The Environmental Movement is as Alienated from Nature as its Foes
Why effectively addressing problems like climate change means breaking the West’s dualism habit
People like to think a lot about their place in the universe. This trait of ours is responsible for everything from our university philosophy and science departments to the self-help section at the local bookstore. It’s the reason I’m writing this article and lies at the root of every author’s motivation to get out of bed in the morning.
Of course, from every other creature’s perspective, it also appears they’re at the center of things. However, because only a small handful of species are thought to even approach our level of self-awareness, we feel comfortable assuming that none of them experience our sense of importance. Regardless, everyone seems to agree that when it comes to our ability to dramatically reshape our environment for both good and ill we’re unique.
This ability of ours to willfully plan and create change is a source of hope as well as much of our current anxiety. We are a species torn between the belief that we can find a solution to whatever problems we may encounter or create and the fear that, like Icarus trying to fly to the sun, at any moment we may be about to plunge back to earth.
The notion that we can alter our environment so dramatically as to effectively destroy the planet requires us to reach conclusions beyond just the extent of our power. It also requires us to assume something about our world’s fragility.
For something like 99.9% of our planet’s existence, we weren’t here. Life in some form has been around for over 3.5 billion years with complex life exploding onto the scene over 500 million years ago. Modern humans became a part of this story only about 150,000 years ago. Before we came along there were asteroid and comet impacts, volcanic activity that dramatically altered the climate, and a planetary takeover by oxygen-producing species that poisoned the atmosphere for everybody else while paving the way for everything that followed.
This brief outline of life’s history should be common knowledge within every advanced culture by now. Yet we continue to resist the humility that such data demands when it comes to our place in the grand scheme of things. If we refer to it at all it is often to misuse the planet’s history to justify or minimize our own more destructive practices. However, the planet’s capacity to withstand a lot of abuse is no justification for willfully abusing it. Besides, it’s the impact our reckless actions are having on our well-being that should be our more immediate concern.
While some of us are guilty of confusing earth’s resiliency with a reason to do whatever we want, others minimize or ignore its resiliency to argue that with the arrival of humans the rules have changed. Just as Francis Fukuyama prematurely proclaimed the “End of History” after the conclusion of the Cold War, some are quick to declare contemporary human culture signals the end of evolution or, as Bill McKibben put it in his 1989 book title, “The End of Nature.”
But evolution and nature are words used to describe a process, not a thing with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It is a process in which we are embedded. As such, our perspective fails to comprehend the whole. We’re like fish in a lake that mistakes the lake for the world and the surrounding land they glimpse each time they briefly jump out of the water for the universe.
What is nature? It’s hard to find a satisfactory answer to that question. Is Central Park a natural environment? It has trees, ponds, fish, birds, squirrels, worms, flowers, fungi… If one were to add up all the species in Central Park from the smallest microbe to the humans jogging along its trails, the list would surely reach into the thousands. That it was intentionally made to appear something like a northeastern American woods resting in the heart of a city does not obviously render it a place apart from nature.
Even the city surrounding Central Park is hardly devoid of natural processes. New York City has a Beekeepers Association. Developers have also begun to apply lessons from nature to conserve energy. Green roofs, for example, can both reduce the heat island effect common in cities and help keep building interiors cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. At the same time, these rooftop gardens can be used to grow plants that both humans and other species can use.
In his book Love in Action, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Although human beings are a part of nature, we single ourselves out and classify other animals and living beings as ‘nature,’ while acting as if we were somehow separate from it.” Hanh concludes, “If we knew how to deal with ourselves and our fellow human beings, we would know how to deal with nature. Human beings and nature are inseparable. By not caring properly for either, we harm both.”
This consistent habit of dividing the world up between the “man-made” and the “natural” is as common within the environmental movement as it is in society at large. Indeed, humanity’s built environment is arguably more contemptable to environmentalists than it is to any other group. This is unfortunate, especially given it is only by dramatically changing the way our built environment functions that problems such as climate change can be resolved.
In 1996, the historian and geographer William Cronon published his controversial article The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Wilderness, Cronon contended, is a particularly powerful concept within the American environmental movement, albeit one that has been successfully exported to much of the world.
The contemporary definition of wilderness includes adjectives like “pristine” and “untouched.” Indeed, the Wilderness Act passed by Congress in 1964 opens by defining “Wilderness” as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It goes on to describe “Wilderness” as having “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
Cronon finds this view of wilderness (both with a lowercase and uppercase w) problematic to the point of being paradoxical. First of all, when used as the standard against which the sustainability or ‘naturalness’ of our human environments are to be judged, the wilderness ideal sets us up for failure over and over again. As Cronon puts it, “we seem unlikely to make much progress in solving [environmental] problems if we hold up to ourselves as the mirror of nature a wilderness we cannot inhabit.” He continues, “if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves. The absurdity of this proposition flows from the underlying dualism it expresses.”
The environmental community too often seems oblivious to the fact that these lands haven’t been “untrammeled by man” for millennia and that the people who once lived on and worked in them did not recognize any distinction between humanity and the natural world that sustained it. As with the national parks and monuments that preceded the legal designation of wilderness in the United States, written within and between the lines of the Wilderness Act is the exclusion of the very people that inhabited the areas in question for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans and other recent immigrants to North America.
Neither Cronon’s essay nor this one is intended as an argument against setting aside lands for protection from urban encroachment, logging, mining, or other activities. However, if the language we use to describe the natural world excludes the possibility of humanity ever playing anything like a natural role, then we are merely perpetuating the alienation from nature that environmentalists, in particular, spend so much time decrying. If allegedly “pristine” and “primitive” areas are the only places we consider truly natural, then we are never likely to give adequate consideration to how we can make our cities cleaner and more livable places.
As Cronon points out, the focus on wilderness as the ultimate standard against which all other efforts are to be measured allows us to avoid taking responsibility for the impacts we are having where we live. It also has the effect of shielding us from the wonder that is unfolding daily in our backyard by perpetuating the myth that nature exists only in the remote corners of the world where one can go for days without seeing another person.
As Thich Nhat Hahn also reminds us, what we do to ourselves and each other we do to nature. The natural world is coursing through our veins. The problem isn’t that it is too remote but that it is so close and so familiar that we do not see it.
Bill McKibben was wrong when he proclaimed “The End of Nature” on the cover of his 1989 book. Nature can take us or leave us. We are but a transient part of a process that predates our arrival by billions of years and will continue long after we are gone. It is hubris for McKibben or anyone else to even suggest that humanity can end a process in which it is firmly embedded and upon which it entirely depends.
Only in seeing our connections to the natural world where we live each day can we find the opportunities for sustainability we are seeking. We can no more be separated from that which sustains us sitting in a skyscraper in Manhattan than we can be while exploring a jungle noisy with life or hiking a remote desert canyon where the silence often rivals the grave.
How can environmentalism hope to rescue us if it is either implicitly or explicitly promoting the view that a city garden or park is less natural than a remote wilderness? Gardens and parks, after all, could hold the key to saving pollinators, songbirds, and many other species. How can a movement that venerates old growth simultaneously largely minimize or ignore the vitality and health urban forestry programs can bring to our communities, to say nothing of our efforts to reverse climate change?
Until we rid ourselves of the dualism that consistently separates us from nature it will be impossible to deal with the problems that are the product of that worldview. Until we realize nature isn’t only whole when we are absent from and that we are only whole when we are fully present in it, the change we need will remain elusive.