In Week 4, we explored the End of Nature as signified by our global impact on the climate. With a similarly gloomy narrative, Stephen Meyer details how anthropogenic activity is changing “natural” selection to human selection. Proponents of restoring the environment and keeping its species alive, such as George Monbiot and Stewart Brand, further strengthen Meyer’s narrative. One could view re-wilding and restoring nature as very positive. Yet such campaigns will not change our current relationship with nature, in which we dominate nature and decide which species survive. In the words of Jack Turner, nature is becoming man’s “dependent . . . a patient,” (110). What I found most alarming in the reading was Meyer’s discussion of “ghost species”. I am concerned, more broadly, that affects we are having on nature, on species, and ourselves may remain hidden until great damage has been done, like a cancer. Speaking of cancer, DDT is a perfect example of this phenomenon. By the time scientists could recognize and stop the application of DDT in the United States, the persistent insecticide had already affected the environment, and will remain in the environment for years to come.
Coming from a philosophy perspective, Val Plumwood dissolves our exaggerated ego as a species. By going from a master of nature to little more than a crocodile’s next meal, the illusion of control over nature is broken for her. In some cases, I doubt that Plumwood would disagree with the science of ecology. Her anecdote of nature, though powerfully cathartic, has its limits. By saying “limited” I take the position that while we do not control nature on the micro-scale, we are changing the climate and replacing natural selection with our own influences. I first read Plumwood’s article two years ago for a class on sustainability, social justice, and human rights. At that time, I linked Professor Plumwood’s narrative to climate change, and how our inconsideration of science would lead nature to get back at us in the future. But wouldn’t this be a man-made nature now? I imagine so. In the theme of this week’s topic, I believe that nature will get back in some sense. Even Meyer, despite his cynicism, speculates that nature may make a come back; that humans are a temporary disturbance to nature. In a roundabout way, nature is still incapable of going against what is good for humans. I have concluded that will never be fully in control of nature, but that we have a very strong, negative influence upon our environment. As McPhee’s Atchafalaya demonstrated, nature will always take its course. Even at great expense, our efforts can only delay the inevitable workings of time. These negative affects may show signs in the environment first, but will eventually inflict some moral, economic, and social costs on humanity.
How will we preserve biodiversity? Turner and Meyer appear to agree in their arguments against the current preservation regime. Meyer laments the conception “Wilderness-Act wilderness”. By his argument wild areas ought not to be defined by the absence of humans, but instead by the relationship between humans and nature. Turner also takes issue with the reserve mentality with the reasoning that nature is too interconnected to be supported by small, disparate patches of land. In concurrence, Meyer advocates small reserves only for the purpose of buying time towards repopulating larger-scale, ecologically connected reserves.
Does any of this matter? Of course – sustaining biodiversity and blunting the impact of climate change will have two main benefits. Nature is a part of our culture. By losing so many species, we’re going to lose a part of ourselves. One may also argue that these organisms have an intrinsic right to live freely. More importantly, we are in a position to maintain an ecosystem that is already somewhat friendly to our habitation. With more man-made droughts, wildfires, and other man made calamities, the world will become an even tougher place. The sociopolitical gears of change are turning, albeit slowly towards progress on environmental issues. If we fail to cut carbon sooner rather than later, geo-engineering may become our risky and expensive last resort.

With advances in technology and a deepened appreciation of ecological principles, civilization attempts to cover its footsteps by re-wilding nature. Using nature as a model, we may restore the oft-damaged wilderness and design our technologies to be more sustainable. This week, George Monbiot, Stewart Brand, Janine Benyus, and Steven Poole drive the debate. Are restoration advocates, scientists, and nature writers romanticizing nature? How does reintroducing a previously extinct species not having a human impact on nature? Is restoration a bourgeois diversion or a substantive pursuit based on solid science?

