Looking back on thirty years of professional devotion to wildlife conservation and the broader concerns of environmentalism, plus thirty years of retirement spent on reflection and continuing study of the human condition, unfortunately forces the sad conclusion that mine was mostly a failed enterprise. Awareness of the environmental problem has grown. But the idea systems that brought it on are barely dented, except in a few journals where speculation about the aftermath of a long generation of extreme neo-liberalism simmers.
Since I hope my long half-century’s struggle yielded some understanding, however, sharing my perspective may at least help thin the ideological brush. It may save time. Others may then address the unmitigated problems more effectively. The struggle is more important than my generation thought. For a naturalist, some of the problems appear dire.
Intriguingly, this belated recapitulation is a byproduct of having read Gary Will’s humanization of William F. Buckley (see The Atlantic, Sept. ’09), that late arch-conservative whose views could hardly have been farther from mine on politico-economic issues. It struck me how dependent we are on the ruling elites of our day to manage a “soft landing” in adapting to the results of our half-blind economic Progress. Environmentally, even religiously, we are all in this together; and exactly where we sit on the liberal-conservative spectrum should be moot while we solve real survival problems.
We need more awareness of the problems the passing generations bequeathed. Since the world is always more complex than we think, we inevitably frame what we think we know in some narrow perspective. We are always amateur specialists of some kind.
We may be the most evolutionarily specialized species of the animal kingdom, but we flaunt hyperbole if we rank ourselves “the thinking reed.” We think only part time, and still lamely because our cognitive and emotional capabilities are built on a patchwork of inherited sensory equipment which is poorly integrated. This is the probably the basis of our dualism. Only quite recent studies of comparative neural anatomy are revealing this. We learned to think, but were not originally designed to do so.
It is symptomatic, and ironic, that we could not date the rocks--and thus begin to understand Earth history--until the late 1940s, when the mass spectrometer was invented.
This is hardly more than half a century ago! Many of our descriptions, like “the eternal hills,” were guesswork.
This made much early mechanistic science a dangerous detour. Fortunately, ecology is at last helping picture the consequences of the imprint of our own short history. But it remains to be seen whether this awareness came in time to compensate for the accumulated environmental burdens of several centuries—perhaps a few millennia—of what economists call “externalized costs,” even though they themselves have hardly begun to see this as a central problem.
We need reminding that understanding is more important than the knowledge we hunger for and find so exciting. Understanding involves an awareness of interrelationships and the implications of acting on what we know. It is more reflective and humble than cognition.
Further, we badly need more appreciation of what a young species we are. This may warrant patience with our immaturity, but should also be a warning about acting on such shallow grounds. Specialists distract us with details of the origins of our genus Homo. We need to focus on the capabilities and behavior of our own species, H. sapiens, which is less than 200,000 years old.
For most of those 200 millennia we were hunter/gatherers, wandering afoot from continent to continent. It was patronizing and prudish of Thomas Hobbers to characterize these predecessors as having led lives that were no more than “nasty, brutish, and short.” We share the same gene pool. It only took a few thousand years to invent different civilizations on the very different continents we occupied. The admirable point is that several of the scattered groups did so, mostly independently, and some of them before we of The West did so.
On every continent the hunter/gatherers proceeded to decimate populations of large life forms that were useful food sources. Combined with the use of fire, these inroads modified ecosystems everywhere. But the impact of these wandering tribes on the total environment seemed modest because there were relatively few of them, their technologies were modest and, except for fire, mostly individually applied.
The advent of agriculture, less than ten thousand years ago, changed all that. Despite all the praise we have heard heaped on this new life-style, it was the beginning of the man/nature crisis that confronts us. Hunter/gatherers had developed a “go-light” approach to the environment, and being egalitarian, they were socially frugal. They mostly let Nature be, were partly nomadic, and sustained themselves on ecosystem surpluses---one species among the accumulated biodiversity of the long evolutionary experiment in multiplying life forms.
Agriculture, on the contrary, required exclusive use of varying patches of land. This fostered selfishness and greed because it required contesting alternative uses of the land by other humans or wildlife. The farmer’s sedentary existence made him dependent on the regional vicissitudes of nature, now seen as an uneven contest and resented. Too much rain, or not enough; too much sun, or too much wind When harvests were good, that induced hoarding, both for next year’s planting and hoped-for profiteering should the next growing season be skimpy, or competitors less cunning.
Of course, for a while agriculture seemed bounteous, a social blessing. It nourished more people; but these begot more people, who then required more agricultural production to maintain population growth. Egalitarianism no longer seemed virtuous. Greed had to ramify. Notice how like metastasis. Self-sufficiency became more difficult . Access to land divided rich from poor and laid the foundations for slavery, and wars to acquire slaves to work the land. Indirectly, to allow landlords to enjoy their beatitudes. How blessed the strong.
We have now industrialized agriculture, so it is no longer a life-style. Indeed, the few modern agriculturists of the developed world produce commodities, not food. The products of this system become ploys to dominate other people’s economies. This is globalization: domination on a global scale.
In The West, while it lasted, the agricultural life-style fostered its own religion, notably Christianity. The Church had to internalize the insecurities of the day, and invent compensations. In this concocted vale of tears, the emperor’s lawyers decided what dicta were socially effective, what not. When, about a thousand years later, schism rent the fold, Protestantism may have given voice to a latent excess of individualism. Max Weber suspected this but did not elaborate. We need to ask more.
