated to our homes, our daily lives, our present. When I think of nature now, I think of a complex amalgamation of different elements: politics, social realities, economics, human health, water, air, species. I am no longer able to draw a line between what is natural and what is not; I cannot longer establish a separation between human and nature because I now believe they are deeply intertwined.

Considering humans as responsible for the destruction of the environment is what in fact separates us from our natural surroundings, it portrays humans as dominators instead of simply members of the land community. It actually solidifies our right to control nature and satisfy our never-ending ambitions. Therefore, I believe that what I have accomplished through this class, that is realizing the interconnection between nature and humans, is essential if we are to positively coexist with nature.

But protecting nature doesn’t only require humans to gather in environmental organizations that seek to save forests from deforestation. Protecting nature doesn’t only require us to keep endangered species from going extinct. Protecting nature doesn’t only demand humans to appreciate the beauty of natural features. Protecting nature, instead, requires human beings to change their values and worldviews. It entails to stop thinking of the earth as an infinite source of economic profits that can be easily controlled in the first place. It entails to stop believing that the consumption of material goods and resulting exploitation of natural resources will bring us happiness and integrity. And to realize that the protection of nature also signifies poverty alleviation, social inclusion, social justice, fair distribution of wealth, sustainable use of the land, conservation of species. If we truly care about it, then a single species approach or a radical protest against the impacts of our consumer economy will not be enough.

This class has not provided me with an exact definition of nature. However, I do not think that defining the word nature is necessary if we truly understand its human and ecological importance, modifying our values in response. A change of values requires caring for the land, for the endangered species but also caring for the marginalized communities, for the future of our children, for the health of the all elements that constitute the environment. If we truly care, we will need to think more broadly and that is what I have accomplished in this course.

 

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cij_rrjsuQ0

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We have learned so much over the course in the semester that this one paper can do little justice to express everything I’ve felt. There are though specific themes and ideas that I’ve become attached to that have defined this class for me. First and foremost nature is no longer the defining factor of life on Earth anymore. The globalization of humans, hegemonic cultures and beliefs now determine the immediate future of life on this planet. Nature in a sense can now be described as backseat driver. Humans are shaping the planet to fit their needs so drastically that it is now “our way or the highway” for other species, plants, etc. We are now dominating nature and it seems like a natural result once we separated ourselves from a “natural existence”. That’s to say we aren’t instinctual creatures like animals but rational and logical beings. Yet many of our actions are neither logical nor rational and are almost always on a human time-scale. Climate change and anthropogenic-influenced extinction are all the evidence that one needs to know that there is a great imbalance between human societies (many) and nature. There are too many humans, too much greed, too much consumerism, and too many false solutions to significantly prevent catastrophic environmental change. At best current efforts are addressing the symptoms and not the disease.

                There is no “human nature”. An individual’s nature is a result of their upbringing, their culture, their interactions within it, education, and sources of media. We are easily deceived beings buying into simplified ideas and solutions that are proposed to us by “legitimate sources”. Humans used to live on our knees because nature forced us to but now we bow down to flags, religions, politicians and the mighty dollar. The thing is if you’re born in this day and age you have to buy into a “system” to improve your chances of surviving and reproducing. Those who don’t are likely to be left behind in the wake of civilization. It’s civilizations that have been most detrimental to the environment and have shaped our perverted relationship to it. How can we possibly stand against the tides of disaster?

                I believe environmentalists need to be part of a more broad social movement. One that emphasizes people and the environment, not nations and profit. A more equitable, accepting society would allow for more productive discussion about environmentalism and what serious changes need to be made. This new movement has to more inclusive and needs to seriously challenge contemporary economics, politics, and societal values if it really wants to create a better relationship between humans and nature. Simply designating nature as a place instead of a relationship will not get the job done. Every person should have the opportunity to develop their own understanding of nature. Once we separated nature from our existence as humans, this was the beginning of the unbalancing act.

                The point I’m trying to make is that in order to be successful environmentalists we have to recognize the systems in place that maintain “business-as-usual”. From what I’ve seen there is no reason for optimism about climate change, extinction, or the modification of life to fit human needs. Is efficiency really the answer? Can cap and trade solve it? What about the endangered species act? No. Each of these solutions comforts us enough to believe that truly beneficial work is being done. This is not to say we shouldn’t do them but like I said before they’re only means of addressing symptoms. I used to think that alternative energies and efficiency would be the solution to this new global threat, climate change. Now I merely see climate change as the next repercussion for our exploitation of resources, people and the environment. How could we ever believe that we could get away with reversing the efforts of hundreds of millions of years of life to create an atmosphere conducive to the “progress” of life? We only exist because of the atmosphere and environment that other life forms created.

