Save the planet? From who?

Friday, May 8, 2009

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Millennia ago, our species reshaped the ecology of this planet and we have continued to reshape it ever more rapidly and intensively ever since.  Today, we directly use or alter nearly all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems- the rest we alter indirectly through climate change.  Is it still relevant to discuss “saving the planet”?  If so, who or what is this planet to be saved from?  If the planet is to be saved from “humans”, which humans are being discussed here?  Is it you? Some other humans? Can the planet be saved by “leaving it alone”? Or is the future really about doing a better job of creating and managing a biosphere that will continue to benefit both us and our fellow travelers on spaceship earth? The latter is my vision for a “postnatural” environmentalism (postnaturalism).

 

This piece represents my initial response to the many critics of my recent op-ed at Wired: Stop trying to save the planet.  If you haven’t read it, you will want to go there first- this piece is limited to addressing specific criticisms and does not reiterate my claims or my message.

 

Here are the criticisms I want to address:

1) The science is invalid- human alteration of this planet is primarily a recent phenomenon.

Here are links to scientific evidence that prehistoric humans:

2) Current rates of environmental change are similar to those of prehistory.

  • This is neither correct nor my opinion.  I am a firm believer that current rates of anthropogenic global change are most definitely unprecedented, extreme and likely unsustainable over the long term. My point is that humans had already profoundly altered the biosphere and the climate system thousands of years ago. This point was lost during editing at Wired (no offence- the edited piece is much better!).  My original version of the piece included the statement “The industrial revolution shifted us from first gear into fourth gear in a single go.”- referring to the dramatic increase in rates of anthropogenic global change since the industrial revolution.

3) Humans will perish if we don’t stop “trashing the planet”.

  • Examples of the contrary are super abundant.  A classic example is Easter Island, where catastrophic human failure at environmental management did not eliminate its human population- only its civilization.  There are vanished civilizations all over- often with unrelated human populations living on top of their remains.  This should be an important lesson- humans can indeed trash their environment and still survive as a species.  But this is not the point- there is nothing so great about just surviving.  And do not count on “nature” to “correct the wrongs” that humans have done to this planet- that is our responsibility (I say this for those who prefer to see humans as some sort of global pathology- but that is not my view).
  • Just because we humans would likely survive as a species if we trash the planet, that does not mean that there is anything even slightly good about our ability to trash and yet stick around.  That humans can endure under terrible conditions is well proven- worse still, we are extremely good at adapting to previously intolerable conditions – such that we eventually do not even notice what we are missing (most hunter gatherers find urban conditions intolerable- until they adapt to them!).  But this is certainly not what any of us really want.  Fear of driving our species to extinction is just not a good reason to stop trashing the planet.  Desire for better conditions for all of us species is.

4) Challenging environmentalism as currently conceived is “dangerous”, equivalent to advocating “business as usual” (“appealing to the Enron exec”), and aimed at a “straw man”.

  • Dangerous? I would argue that any perspective that cannot endure criticism deserves to be endangered.
  • Business as usual?  I do not support “business as usual”- for goodness sake- I’m just a poor professor!  Kidding aside, I have dedicated my life to changing the “business as usual” approach to environmental management and would certainly be called an environmentalist by just about anyone who knows my views (take my class in Environmental Science and Conservation if you don’t believe me).   Yet, from my point of view, much of environmentalism as currently conceived and applied is business as usual, especially when it acts as if there is an “us” and a “them” when it comes to the environment and when it uses fear of an environmental catastrophe to justify efforts on behalf of “the environment”.  Postnatural environmentalism is all about changing "business as usual"- but it is about empowering people to manage our environment better, it is not about stopping people or fearmongering about the environmental catastrophes that are around the corner if we don’t stop what we are doing immediately.  It is more than saving polar bears and fighting with lumberjacks.  It is about shared environmental governance that helps all of us create a better biosphere.  Environmentalism must become far more than it is now, and it will do this by embodying the global human effort to value and improve all of the biosphere including the parts we live in and the parts we don’t.
  • Straw man?  Some validity here.  It is true that I focused my op-ed on a particular strain, or element of environmentalism- and one that has been receding in influence over time (thank goodness).  Environmentalism has gone far since it began with “protecting nature” in parks and preserves. And environmentalists, like everyone else, have diverse views.  Nevertheless, my experience with environmental groups and students make it clear that “environmentalism” still encourages beliefs that a postnatural environmentalism moves beyond:
    • the most valuable nature is wild nature, and nature is valuable to the extent that it is wild.  This flies in the face of economics, and economics drives most human activity.  While there are good reasons to conserve wild places that are not just about money, in the end, the act of conserving them is.
    • humans are in danger of extinction if we do not "stop what we are doing" immediately.  This is just fearmongering.  We should conserve and manage the environment better because it is a better for us, not because if we don't we will all perish.  Crying wolf will not help.
    • people "out there" are engaged in "destroying nature".  Would anyone in the world describe their actions as intentionally “destroying nature” (or "the planet" or "the environment")?  We are all engaged in making a living. And we are all engaged in altering nature- for better or for worse.  Human transformation and management of the environment now results from globally interconnected economic, political and environmental systems that include every one of us.  Solutions to our problems require the same.
  • We need a new environmentalism! If you are not convinced, I suggest you review the call for a new environmentalism at the Breakthrough Institute.  In their new book, they illustrate this point with their question "what if Martin Luther King had given an "I have a nightmare" speech? Get it? 

Relevant links:

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