New Environmentalism?

May 30, 2012

The Pulaski Skyway spans the Hackensack Meadowlands

With accumulated time on earth, comes the knowledge that much of what goes on in society is driven by generational demographics, or what used to be called “The Generation Gap.”  It can be funny:  hippies raising broods of yuppie wannabees, conservative button-down types being railed at by their liberal children – the usual.  I groan inwardly when I see young libertarians walking around spouting slogans, thinking they’re hip and brash:  their ideas are so 18th century.  (And I do love the 18th century, you know.)

Is there a similar backlash now in the environmental movement, I wonder?  I’m thinking of three young writers, all deeply interested in the man-nature ‘interface,’ who seem to be at pains to distance themselves from what they consider a soddenly romantic or New-Age-y environmentalism; the “we must heal/save/worship the Earth” variety.

I first became aware of it reading the journal put out by The Nature Conservancy.  (I give to that group because it puts into practice my environmental golden rule – preserve habitat!)  There was an interview with Emma Marris, who has written Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Nature World.  I don’t like that post-nature part: sounds way too much like Bill McKibben, but I like what she says:

NC:  In your new book … you argue that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit or not.” You say this calls for a new definition of nature beyond “pristine wilderness,” which no longer exists and hasn’t for some time. How must nature be defined now?

EM:  I struggled with that definition in the book, since much of my argument is about enlarging nature to include more kinds of things and places beyond pristine wilderness, from backyard birds to city parks to farms. . . . I am not sure we need a rigorous and watertight definition. We know nature when we see it, because we respond to it. At any rate, there’s a lot more of it out there outside of designated nature reserves than inside.

Then there is the book I just read, The Meadowlands, by Arthur Sullivan, which is about his journeys through the Hackensack Meadowlands, dismissed by New York-centric comedians for years as the armpit of the nation.  Sullivan revels in the industrialized natural history of the place, marveling that so much ‘nature’ has managed to survive in it.  He has to sell books, so he plays up the eccentric characters he meets, the stories of mob burials and toxic waste – some of it completely true – as well as the natural and unnatural topography of the place, but he produced a readable guide to an area that has fascinated me as I gazed at it from my car or train window.  He too finds nature in urbis but not in the English picturesque fashion that rus in urbis used to mean.  As Pinsky notes in his review:

Sullivan’s account of the Meadowlands is anecdotal and genial, but his book, covertly ambitious, takes up serious matters. By looking observantly, without trite moralizing, at the natural world as well as at the disposable world we build, and at the great overlap between the two, this book suggests a challenging new model for how we ought to pay attention.

And today in the NYTimes, there was an interview with Andrew Blackwell, author of a travelogue of the world’s polluted industrial sores, including Chernobyl:

I love a backcountry hike as much as anybody, but venerating nature often has as much to do with what we think is pretty as with anything else. And a lot of the time it doesn’t leave much room for humans in the picture, which I think is a problem. Humanity’s not going anywhere

Great good sense, there.  Humanity is not going anywhere, so like the Israelis and the Palestinians, we’d better learn to live together, with Nature, of which we are a part, anyway.  And let’s drop this sentimental wooing of the pristine, the sublime, and the simply pretty, which amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization for doing what we want with Nature anyway.  Unless you’re Bill McKibben, and you think the game’s over and done with…

There are an awful lot of deep and unresolved contradictions in the philosophy of environmentalism as it is processed through political advocacy and the media machine these days – no surprise that!  Perhaps these new writers, who seem alive to the humor, irony, and foolishness of these contradictions, are part of a larger trend that may be able to create a more sustainable environmental philosophy.


Romantic, sublime… ironic?

March 14, 2010

Ah, back to one of my favorite hobbyhorses – Man & Nature!  Over at the civilized roundtable hosted by Man_of_Roma, there was a little exchange about irony and nature, apropos of religion.  Personally, I see little irony in the relationship of man and nature (if we can just sort out what that relationship is…) other than the fact that we humans are so smart, yet so blind at the same time.  We insist on thinking that the universe somehow cares about us, or is, at least, cognizant of us.  That something is out there that …um…well, thinks about us.

I don’t think so at all. Voltaire, such a clever fellow, was shocked, yes shocked, that God, if he exists, could destroy such a fair city as Lisbon with all its innocent inhabitants. (Is that ironic.  I mean, didn’t he read any history?)  Rousseau was more phlegmatic in his response, and he’s considered the blustering romantic.  (Another irony?  Note, they are all cultural ironies.)  I’ve posted about their exchange of ideas on the Lisbon tsunami/earthquake here.