That combination of growing human populations and an expanding agriculture to sate appetites of course preempted space for crop monocultures. Forests had to be cut and wetlands drained to provide acreage. We expanded into dry land as soon as it
became feasible to pump out aquifers. Proteins were augmented by exploiting the oceans. All for the benefit of one species, God’s favorite, we convinced ourselves.
Biotic extirpation and extermination multiplied, an environmental holocaust that biologists euphemistically call competitive exclusion. We may be about to learn whether natural systems, built on biodiversity, falter when truncated. Pollution, which is really ecosystem overload, now worsens at both ends of the pipe because the impoverished systems can process less of it.
About 500 years ago, when The Church’s precautionary constraints on usury were abrogated by self-appointed prophets, human modification of natural systems was given extraordinary impetus. The new excessively individualistic mindset, divorced from Nature by some five thousand years of agricultural existence, set out to commercialize everything within human grasp. That grasp grew apace, thanks to an explosion of technological innovation, itself a byproduct of the narrow, mechanistic science of its day.
As control of natural processes and commercial domination increased, prior valuational protocols were discounted. The commercial creed gloried in unending accumulation, and this required continuous territorial expansion to provide the essential cheap resources and the cheap labor to work them. Attempts to draft value-free sciences and would-be-sciences were acclaimed. For a generation or so during this era of late capitalism, we, the favored few, were assured that greed is good.
These introductory paragraphs on Western history are of course a mere sketch of the
circumstances that faced the first conservationists at the turn of the 20th Century. The tragedy implied in the title of this essay is that almost no one perceived the institutional nature of the ruling assumptions.
We still don’t. The downside of practice was judged to be a byproduct of individual ignorance or greed, at worst a form of malfeasance. Or, more generously, the unfortunate price of Progress, an unavoidable conflict of possible goods. Early in my conservationist career I was warned that although malfeasance may be criticized, the system itself should not be.
The conservationist plaint—focused on birds, bison, and White Pine, was thus a moralistic plea; doomed, like the two-thousand year plea of Judeo-Christianity, to be observed in the breach. It failed to see its task as that of imposing social constraints on the vandalism of the greedy exploitation system itself, by first reforming its assumptions. Meanwhile, our specializations divorced us from the consequences of our practices.
When I studied wildlife conservation practice in the 1940s, the guiding principle was still
“scientific efficiency.” Aldo Leopold became our guru; but he learned, before he died, that eliminating waste would ultimately not suffice. Even so, he was a generation ahead of the times in glimpsing the social reality. Tragically, the chief accomplishment of a century of conservation doctrine was to take a few thousand acres off the open market, to nurture wildlife locally instead of profits.
The 1960s brought a new awareness of our profligacy, in large part because World War II, though it was the bloodiest of all our conflicts, had also lifted a few million people out of poverty for a while. Rachel Carson alerted us to the poisoning of the world by the chemical revolution of the 1950s. The space shots made us aware that our planet was a blue oasis in space. The threat of the atom eclipsed its claims as a source of energy. But this new Environmentalism could not be more specific than to insist, “Don’t Change the Ecology!”
Not until 1999, when the flower children of the beat generation joined the unionists in Seattle to protest the greedy partitioning of the world’s resources by the World Trade Organization, did a few awaken to the fact that the modern corporation is the spearhead of the destructiveness of human enterprise gone astray. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had seen that to serve the general welfare one must downsize corporations. Adam Smith had warned us to this effect two hundred years earlier. But no one heeded them. At Seattle, David Brower was the only conservation mainliner to join the march.
So we rushed on. Come the 21st Century, a United Nations panel on climate change warned that our uses of fossil fuels threatened to initiate a dangerous epoch of global warming. Many denied the forecast as pessimistic. The United States was struggling to maintain its economic dominance. In October, 2008 a fiscal crisis jarred the world’s complacency. World leaders soon agreed that getting the economy going again would have to take precedence. It was just too inconvenient to address the likelihood that global warming was itself a consequence of too much economic growth rationalized, however lamely, as necessary to maintain excessive population growth.
A generation ago Paul Tillich, that gentle philosophical theologian, suggested that the salvation of man and nature are one and the same task. Jonathan Lear, a contemporary ethicist, suggests that love is Nature’s way of holding things together. Herman Daly wrote a persuasive book to show that a steady state economy is feasible, even though his professional contemporaries were denying it. We appear to know what is wrong with us, but our ruling elites have yet to accept the notion of fundamental reforms.
Those best-equipped to guess what the aftermath of the collapse of neo-liberalism implies suggest that we will be lucky if the existing “concert of powers” can stave off a more complete financial meltdown. The least dire forecasts may be those that predict no more than a long generation of stagflation. Time, perhaps, to rethink human destiny.
The conservationists of the 20th Century were the more conscientious fraction of the ruling elite. Mostly middle-of-the-road, pre-Reagan Republicans. The organizations they formed were thus muted by a polite restraint concerning the roots of the environmental
destruction that dismayed them. There were no antisystemic sympathies with labor, small farmers, or the very poor, those other victims of the blind exploitation we called Progress.
The Environmentalism of the Sixties broadened the base, but was prone to “outrage” rather than intent on practical reform.
Can we learn to appreciate that we are the lucky, but fragile current end-products of a long but not timeless evolutionary process? That the “mind” we inherited is still a rather primitive decision-making capability? That we achieved what we have by cooperation, not competition? That, indeed, the competition we so touted since misinterpreting Darwin is a fallback for failed cooperation? That we are only one of many species produced by this evolutionary process? And that if we fail to rise to the occasion, Earth’s biological experiments will go on for another five billion years? But without us.