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I get asked a lot what’s the difference between an environmental studies major and an environmental science major. While I’m sure I don’t give the best answer, I usually respond with something along the lines of “well a science major like myself is all about the experiments, lab classes, and field work while a studies student deals with policy and how humans interact with the environment.” I’ll admit before this semester I was 100% science minded (I even contemplated what I hadn’t just done a biology degree which involves even less feelings than environmental science). After taking Humans Place in Nature, however, I have begun to realize how much I enjoy the discussions being the hard scientific issues facing my major. This class has opened my mind to the reality that, like a lot of science, things aren’t always just black and white; sometimes there just isn’t a right answer to be found. I definitely have made a shift from entirely qualitative focus to more qualitative and in doing so I feel like I’ve been able to more effectively discuss the hard scientific facts from my other classes.

Speaking of right answers, one thing I learned for sure this semester is there’s no right answer for everyone’s favorite question “what is nature?” I always considered nature to be the outdoors and leaves, trees, streams, etc but it is DEFINITELY not that simple. Nature is different for everyone. Each industry, writer, activist, artist, engineer, city dweller, farmer, and child will mold the idea of nature to match their goals or needs because one things for sure, humans dominate nature…but they don’t because Gaia will be the ultimate winner…or they do because we are a keystone species evolutionary deserving of the best…but they don’t because we are so miniscule in the grad scheme of things…Anyone not involved in this class reading this will probably write that rant off as crazy and they’d be right! But it’s a good kind of crazy, a thought provoking crazy that made this class just what I needed to start to wrap up my environmental major at Dickinson. By talking to my fellow classmates of this seminar there are a lot of feelings, both positive and quite negative, about humans struggle to find a place in nature. A lot of environmentally minded people (myself included at times) are in constant distress; we are worried about what climate change holds in store for the future and seem to be distraught over the fact that theres just simply nothing anyone can do about it. Yes, a lot of the topics we deal with are depressing but it is of monumental importance that we realize the little things we do will matter. And one of those little things will be educating future generations for they will be the ones to grow up in what ever “nature” we create.

We started off with articles the very first class discussing nature deficit disorder and the importance of getting out into nature. The main point I know I will be taking away from this class is the idea of the dire need for education when it comes to environmental issues. Mannerisms are picked up from a young age. Whether it’s learning to say please and thank you or shutting off lights when you leave the room, kids are extremely astute. I have always said the reason I am such an avid environmental science major is because my parents had me hiking by the age of 5 not to mention I’ve been in some form of water swimming around since before I can even remember! That all aside, though, HOW we educate our children and the public us just as critical as doing anything in the first place. Again, it’s easy to get negative very quickly. It’s also a thing to teach extremism as EarthFirst! seems to find appropriate. Overall, taking away all the different views I’ve been exposed to in this class, I will be taking away the positive little things the human population can strive to do to deal with our world. The discussions we have had will be invaluable in my quest for environmental and sustainable piece of mind both personally and interacting with others. Put simply, this class was more than worth my time and I’m grateful I was able to top my senior year with it!

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“The earth provides enough resources for everyone’s need, but not for some people’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi

            When looking back at the semester I realize how complicated and diverse of an answer a person can give to the question, “what is the human’s place in nature?” Nature is a multi-dimensional and widely defined at various levels, which makes it nearly impossible to define. What makes up nature changes the way human view and ultimately decide to live with, adapt to, or protect nature. One major roadblock and major point of contention is the earth not only powerful, but completely separate from our direct influence. In other words, do humans actually have the ability to shape earth or change the path or function of earth? I never truly asked myself this question enough until this course and through getting into conflict with my grandfather. I never truly realized the depth and popularity of this argument. It seems that some of the world is still set on Lovelocks Gaia Hypothesis. While others, such as Bill McKibben and Stephen Meyer would suggest earth is fragile and no longer resembles the earth of the past.

