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Issue No. 43 (April 2003) -- Mark Satin, Editor
From nature on
Did you recoil from the recent debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)? I certainly did. The rhetoric on both sides was impossible to take.
One side put ANWR on a ridiculous pedestal (any oil drilling at all would “exact a devastating price” on 20 million acres of wilderness). The other side wanted to drill for oil without having us address, let alone pursue, complementary strategies for achieving energy independence.
Why we fight
It’s no secret why some people treat nature like an inexhaustible source of resources and giant dumping ground -- a five-letter word beginning with “g.”
To understand why activists tend to put nature on a pedestal, though, you have to remember how the modern environmental movement got started. (What really happened, not the prettified version.)
Until the first Earth Day in 1970, most political activists didn’t give much thought to the environment. However, by the end of the 1960s, it was no longer easy for white activists to identify with and idealize militant blacks, who’d become increasingly, um, testy.
Nor was it easy for us to identify with and idealize the working class, visceral supporters of the War on Vietnam.
By the time Earth Day rolled around, most of us desperately needed a new object upon which we could project our own sense of specialness, woundedness, and vulnerability.
(The alternative was for us to figure out what we wanted FOR OURSELVES politically -- something most of us felt too guilty, too impatient, or too overwhelmed to do; see esp. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties.)
So we put nature on a pedestal on Earth Day 1970, the same pedestal formerly occupied by “the workers” and “the blacks,” and we’ve kept her there ever since.
Radical middle environmentalism
If you put nature on a pedestal, certain notions will have special resonance for you:
-- You’ll see nature as the measure of all things;
-- You’ll see nature as incredibly fragile;
-- You’ll think nature needs to be in a “stable balance” or “steady state”;
-- You’ll think a parade of environmental horribles is just around the corner.
There’s only one problem with these emotionally compelling notions (and their many corollaries). They are not true; they do not fit.
Since the early 1990s they’ve come under increasingly heavy fire from scientists, thinkers, and activists representing a fresh point of view.
That point of view has been called many names -- “ecorealism,” “next generation environmentalism,” “promethean environmentalism.”
I like to call it “radical middle environmentalism,” since it’s as visionary as 1970s environmentalism and more consistent with ordinary people’s aspirations.
So far, radical middle environmentalism has spent most of its energies constructing a “new canon” of books that can compete with the old Barry Commoner-Herman Daly-Lester Brown canon reflecting 1970s environmentalism (not to mention the Julian Simon-Peter Huber-Ronald Bailey canon reflecting conservative environmentalism).
Call it a stealth strategy, or a long-march-through-the-institutions strategy, but it’s beginning to work.
In the halls of Congress, debates between 1970s environmentalists and conservative environmentalists may still hold sway (as the ANWR debate so distressingly demonstrated).
But in the classrooms of our best universities, and in the conference rooms of our best think tanks and NGOs, the ideas of radical middle environmentalism are beginning to come to the fore.
THE NEW CANON
The canon of radical middle environmentalism, like most other canons, is a matter of some dispute! But if you had to limit it to six books published since 1990, these would probably make the final cut:
“Discordant” Mother Nature
Pride of place goes to Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century (Oxford Univ. Press, 1990). Not only was it the first clear shot across the bow, but in its clarity, thoughtfulness, and careful science, it set the benchmark high for future radical middle environmentalist texts.
Mr. Botkin is research professor of ecology at UC-Santa Barbara (and consultant to dozens of land-use and sustainability projects around the world). Part of his book is a critique of those who take a “mechanistic” approach to nature, but by that he doesn’t just mean those who see nature as a bottomless pit of resources to be exploited.
He also means those who speak cloyingly of the “delicate balance of nature” and those who think of nature as being in a “steady state.”
They may think their vision of nature is organic, says Mr. Botkin -- but as those terms suggest, their worldview is shaped just as much by concepts of predictability and regularity as is that of the most dyed-in-the-wool technocrat.
Mr. Botkin’s “new organic view” of nature, the essence of radical middle environmentalism, sees nature as dazzlingly complex and characterized more by chance and randomness than reliability. You’ll love his chapters describing the randomness (but not “chaos”) of nature.
And if you’re at the radical middle, you’ll love the policy implications he draws from them. Sometimes nature can be enhanced by promoting change in the natural world. Sometimes it’s helpful or even necessary to disturb nature.
The only non-academic to make the canon is journalist Gregg Easterbrook. His superbly written 745-page book A Moment on the Earth (Viking, 1995) popularizes and politicizes the ideas of many radical middle environmentalists.
Mr. Easterbrook pleads with environmentalists to develop a “new script” of many parts, which he calls “Ecorealism.”
Ecorealism sees the environment as “resilient” rather than “fragile.” The environment is, after all, continually confronting -- and overcoming -- natural processes such as volcanic outgassing and ocean chemistry that collectively dwarf human-made environmental abuses.
