A part or apart

 

SIX MONTHS AGO, I FOUND MYSELF IN A HOTEL CONFERENCE ROOM WITH THE BLINDS DRAWNS, GLASSES AND PITCHERS OF WATER ON  the draped tables, a projector for Powerpoint presentations, a flip chart and magic markers in the corner: This was clearly a place that had been equipped for some deep thinking. Fifteen or twenty of us were sequestered behind closed doors, charged with plotting the future direction of a major conservation group, and we were all contemplating a draft mission statement on the screen. While the word-smithing went on, my attention was drawn to a phrase near the beginning:

“We have an opportunity to create a world in balance, a world where human needs do not come at the expense of nature.”

I lingered a while over the notion of “a world in balance,” the quaint idea that, in spite of the constant shifts in everything from incoming solar energy and the orientation of the earth’s axis to the evolution of bacteria, it might be possible to establish some sort of stasis on an entire planet. Neither physics nor biology held out much hope for a balance, but I thought I knew what the authors were trying to say, so I drifted to the second half of the sentence: “a world where human needs do not come at the expense of nature.”

Creeping around in the background of that statement, unexpressed but palpable, is one of modern man’s most enduring prejudices— that, somewhere in our rise to enlightenment, we transcended our animal lineage and became qualitatively different, and distinctly better, than the menagerie that surrounded us. In this case, the phrasing went on to imply that we could live without making any demands on ecological systems, without appetite or impact, almost like angels.

The question is one of the most central issues in human thought: Are we a part of nature or are we apart from it? It haunts our discourse on philosophy and religion, shapes our debate on practical ethical matters from our appetite for meat to our concepts of animal welfare, and colors the way we use land and the resources it provides. Not too surprisingly, it emerges in nearly every discussion of conservation and the environment

Of course, the differences that distinguish us from all other living things are unmistakable, even though it’s proven remarkably difficult to build a quick, air-tight definition of what sets us apart. When I first stepped into a college classroom, anthropologists were describing us as the tool-using animal, but in the last forty years, we’ve found many examples of other animals, from chimps to sea otters to crows, that use tools. In some cases, these animals use items that are handy without altering them, but in others, they modify an object before using it, which calls into question the revisionist claim that we are the only tool-making animal.

It can be argued that, even if we can’t make an absolute distinction in this behavior, there is certainly a difference of degree: We’re much better at making and using tools than any other species, which has turned out to be a good thing for us, since we can’t run, jump, swim, or fly nearly as well as other life forms do. We’re unique; we fill a niche in the scheme of things, and we’re one endpoint in four billion years of selection for success. The same can be said of every other living thing that shares the planet with us. Different, for certain, but not necessarily better.

No one knows for certain when the concept of human exceptionalism began, but I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in our existence as a species. Probably the earliest record we have of abstract human thinking was found about twenty years ago in the Chauvet Caverns of the Ardeche Valley in southern France. Some of the paintings and sculptures in that cave are more than 30,000 years old, and they suggest that those ancient men understood the earth and its teeming life in much the same way as contemporary Stone Age cultures do. It seems likely that then, as now, people whose lives depended on good hunting and foraging for their livelihood felt a close kinship with other animals, a relationship that colored religion as well as the group’s day-to-day activities. For those primitives, each species had its unique place in the world, but no species, not even man, exerted control over the whole.

It’s interesting that there are no strictly human figures among the paintings at Chauvet or the more recent cave paintings in places like Lascaux and Altamira. The occasional images that suggest humans have the heads of bison or horses. Archaeologists have speculated that these may be drawings of shamans or possibly illustrations of visions from trances. Either way, they leave the impression that the people of that time and culture felt an intimate relationship with the living things around them— they saw themselves as a part of nature.

I suspect the shift in our attitude began with the domestication of key crops and animals some 13,000 years ago. It was a slow-motion revolution that may have stretched over 4,000 years or more and left no record beyond the melted remains of a few adobe huts, fragments of discarded tools, and the altered DNA in the organisms that led us into farming.

At the beginning, our lives and fortunes were clearly shaped by the same forces that defined success and failure for all the animals and plants around us. A severe drought or winter, an outbreak of disease, a shift in the constant push and shove between predator and prey all sent immediate ripples through the populations that supported us and inevitably took their toll on each tiny group of wandering humans they touched.  By the end, we had created a domain we thought we could control.  The natural world beyond the fence was no longer a part of a universal brotherhood; it was a potential threat. We were estranged.

Irrigation expanded our sense of control and eventually led to the first great cities, places where specialists in various trades could divorce themselves almost entirely from the daily demands of producing food. The world’s first written epic, “Gilgamesh,” includes the wild man Enkidu, immensely powerful, drawing his strength from the wild world outside the control of the empire. Eventually, the emperor finds a way to domesticate the wild man and reduces him to the status of a slave, albeit, a valued slave, who assists the monarch in a series of adventures. The story reads remarkably like the biblical expulsion from Eden, set down in cuneiform 2,500 years before the birth of Christ.