Looking past this argument and seeing that humans have an influence on nature itself is an important step to recognizing a need to protect what earth provides to all living things. Although the Gaia Hypothesis in theory could be correct it is still important to recognize the important role we play as humans in this complex natural ecosystem. We cannot neglect that we play a crucial role in our natural world. I personally do not want to be a part of a role that sets the earth on a crash course with disaster. Bill McKibben summarizes this realization in The End of Nature; “The day has come when we choose between that wholeness and man in it or man apart, between that old clarity or new darkness.” (183)

The next critical question that must be answered is how to we approach the major forces and challenges facing humanity in terms of “the end of nature.” Through my experience these past four years, it is my belief that humanity’s respect, protection, and integration into nature will be at the intersection of strong community engagement.

Education plays an important role in community engagement. Richard Louv reinforces the importance of education suggesting that children must have contact with nature throughout their lives. Education creates a strong basis to redevelop how our communities around the world are organized, but I think this concept can be taken further than simply education.

The restructuring of our social systems, way of govern each other, and manage wealth and prosperity need to be altered and changed to handle the current phenomenon and challenges. Vandana Shiva sees the “simultaneous growth of two forces, one of globalization, the other of localization; one driven by global corporations, the other by local communities.” (Earth Democracy, 74) The phenomenon of globalization has altered the way humans transfer resources, wealth, and therefore ultimately changing how humans can be controlled. Leichenko and O’Brien, in Environmental Change and Globalization: Double Exposures, suggest that globalization causes a double exposure when associated with the challenge of climate change. (9) This essentially causes more stress and pressure on an already degraded environment and society. Discovering and finding the right social system that allows for ideological diversity and also problem solving is essential to handling these increased pressures.

That is why I find community engagement as the locus of sustainability and where nature and humans connect. Nature because of its “innate fondness and beauty,” as described by Bill McKibben in Hope, Human, and the Wild, could be a great way for humanity to connect in community. The problem of climate change can actually be a force that can make our community more closely connected. If people can come together and look past the individual greed and can see the inherent beauty in a strong and connected community change can be made. One thing I have learned is that nature is so complex, diverse, and connected much like our social systems. Yet, as our social systems become disconnected and disrupted this can interfere with the natural connected systems around us. Recognizing this linkage and raising the standard of the way our community interacts can allow for nature to be protected. In a sense, my definition of nature is a group of living things in one community interacting as one. Bill McKibben is right we are moving towards an end to nature, yet this end can be quickly flipped on its head to be beneficial to not only nature but our own social systems.

 

Zachary Kaiser ’14

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This has been one of the more important classes that I have taken at Dickinson. Unknowingly to me, I needed to analyze and examine my own views on nature and humanity and this class was the perfect way to do that.

At the beginning of the semester, I was in the mindset that humans were terrible and without us the world would be a far better place. My view was that we should all go back to living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Without the invention of agriculture we would all be living lives more in sync with nature. We would not have extreme class distinctions, we would not have as large a population, we would not be adding as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere with land clearing and the list goes on. We needed a Thoreau approach. We needed to abandon our cities and head to the country because that is the only way to reduce our impact. I had a nostalgic view of nature as the place that solved everything.

While I still retain these views to some degree, they are less in fantasy and more grounded in what I believe to be a realistic point of view. There is no way that seven billion people could be supported by a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Even with preservation techniques we are still seeing a rapid decline in the population of many species. While it may be necessary to eventually abandon agriculture all together in order to be truly sustainable, it is not something that can be done now. There is a lot of good that agriculture can do in reducing our impact on the environment. Most obviously it needs to change from large fields of monocultures to smaller polyculture farms. Various environments can be integrated to provide species habitat and the list goes on.

It is also not to say that humans have not had a negative impact on the environment. There are many things that we as a species could do to reduce our impact. It is important to understand, though, that we are always going to impact the environment around us and adapt it in some ways to suit our needs. This is the same of every living thing on this planet. To say that our existence is the problem is a cop out answer to deal with these issues. Yes, I am not denying that the many issues that we face are daunting and look impossible to overcome. So does everything from the beginning. Obviously we have no idea how it will turn out but that does not mean to not try. Although it is overlooked by all of our negative actions, humans have a wonderful set of skills to tackle the current issues that face us. It is important to remember too that humans have evolved over hundreds of years to be the way we are. Obviously there is some reason why we exist as we do or otherwise we would not be here.