George Monbiot advocates re-wilding because he feels “ecologically bored”, and cites several case studies to back the notion that re-wilding works to diversify and enrich ecosystems. If we use Aldo Leopold’s “Think Like a Mountain” as an example, Monbiot wants to bring wolves back to the mountain, in order to balance out the deer. Similarly, Stewart Brand speculates on the potential of bringing back even extinct species through genetic technology. Janine Benyus extolls the value in consulting nature’s slowly perfected designs, from capturing the suns energy to capillary action. Benyus’ lecture is written to inspire, with nature as an answer to all of our civilized problems. Monbiot, Poole, and Benyus all paint a fairly rosy picture of nature. In promoting restoration and natural redesign, one is motivated to character nature as a positive force. Nature, of course is never all good or all bad.

“Is nature writing bourgeois escapism?” Steven Poole argues that the restoration movement is driven by bourgeois liberals and, ironically, anti-corporate politics. Speaking for myself, I would agree that nature writing can sometimes be a lot of literary fluff with little meat. When an argument offers a lot of emotion with a shortage of substance, it can create a lot of sympathizers quickly. Restoring once-extinct species is, as Stewart Brand discusses in his TED Talk, a way to offer good news and boost the morale of the environmental movement. But without some substance, will a movement built on nature writing be able to sustain itself? Time will tell. Poole’s next point against the redesigning movement, taking particular issue with Monbiot’s re-wilding concept, is that it may have unintended consequences. Nature has no will, it can destroy or sustain our species with the same expression of apathy on its face. There is a contradiction between introducing a species to the wild, while one also endorses a hands-off management strategy. By “letting nature decide,” we seem to imply that nature will work everything out – then what is the point of managing nature in the first place?

In The Guardian, Monbiot responds to three claims. First, science is often poorly understood or dismissed entirely by his opponents. Additionally, there is a mistaken concern that restoring the environment will slow down the progress of society. This is not necessarily true. As Monbiot points out in his TED Talk, there is land being vacated, falling into disuse. In addition, Monbiot sees nature as being as much a part of our culture as the pyramids. There is no reason why restoring those lands would hurt our economy. Finally, he acknowledges the classic narrative environmentalists versus corporations, playing victim to the destructive influence of money. We often think of nature as distinct from humanity – but Poole and Monbiot seem to agree that nature is part of us to some extent. Monbiot broadens examples of cultural hobbies – art, music, literature – to include a love of nature. To Monbiot, fine nature can be as satisfying as going to the symphony. Suggesting a similar line of thought, Poole argues that nature ought to be thought of not as a “retreat” from civilization nor something we need to rediscover. Instead, nature is as much a part of us as it is a part of the honeybee.

Written on December 1st, 2014 , Course Information Tags: , ,

To compare and reflect upon this week’s readings I will explore a handful of questions: First, should we attempt to restore nature? As demonstrated in the Shore reading, different actors residents, park-goers, and ecologists all had different opinions on what a return to “nature” even looks like. Some activists wanted to restore the forest to savannah and prairie in order to increase biodiversity, while others simply wanted to keep their trees. Jordan sees restoration ecology as a model for how he believes the human relationship with nature ought to look: an ongoing negotiation in which neither side is completely dominant. In Salmon Support Stephanie mills reaffirms this idea that restoration activities are a good thing, but semantically, it should be spoken of as rehabilitation – not a perfect replica of nature, as restoration might imply. Using salmon as an example, restoring nature is not only good for the environment, it is good for humans because of our cultural attachment to nature.

What is the difference artificial and natural? Katz argues that something that is natural is without a blueprint or intended purpose. Ecological studies demonstrate a cyclical balance between wolf and deer populations, but that does not signal a pre-designed system. As Thompson wrote in his Gaia piece, life is a “means to, not the end of,” the development of what we know as the natural Earth. Still, science has told us enough about how these systems function to restore environments where nature might flourish. Katz also acknowledges the concept that humans are natural because they came from nature. While technically true, such an interpretation fails to guide our relationship with nature in a practically meaningful way.