As far as I can tell, these are the roots of the notion that the human animal stands somehow outside of nature— an idea that, in western culture at least, has complicated our thinking about our relationship with the earth ever since.

In its most extreme form, this concept has led to expressions of open hostility toward the unruly places that are seen to resist domestication.  In the classic history of early colonial life in New England, Of Plimoth Plantation, the Puritan cleric William Bradford had this to say about the land he and his companions had chosen as their new home: “What could they see but a hideous & desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts & wild men? And what multitudes there might be of them, they knew not.  Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah, to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects.  For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face; and the whole country, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage hue.  If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar & gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.”  It was a view many Americans would take over the coming centuries.

One of the most succinct expressions of this attitude is literally cast in concrete on the University of Wyoming campus. Construction on the building that first housed the UW engineering department began in the early 1920s. In 1926, as the building neared completion, someone asked Earl D. Hay, dean of the college of engineering at the time, to compose a motto to be enshrined over the main entrance.  After some thought, he came up with this: “Strive on; the control of nature is won, not given.” 

I find it more than a little ironic that, in the spring of 1927, as Dr. Hay and his students were moving into the new building, the Mississippi River contested his notion that nature is susceptible to control.  Always an unruly watercourse, the Mississippi had already been contained behind an extensive network of levees, but rain and snowfall across the heartland were unusually intense from August 1926 to the following April.  Driven by nine months of exceptional runoff, the river ruptured the levees, flooded 127,000 square miles of bottomland, drove 700,000 people from their homes, and killed 250.  And this rain-soaked winter immediately preceded the catastrophic ten-year drought of the Dust Bowl.  Strive on . . .

I’d like to think we’ve learned a few things since Dr. Hay issued his challenge to engineers and the implacable opponent he identified only as “nature”— although I have to say that some of the events on the Mississippi Delta and along the Gulf coast in the last ten years shake my faith a little.  However, for the sake of argument, I’ll concede that we may be beginning to think more in terms of cooperating with the land rather than dominating it.

Having said that, I still find us struggling with the fundamental question: Are we a part of nature or apart from it?  The conservation and environmental communities are not immune.  At one extreme is a specific group of hunters the sociologist Stephen Kellert has labeled “dominionistic” because they view wildlife and the rest of the planet as property to be disposed of as people see fit.  The human species, in this view, stands clearly apart from the rest of the natural world.

But many of these hunters speak movingly of their outdoor experiences— it’s why they take the time and trouble, go to the expense, involved in hunting.  They feel involved in natural processes when they’re in the field, and often, they place a high value on the meat they bring home.  It gives them a sense of connection.  They see themselves as apart from the natural world in the authority they have over it but very much a part of the natural processes and landscapes they enjoy.

Animal rights activists represent another extreme.  They’re passionate about the kinship between people and the rest of life on earth. We are a part of nature, they argue— animals are our brothers.  But they are morally repulsed by the idea that humans would participate in some of the most basic processes in the natural world, like eating meat and killing other animals to get it.  They see humans as unique moral beings— a part of the natural world in our genes, but apart from the natural world in our moral responsibility.

Somewhere in the middle, there is the well-meaning phrase in that organizational mission statement: “a world where human needs do not come at the expense of nature.”  It’s a mainstream sentiment, one that would fit nearly any conservation group, but it implies a sharp division between “human” and “nature.”  From a strictly ecological point of view, that’s sheer fantasy.  Every physical need we have is filled “at the expense of nature,” as the drafters of this language know as well as I do, but when challenged with expressing an overarching mission, they struggle to acknowledge our dependence and leave the impression that billions of people could somehow find a way to live and prosper without making any demands on the planet that supports us all.

 

The roots of the conservation movement reach back much further than most history books recognize. Alarmed by the disappearance of their deer, the residents of the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, outlawed spring deer hunting in 1647. And the notion of providing some protection for wildlife was not new in the New World.  It stretches back through the game preserves of kings and nobles to the Fertile Crescent and the reign of the Assyrian emperor Ashiburnipal.

Through all those centuries down to the first effective conservation efforts in America, we approached the task much as we approached our backyard gardens.  We admired some things for their beauty, some for the way they tasted.  We set aside a corner out back, cultivated it, built a fence, and chose the varieties we wanted to grow. 

Early in the development of wildlife management, its advocates used the metaphor of the garden to explain how they thought about the process.  There were stocks of wildlife that needed our attention, and if we watered and weeded with sufficient care, we would eventually have a crop to harvest.  A good gardener was careful not to overharvest his perennials so they would yield another crop next year, and with the annuals, he made sure not to eat all the seed so he had something to plant the following spring.  A little thinning down the row helped production.  So did a little manure.

It was a useful metaphor, as far as it went, emphasizing the renewable nature of the “resources” we managed in a way that an agrarian population could readily appreciate.  But it had its limits.  There was a casual chauvinism in the distinctions we made between crops and weeds that often failed to recognize the interdependence of the organisms we were managing or the processes that supported them.  With a certainty bred of ignorance, we did things that seemed like a good idea at the time, only to discover years or decades later that we had failed to account for some key variables.