Here in my town, we had a little bit of Nature’s irony last night.  A ripping storm moved through with terrific winds, knocking down 150 trees in in Teaneck alone.  (Amazing – our power didn’t go out for once!) I’ve posted pictures from this morning below.

Two people were killed last night by a falling tree or power lines.  They were out walking.  Why?  Could they have been members of the sizable orthodox Jewish community in town?  They have to walk to and from temple on Saturday.  Killed performing their duty to God?  Is that ironic?  Would a pagan have acted thus, or would they have stayed put in their home, and made some small burnt offerings?  I guess if you’re orthodox, this is a little bit of a theodicy problem – how could God permit this to happen to people carrying out his will?  (Who knows – maybe it will turn out they were atheists out boozing – I haven’t heard for sure.)

Ah yes, the trees!  Trees are so good!  Protect trees, be green.  No, trees kill!  Trees are the instrument of evil Nature!  Or is it the weather, the storms?  Whom, what do we blame?

We plant hundreds of trees in town to keep up property values, make streets look nice, lower temperatures, preserve that smalltown American look, but we crowd the trees into little spaces so their roots can’t develop well.  Another irony here?  The unintended effect – death, disruption, property damage – from a beneficial action, planting trees.  Shall we cut down all the trees?  Then we would be safe!  Or, as Jean Jacques observed, if we did not insist on living in such close proximity to one another, falling trees would hardly be such a problem.

Please don’t think I’m heartless and cruel – I sympathize with those residents who have to deal with the fear and aftermath of a storm that blows huge trees into their houses, and of course, I’m not happy to see people killed to prove a point.  But, I could go on, it entertains me so . . .the ideas that is…


Mr. Green

January 31, 2009

green_george_perkins_marsh

Today, the New York Times had a fascinating article about jungles and rain forests in Central America.  It seems that as old rain forests are being eroded by settlement, new ones are springing up.  While a piece of farmland in New England might take 100 years to produce a tract of second growth woodland that approaches, at least to the untutored eye, the nature of the original woods, in the tropics, the process might take only fifteen or twenty years.

As people move to the cities for higher incomes, farms are being abandoned and left to be reclaimed by the jungle.  Some estimate that the new forests are growing in area at a rate nearly three times the rate that the old ones are being cut down.  Of course, the new growth is not the same as old growth, at least not when it’s new!  And some of the forest will be fragmented and far from old growth areas, so there are hurdles to a regeneration of the ecology of it, but it does suggest some interesting management strategies.

One of the biggest controversies, it seems, is how to account for the newer growth in the carbon inventories that have become so popular.  A new growth forest isn’t all that different from old growth from the standpoint of carbon dioxide intake – it just won’t have the same diversity of flora and fauna – but this notion doesn’t sit well with some environmentalists.  They fear a license to chainsaw the old under the false sense that it’s being replaced even as it’s destroyed.

The Times, with its usual cuteness and superficiality on scientific matters, refers to the newer growth areas as faux forest.  That should be faux forest.  Ha ha…Tacky tacky.  But then, only time is needed to make faux authentic.

The article concludes with a quote from a scientist:

Still, the fate of secondary forests lies not just in biology. A global recession could erase jobs in cities, driving residents back to the land.

“Those are questions for economists and politicians, not us,” Dr. Wright said.

Yes, well, it takes a geographer…like George Perkins Marsh, the original environmentalist!  In his amazing book, Man and Nature (1864), he examined this interaction of human culture and the landscape in a way that had never been done before.  He demonstrated that it was human actitivy that was responsible for flooding in many regions of Europe (cut down the trees and the moutains can’t absorb heavy storms…), he showed that the landscape of northern Africa had been turned from woodland to desert by millenia of grazing herds, he discussed micro-climates, and he was active in creating the enormous Adirondack Park in New York State, after it had been completely denuded of trees.

His eco-orientation, wholistic approach to environmentalism, subtle appreciation of the man-landscape system is rare today when everyone is a specialist a technical sub-field.  The basic lessons of his book, Man and Nature, are still mostly appreciated in the observance, not the breech! That is, when we destroy a landscape, we notice and decry the hand of man upon the world.  But when it happened outside of our lifetimes, we assume it’s natural!  How many people mourn the loss of Europe’s forests, which used to cover 80% of that continent?  How many people exult and gush over the beauty of the English countryside, nature’s bounty, without realizing that most of it is the quiltwork of human agricultural husbandry over 2,000 years?

This is a cultural side-effect of mass-urbanization in the modern era.  We don’t quite know what nature looks like.


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