If we define nature as not human, how can it be restored by human hands? Katz’ article is not taking issue with restoration ecology, but the misconception that we can restore a physical environment to its original state. He offers an alternative perspective, that “nature restoration is a compromise” between man and nature (92). The author compares human impacts to a stain in the carpet that can be repaired but never undone, seeing that the real solution is to stop degrading nature in the first place. Jordan’s “Sunflower Forest” takes another perspective: that restoring nature and managing it for human purposes is a “false distinction” (218). As discussed in previous classes, many shades of gray occupy the space between man and nature. Katz articulates a similar view, but in a different way, arguing that restoration is a compromise between man and nature. Jordan critiques Bill McKibben, specifically the writer’s assertion that we are witnessing the End of Nature. I believe that McKibben simply exaggerated his argument to make an impression on his readers, with the hope of changing policy. As he and many other authors have cited, climate science demonstrates that we are changing the climate. The End of Nature simply terms the end of an ecological era in which the human race had an insignificant impact on the environment. Yet The End of a Nature Without Human Influence wouldn’t make for a catchy book title.

Written on November 22nd, 2014 , Week 12: Restoring Nature

Starting with Putting the Earth First, despite warning against letting his organization become a debate club, seems to encourage such a circumstance by the strangeness of his views. By which I mean that his ideas, even if they are correct, fundamentally challenge the philosophical underpinnings of our society, and in particular our economy. So much so, that I think it will our civilization’s natural response to dismiss his ideas of putting nature before humanity and reevaluating technology. I respect the author’s writing not just for its nuanced and creative critique, but also his recognition of how left-field his ideas are. At the same time, he articulates an important point that from his worldview, non-Earth First-ers are the “madmen” of the world. I believe in the narrative that we will either adapt our behavior to preserve the environment now, or have those changes in behavior forced upon us by extreme events (ex: peak oil, petro-agriculture, overpopulation). Foreman is interesting, because unlike any other author we’ve read this semester, he is very committed to the idea of not just seeing nature as an equal to man, but as a superior entity that ought be considered before our own needs. I disagree with one potential implication of this point, however, that we need to subjugate our own needs in order to co-exist with our nature.

I am sympathetic to Naess’ eight points, but it must be recognized that expecting voluntary change is foolhardy. People are inherently self-interested creatures, and we should not expect them to willingly give up even some material goods for the long term good of our race. This truth is disappointing, but I find it consistently that those of us who are not already enamored with the environment tend to shy away from learning about it. This point supports the promotion of environmental education as early as possible, as we discussed last week. At the same time, his/her seventh point of deep ecology, on standard of living, is an excellent counterpoint to my previous statement. In fact I spend a semester studying this very problem: our economy now depends on continuous economic/material growth, despite our living in a physically finite world. Earth’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion by the mid-century! It will become physically impossible for Earth to support the human race as developing countries continue to improve their standard of living.

Merchant’s article dissected a concept that I had been struggling to understand: ecofeminism. Her historical contextualization of the concept makes it clear what the implications are of bumper stickers like “Love Your Mother”.  This is certainly an extension of the anthropocentric problem: extending human social constructs to elements of nature. And what Merchant argues relates quite well to the Social Ecology article by Bookchin, claiming that ecological problems, being that humans are responsible, are really social problems. Bookchin also critiques the concept of dominating nature in a patricentric way. All of these authors offer a damming account of western civilization, now how do we change it? I think Bookchin offers the best solution this week: embracing direct democracy. Speaking from my experiences in the Political Science department, the greatest single challenge we face as environmentalists is the corruption of government by corporate money. If activists can return control of the political system to the people, better environmental policies will inevitably follow.

Written on November 22nd, 2014 , Course Information Tags: , ,

  Sustainability has one million-and-one definitions, depending on who you ask and under what context. While for many of us, sustainability evokes images of windmills and nature preserves, I define sustainability as a nexus of social, environmental, and economic well-being that can be maintained over a very long time.  When first approached with such an idea in VP Bylander’s Sustainability: Social Justice and Human rights class, I was skeptical. Perhaps we would be watering down the term “sustainability” even further by expanding it to issues of social and economic justice. But as Bylander likes to say, “everything is connected,”. Are issues like the siting of an incinerator environmental problems, or are they human health problems? This question follows the binary construct of man/nature as is supported by previous authors such as Edward Abbey, who focus on protecting a nature untouched by human activities, ignoring cases in which mankind has already conquered the land, particularly cities.