The most important thing I got out of the course is getting a sense of what I actually hoped to achieve by being an Environmental Science major. During the course, I realized the aspect that most coincided with my interests is by tackling the issue from a social standpoint. The Bookchin article provided me with a lot of insight. First, it put the issue in context and explained that issues that are present now have been developing for quite a long time. Most importantly, it was argued that changing the social structure would have a positive impact on the environment. Just from my experience, people who are happier and kinder to one another will tend to express kindness and happiness in all areas of their lives. This includes towards other people, animals and nature in general. As people become aware of how their actions affect other people, they may be less willing to participate in those activities. The current problem is that, as a result of our global society, most people do not see the repercussions of their actions. If these crimes perpetrated on other humans were to be made visible, that would go a long way in changing our actions. As perfect as it would be to put earth above humans and do everything that is best for the earth, humans are naturally going to have greater affinity for each other.

I realized too that many of my views on nature and humanity were problematic and needed to be rethought. There was no way that I was going to make a positive impact thinking that humans could not be part of that equation. I carried with me many of the same views that have caused many of the problems that we now face. Never before would I have questioned the existence of National Parks. I took it with blind faith that no human intervention is the only way to preserve these spaces. This was nature to me. I now look at the world differently and am sure of my own opinions on these issues. Earlier in the year, I would agree with every author, even when they contradicted other authors that we had just read. The class forced me to have a view and develop opinions. I was forced to be critical and be accepting to different ways of thinking. It was challenging, especially since so many people have their differing views on the subject of nature and ways to move forward. But there really is no one way to go about these issues. The question of “what is nature?” is still left unanswered at the end of this course. The best part, though, is it is a question that I will continue to think about passed this semester and even graduation. It is a valuable question that everyone should think about.

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This semester has been filled with thought-provoking articles and videos that I believe caused me to think critically and fostered some interesting discussions in our weekly three-hour meetings.  Even though I truly enjoyed reading the majority of our articles, after reading them, I usually had a feeling of “ah yes, the author makes some fascinating points here, I completely agree!”  This tends to be problematic when week after week the articles are presenting different, or even opposing, viewpoints to the reader -our class.  So currently, I (and I feel like many of my classmates feel the same way) am completely confused and slightly conflicted on where I stand with many of these environmental ideas.  But I suppose that being conflicted on where I stand with my environmental beliefs and having to truly think critically about these issues can only be a good thing.

As we were talking in our last class, I do feel that we need an “awakening moment” for the global community, and especially our country.  The majority of the population in our country is and have been living in this life of comfort and consumption –even those who would be considered ‘poor’ are still living better off then many others throughout the world.  As I learned in my environmental economics class, as well as other environmental courses, there are cultural/ social changes as well as technological changes that societies can make, to live more sustainably.  It is much easier to create or buy something new, which runs better or more efficiently (i.e. GE’s High Efficiency dryers, or Toyota’s third generation hybrids) than to actually change your daily habits (such as hang drying your clothes or driving less).  Even though with environmentally conscious people doing their best to live more sustainably overall and to educate others on these important matters, I really do not think that these actions are enough to make that big of a difference.  I understand that even many small movements/actions can make a difference, I think that our country and the world as a whole needs something more to ‘wake up’ from this life of high consumption and ease.

Now I do not think this awakening moment has to be as apocalyptic as our last class made it sound, but it will be jarring enough so that people are forced to change their habits.  Whether this be a sizeable decline of our fossil fuel reserves, or shortage of food due to crop failures, etc. it will need to be a large enough shock so that people are snapped into a new reality that they must accept.  In order to make a transition to a more sustainable living, I believe it would be in our best interest to create a living environment that is communal, that would foster a close-knit population, be walk-able and largely integrated.  I am not saying that we need to be living in communes; but perhaps just green cities, that are designed with sustainability, public gardens and public transportation in mind.  In creating spaces that can populate large quantities of people, it can leave large spaces in the country available for organic farming as well as natural conservation areas that can be left for wildlife to proliferate freely.

By creating this living environment, it allows people to naturally live more sustainability and with less consumptive habits.  It is also essential to change the way consumption is portrayed in our media.  Today the public is inundated with commercials telling you to buy the latest new gadgets or upgrade your new phone, while also forcing you to compare what you have with your neighbor or even a media icon.  We are currently defining ourselves by the ‘stuff’ we have and continue to accumulate.  This in addition to our other overly consumptive habits is a toxic combination that is only rapidly advancing us towards our omnipresent moment of realization.  This moment of realization of the faults in our current existence and the necessitation of change is real and drastically needed.

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