The collapse of the mule deer herd on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau was among our first lessons.  Massive predator control and highly restricted hunting allowed the population to grow from 4,000 animals to between 50,000 and 100,000 in a matter of eighteen years between 1906 and 1924.  Conservationists celebrated until the herd finished chewing the last of its forage down to the roots and collapsed from its own too-much.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the people of Wyoming began feeding elk to keep them off private stocks of hay.  Eventually, there were more elk than private citizens could afford to feed, so state and federal governments took over the program.  It seemed like a durable compromise, an expensive but effective way to have elk in the mountains while avoiding conflicts with ranchers on winter range in the valleys.  Until brucellosis came along.  And the possibility of chronic wasting disease.

We thought common carp would be a welcome addition to the nation’s fisheries, and in spite of a hundred years of bad experience with that introduction, we subsequently decided to import grass carp.  And black carp.  And silver carp.  We weren’t satisfied with the interior West’s native trout, the cutthroat, so we brought in brookies and rainbows and German browns and mackinaw and walleye and broadcast them over the landscape without considering the possibility that some or all of them might not coexist comfortably.  We dammed nearly every river in the region without bothering to think about how a wall across a river might affect the movements of salmon, sauger, sturgeon, humpback and razorback chubs, and Colorado pikeminnows.

Sometimes, visualizing a garden isn’t the best way to think about the world.

The garden metaphor carried another message, too.  Was that subtext accidental or intentional? — I can never decide.  Either way, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that we owned the garden.  We could decide how big it should be.  If we suddenly decided that we needed another wing on the house or a new shed, we could move the beds or cut them in half, and if the crops and ornamentals were more trouble than they were worth, we could lay down some weed barrier, cover it with rocks, and give up the whole exercise.  The garden, while often useful and sometimes entertaining, was something we could do without.  We were apart from it.

I’m the first to concede that our willingness to provide for natural systems has grown with time— the world’s first national park and first national forest, both monuments to our changing perspective.  In the last forty years, we’ve made a commitment, however uneasy, to preserve native biodiversity by protecting rare species, whether they are charismatic or not, and we’ve begun to appreciate that an organism can’t survive without the wild places that shelter it, a perception of habitat that demonstrates a growing ecological sophistication.

But we still struggle to come to grips with our place in it all.  Do we exist on some higher plane, out of reach of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”?  Are we overseers, partners, or just participants, feeling our way toward survival like every other living thing on the planet?  Is the impulse to protect wildlife and wild places an act of selfless charity or self-preservation?

 

Conservation is defined as “wise use.”  There are many paths to that wisdom.  Science reveals the unimaginable complexity of natural systems and helps clarify the way human actions ripple through them.  If we spent more on research, we would have a better grasp of the challenges we face and the often unintended effects our decisions have.

But a technical grasp of the situation isn’t enough.  We need to come to terms with the emotional and ethical ties that bind us, not only to each other, but to every other living thing.

So here’s how I see it.  It’s time to return to a reality the artists in Chauvet Caverns understood and that we, in our technological hubris, have long abandoned: The human animal is a part of the natural world.  Skin and bone, flesh and blood, right down to the last strand of DNA, we are creatures of the earth.  We depend on it for food, water, shelter, raw materials, the very air we breathe.  It shapes our conscious and unconscious, our minds and souls.  It defines us.

Sixty years ago, the pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold crystallized a lifetime of experience and thought into a slim volume of essays that was published after his death— A Sand County Almanac.  He’d seen the consequences of land abuse from the delta of the Colorado River in northern Mexico to the forests of the Alps, the effects, not only on wildlife, but on people.  His great contribution to human thought was the extension of the ethical concepts that color our interaction with each other to the concepts that color our interaction with the world at large.

“A thing is right,” he wrote, “ when it tends toward the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

A thing is right when it tends toward the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community— Leopold’s “land ethic.”  It was based on a scientist’s appreciation of the interdependence of all living things and a hunter’s grasp of the hard ecological truth that predator cannot survive without prey.  He never suggested that we should aspire to living without making demands on the world around us; he recognized the ecological absurdity of that notion.  He knew that the human animal depends on the processes that support all life.  The key, in Leopold’s view, was to make those demands sustainably and with a keen sense of the limits of our understanding.  In another essay, he offered this guide to interaction with the rest of creation: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”  

More recently, the ecologist and philosopher E.O. Wilson has taken a somewhat different approach, proposing a new term for the environmental lexicon: “biophilia.”  The roots are familiar: the Greek “bios” for living things and “philia,” which scholars define either as brotherly love or as kinship.

Take your choice: Leopold’s appeal to our sense of ethics, our higher nature, or Wilson’s evocation of our visceral connection with the rest of life on earth.  They’re just different views of the same, unalterable truth: From the simplest viruses to the most complex life on earth, we’re all in this together.

I don’t know that accepting this will make our decisions concerning the land any easier, but there’s a good chance it will make them better.

 

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