But this week, Di Chiro and Gottlieb take our class in a new direction, suggesting that environmental problems are inherently human problems because we are attached to the land, air, and water. Cities and communities are worth thinking about in relation to nature, and have their own urgent problems that we must answer as a society. Without some kind of nature, communities lose a great resource for teaching appreciation of the environment and enriching local culture. As Gottlieb suggests in Chapter 1, nature is a part of our identity. Even if our experience of nature is a park built on former rail yard in urban L.A., it’s better than nothing. Gottlieb’s argument is particularly interesting to me as someone who first experienced nature as a town park :“partly artificial and partly natural” (Gottlieb 8). What also felt very relevant to me was the whiteness of the town and how nature was defined for us in a distant, shallow way. But even then I sensed that nature was everywhere; it didn’t necessarily matter how truly natural the park was. Even if intruded upon by roads and houses, the park still offers some healing qualities. Nature is not simply a place, it is an idea that we all carry with us as an extension of human culture. Of course, acknowledging the Di Chiro narrative, while my upper-middle class white suburb enjoys and receives benefits from green spaces, we send our waste out of the community for some less privileged community to deal with.

Returning to the incinerator question, I think that if this week’s authors would argue that yes, environmental justice is a legitimate environmental issue as it is a symptom of a society out of balance with nature. There are simply too many connections between social and environmental problems to ignore this idea: when society is out of balance with nature, society may actually out of balance with itself.

Written on November 22nd, 2014 , Week 10: Nature as Community Tags: , ,

When is it wise to use our knowledge to change or affect nature? Are we capable of controlling nature? McPhee, Buhs, and Scott all address this problem using different expamles, but they all seem to arrive at a similar conclusion: controlling nature is a difficult and complex challenge. They offer a warning against misunderstanding or falsely appraising the value of certain species over others. As the human race continues in its attempts civilize nature, we must ask ourselves when it is best to let nature take its course.

The Buhs reading offers a clear example of how nature is a human construct; not an entity opposed to civilization, but a product of that civilization. What I’m talking is how the USDA came to equate ants with “communist subversives, the red peril and fifth communists,” (Buhs 384-386). The title itself, The Ant Wars, hints at this perceived battle between man and nature.  Ironically, in their local environment, the fire ants are considered as beneficial insects – they help manage pests and even small mammals. I thought about the “Think Like a Mountain” reading: in a local ecosystem, equilibrium is achieved by competition. When there are too many deer, the wolves gain in numbers, and when there comes to be too many wolves, the deer population diminishes. These competing forces maintain a stable, healthy environment. But as we know in ecology, if you take a non-native species into an area, it can quickly and dramatically reshape that ecosystem.

This lesson parallels Scott’s history of localized measurements and how he recognized how we attempt to create uniformity in a nature that is designed against uniformity. Nature finds itself stronger and more resistant to pests, disease, and storms by employing a lack of uniformity, or biodiversity. This is also though to be true in agriculture, amongst my fellow students – if you have all of the same species for miles upon miles, it becomes challenging to stem an outbreak of disease. Scott certainly agrees, criticizing German foresters and Russian planners alike for trying to make forests, as well as farms, humanly legible, linear, and uniform.

Scott’s critique of our attempts at controlling nature concurs with McPhees narrative, Atchafalaya. In Atchafalaya, planners and engineers try to make a river more legible and consistent in its course, artificially confining it within the needs of people and industry. To maintain the balance of soil deposition and flow responsible for creating the delta, however, the river has shifted course many times. Of course this would go against the wishes of those who occupy its banks. Management of the river is now as much of a conflict between man and nature as it is between man and himself, with fishermen, engineers, and academia fighting over how best to govern this river. When is it more economical to relocate entire towns as opposed to building a gargantuan levee system? Is it futile to try and control nature? The Army Corps views the problem as one of man versus nature, but in some cases, it seems that we are deceiving ourselves about the power and efficacy of mankind to control nature through artificial organization and ill-conceived technological solutions.