Ecorealism looks with “guarded optimism” -- rather than trendy doom-and-gloom -- at the progress we’ve made in controlling acid rain, air pollution, toxic wastes, etc. (Mr. Easterbrook’s generally optimistic overview of key environmental issues, which takes up about two-thirds of A Moment on the Earth, is far more persuasive than Bjorn Lomborg’s relentlessly optimistic overview in The Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001. It’s as fact-based as Lomborg’s and about 10 times more thoughtfully argued.)
Ecorealism critiques the static “balance of nature” concept and proposes in its stead what Mr. Easterbrook calls an “action-packed balance of nature” featuring disturbance and fluctuation without end.
Finally, ecorealism is averse to the 1970s environmental dualism of nature good -- man bad. Mr. Easterbrook goes so far as to say that “nature appears to enjoy fostering life and evolving,” but may have reached its limits in that regard -- therefore, “maybe nature needs us.”
Environmentalism as if people mattered
Alston Chase’s In a Dark Wood (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) may be the most in-your-face book in the canon.
Mr. Chase is a former philosophy-of-science professor with degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Princeton who moved to rural Montana to become an environmental writer some time in the 1980s. He appears to be on a personally friendly basis with everyone from eco-terrorists to Wise Use types, and his book bounces effortlessly from science to politics to activism to the real lives of ordinary Americans, and back again.
Essentially, the book is a running attack on “biocentrism” -- the idea that all living things are of equal worth and that the needs and interests of people should be subordinate to what 1970s environmentalists wrongly consider to be Nature’s needs and interests.
Along the way, Mr. Chase touches all the radical middle bases. There is a critique of the notion of “self-regulating” nature. There is a skewering of the “balance of nature” concept.
There is a critique of the steady-state ecosystem model (“Steady-state theorists . . . viewed outside perturbations -- especially those caused by humans -- as threatening ecological collapse. By contrast, disturbance advocates presumed that disrup- tions are . . . necessary to ensure that flora and fauna continue to adapt to change”).
In the end, Mr. Chase passionately advocates these steps:
-- demystify environmentalism (recognize that “nature is merely one among many values, not the supreme source of all that is good”);
-- democratize environmentalism (“rather than following one strategy, we should . . . encourage a multiplicity of [conservationist] regimes”);
-- humanize environmentalism (rather than impose draconian laws that divide, we should “encourage cooperation which builds trust”).
Death of the "ecological Indian"
Every canon includes at least one “totemic” book -- one book saying Goodbye!, in thunder, to a key myth sustaining the old order.
Thus Keith Richburg’s Out of America (in which the African-American author travels to Africa, is appalled by what he finds there, and comes back an unhyphenated American) is a totemic book for blacks at the radical middle; and Cynthia Eller’s Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory is totemic for feminists at the radical middle.
Just so, Shepard Krech’s The Ecological Indian (W.W. Norton, 1999) is totemic for environmentalists at the radical middle. Krech is an incredibly sensitive and painstakingly thorough anthropologist from Brown University who demonstrates that Native Americans were a lot less “ecological” than 1970s environmentalists like to imagine.
And even when Indians did consider their impact on the long-term sustainability of the land, they were often plain wrong. The Yupiit of Alaska, for example, thought that “the more meat they consumed and shared, the more they would have.”
Nature is less “natural” than you think
In his anthology Uncommon Ground (W.W. Norton, 1995), University of Wisconsin environmental studies professor William Cronon asks how anyone could come to believe such romantic twaddle as that nature is a “stable, holistic, homeostatic community capable of preserving its natural balance indefinitely if only humans can avoid ‘disturbing’ it.”
His answer: “Nature is a profoundly human construction.”
Nature is “real,” all right. But “[w]hat we mean when we use the word ‘nature’ says as much about ourselves as about the things we label with that word.”
Mr. Cronon beautifully captures the moral of his book when he says we “cannot hope to solve our current environmental crises unless we try to understand not just the environment . . . but also the ‘we’ who choose to understand [it].”
Daniel Esty and Peter Cornelius’s just-published Environmental Performance Measurement (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002) may represent the beginning of a second stage of radical middle environmentalism.
The authors -- one from Yale, the other from World Economic Forum -- do not theorize. They merely point out that environmental choices today tend to be made on the basis of “best guesses, or worse yet, rhetoric and emotion”; and that “developing and tracking a core set of environmental ‘indicators’” could help us “set priorities” and “test solutions.”
They then develop a myriad of indicators, and apply them to more environmental issues -- in more countries -- than I can begin to list here.
The authors’ political message is implicit but obvious. If you want to transcend doom-and-gloom analyses and steady-state type solutions, cultivate the facts; they’re your strongest ally.
Ditzy, and proud of it
Once this country catches up to the ideas in the new canon, it’s pretty obvious what will happen to Nature.
She’ll go from being a fragile, delicate thing on a pedestal (the 1970s environmentalists’ version of her) to being discordant, resilient, unpredictable, action-packed, etc. -- in a word, ditzy.
Just because we’ll see her as ditzy, though, doesn’t mean we won’t adore her as much as before.
And our relationship with her will change for the better. Since she’ll no longer be on a pedestal, we’ll approach her as more of a companion; more of an equal; more of a co-creator.
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