Written on November 22nd, 2014 , Week 9: Controlling Nature Tags: , , ,

In telling the story of man’s relationship with the Columbia River over the last three hundred years, Richard White’s The Organic Machine comports well with other authors we have discussed, while adding its own nuance and wisdom to the question: What is the Human Place in Nature? The organic machine, as I interpreted White’s explanation, refers to a natural system that is hijacked by anthropogenic influence. Unlike Thoreau, White does not portray a bipolar human versus nature paradigm, but one in which humans influence natural systems to a certain degree. I would stress the point that humans never control nature. Nature continues to express its innate qualities, even in a very human environment. A stray tuft of grass peeking out of a crack in the sidewalk is still an iteration of nature’s will. White’s narrative about the transformation of the river from wild to machine-like is strengthened by the End of Nature, in which McKibben claims that we created a greenhouse “where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden,” (McKibben 78).

It’s hard to address the Human Place in Nature without addressing a second question: What is the place of technology relative to humans? The power companies, in their destructive genius, created an artificial need for more electricity. This constructed need led to building more and more dams. Technology has enabled us to cure ailments, extend our lifespans, improve communication, amongst other things. However, we can’t let technology throw our relationship with nature out of balance. On the subject of energy, hydroelectric is towards the “less bad” end of the spectrum ecologically speaking. To supplement the salmon’s natural reproductive process through hatcheries seems to me like an insane dependence on technology. Although, this book doesn’t make me side with the fisherman who created problems themselves by overfishing.

In “The Trouble with Wilderness” Cronin quotes a passage from Thoreau, in which writes that nature has “never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing,” (Cronin 74). By altering nature, are creating more problems to solve for later? On page 109, White documents how billions of dollars are now being thrown at saving salmon on the Columbia, yet those efforts are still coming up short. Is it our purpose to transform and reign in nature when it presents an opportunity for us to prosper? As White describes, workers and planners didn’t perceive the destruction of nature more than they found purpose in civilizing and giving structure to the Columbia. Salmon populations seem to be in continuous decline on the Columbia (White 97). Nature defines us – if we destroy a species or a place permanently, have we lost part of our culture?

As far as the weaknesses of The Organic Machine, I have found that there is little left to be assumed – every stakeholder’s voice is integrated into the story, and White supports his points with historical and statistical evidence as well as the arguments of other naturalist writers. My only frustration would be that in the final pages, there is no a solution or next step offered, only hopeless cynicism about what we have gotten ourselves into.

In Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, he articulates “the end of nature” in terms of the human relationship with nature through culture and technology. As he writes so eloquently, the advancement of agriculture, biotechnology, and the industrial revolution has heavily insulated our relationship with nature, such that we don’t even know it’s there anymore. Concurrently, this relationship has changed 180 degrees. We now control the climate, and with it nature, consciously or not. Tratditionally, humans were hunters, gatherers, and more recently, farmers. Even as farmers, we had a palpable connection to the land, the seasons, and Earth’s wonderful creatures. That connection gave us a sense of place that seems lost on us in modern times. Even as an atheist, McKibben’s employment religious terms made great impact upon me – we have made ourselves Gods. Has any other species created new species through genetic engineering? As the author writes, it is a second “Big Bang”.  The seemingly impossible – lab mice splicing their genetic code with that of humans – is completely possible. Does this make us more powerful than nature? Or does it just make us temporary interlopers that nature has not yet dealt with?

McKibben rails against Gaianism in the sense that it lends itself, so conveniently, towards inaction. The concept of Gaianism is well based in concepts of ecology – that nature tends towards moderate disruption, balance, and every feedback balances out another – he uses the example of a world covered in black and white daisies. On paper, Thompson is right in his conception of a “Gaia” planet. But I agree with McKibben that the applications implied by Myer’s approach through his Atlas of Planet Management are deeply problematic. Despite being controllers of nature, we continue to be at mercy of her power. McKibben’s end of nature narrative becomes more muddied here. I don’t see how it matters whether this philosophy is correct or not – if we apply it, we still have to be concerned about Gaia’s feedbacks towards increasing CO2.

An intangible aspect of nature has ended; our dependence upon it has not. We still get our food, air, and water from the same places –we’re just destroying those places far faster than they can recuperate. As Leopold said in Sand County Almanac, these places are “sick”. The most critical takeaway for us as species comes from McKibben’s focus on climate change. We evolved over the last several million years in a relatively stable climate. Any significant change will deviate from conditions we have become suited to, having deleterious effects on civilization. What McKibben contributes to the conversation is that these places may never recover because of what we now call ecological “tipping points”. What left me most saddened reading this book is that between its publishing in 1989 and my reading of it in 2014, nothing fundamentally has changed in our culture, has it? McKibben’s pessimism is well-founded. Indeed we restored the ozone layer, and have made great strides against acid rain, but our relationship with nature is really the same, only now there is no going back. There is no time to think like a mountain – we have already committed to irreversible climactic instability

Written on September 22nd, 2014 , Course Information, Week 4: The End of Nature Tags: ,

I will start with Thompson’s essay on his concept of “Gaia” and how Earth’s biosphere created and sustained the conditions for more life, and is able to maintain a stable environment through feedbacks (e.g. predators versus grazers). What kind of feedbacks are we seeing in the case of greenhouse gas emissions? Leopold’s essay paints a dark picture of these feedbacks. Climate feedbacks will reap havoc on the environment, and with it, civilization (Leopold 194). May we even think of our own interspecies debate over climate change as a function or representation of Gaia in itself? Another example featured in Leopold’s essay is the relationship between wolves and deer in North America. What I thought was particularly novel was the concept of mutual benefit between species: as a species, it is in the deer’s long-term interest to be hunted in order to prevent overgrazing. Species extinction is a very relevant item in the case of climate change in that both have so-called tipping points – where a species is gone forever, a climate feedback, such as polar ice caps, may never return once lost.

Many of the reading selections from the first two weeks appraised the value of nature’s preservation in somewhat existential terms. For example, Edward Abbey talked about wilderness in the context of escaping civilization. What about saving civilization? Another legitimate, and I would say powerful argument, is the sheer economic risk of inaction. When Leopold delves into a critique of civilizations’ long-established habit of treating symptoms instead of causes, he writes of soil fertility loss, as well as floods and dams. This second example brought me back to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy immobilized much of New England. We cannot say that global climate change was solely to blame for the destruction, but rising sea levels likely enabled the floodwaters to intrude further inland, contributing to an estimated 65 billion dollars in damages suffered (Rice 2014). Are such natural disasters random, or are they symptoms of a recklessly industrialized civilization (the problem to our symptoms, the author might say)? We may not have enough information to begin answering such a statistical question, but my argument would be not to hedge our future against the warning sirens of climate scientists. Looking back at Kyoto, Copenhagen, and the like, it is challenging to create meaningful policy reforms towards stemming global climate change. As much as we understand the problem and its innumerable symptoms, we are seemingly inept as a civilization at acting upon those understandings. Because the costs are suspended into the future to the point of intangibility, it is difficult to make the necessary sacrifices now when the costs are lower. Why are we programmed to think in the short term?

At the international level, we weigh our interests as individual nations, and not as a species. The same applies at individual, institutional, and domestic levels: we are not able to collectively act as a species because we are falsely divided by ourselves from nature. If only we could think like Leopold’s mountain (Leopold 129-130). The author recalls the dust bowl, and how educational programs to designed to help stem the problem emphasized self-interest in taking action relative to the land ethic, as if this was a problem. I wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss the land ethic as a concept, but I think to the layman it is ineffective at spurring someone into action who is not an environmentalist to begin with. As environmentalists, do we challenge each other, in the hopes of changing human nature? Presenting self-interest, do we go along with human nature, but still accomplish something positive? Leopold offers that, in the case of biodiversity, entities that retain unquantifiable economic values become quantifiable only when they have disappeared (210). Through this point, I believe Leopold bests the argument of conservationist self-interest in the case of unquantifiable nature. To be sincere, I feel confused and divided by Leopold. Our self interest falls between purely economic and moral concerns, yet the author draws a very firm between the two in the field of forest conservation (221).

Outside Sources

 

Rice, Doyle. 2013. Hurricane sandy, drought cost U.S. $100 billion. USA TODAY. 25 January 2013. Online. Accessed 14 September 2014.

Written on September 16th, 2014 , Week 3: United Nature Tags: , , , ,

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