Environmentalism and Conservation - Connecting the Human and Nature Dots


Those of us who work in environmental and conservation philosophy and ethics recurrently confront an odd, seemingly anomalous problem. There are often deep rifts or fissures between well-meaning environmentalists and conservationists. You would think that we would be on the same page making common cause. Together we remain the minority in relation to the civic culture at large, and the moral and practical stakes for humans and nature are legion. We all know the litany of real and impending threats: climate change and global warming; degradation of natural habitats and their soils, water, and air; species extinction and loss of biocultural diversity; and more. Given these ominous trends, why the rift? Why do we not have our moral, cultural, and civic act together? 

Many have recognized the problem and have offered explanations. Conservation historians, such as the Curt Meines (Correction Lines, Island Press, 2006), trace the rift back to the early 20th century, if not before, and the split between the Teddy Roosevelts and Gifford Pinchots (wise use managers of natural resources) and the John Muirs (the ultimate spiritual significance and goodness of wild nature). But since then, we have had the influential Aldo Leopolds and Rachel Carsons who should have helped us bridge this philosophic or ideological gap. Something more culturally complex, if not profound, seems at play. I would like to take a stab at the problem, relying on my own experience and personal conjectures, for what they are worth. 

At the onset, I want to warn us and me against oversimplification and unhelpful stereotypes. I think that environmentalists and conservationists actually are arrayed along a continuum with environmentalism at one end and conservation at the other. Most of us find ourselves somewhere along the middle of the continuum, but we do find two types of blood in our veins, not easily reconciled. 

For the sake of explorative reflection, I want to offer what are no doubt two simplified editions of reality: the positions at the extremes. 

Modern card-bearing environmentalists are interested in clean water, air, and soils. They are against pollution and toxins, and for renewable, “clean” fuels and other green resources. Having historically often been concerned with social and environmental justice, they have recently championed the cause of carbon sequestration and dampening climate change and global warming. 

Now for the simplification. They care chiefly, if not exclusively, about human life and comunities. In contemporary parlance, they are characteristically human-centered or anthropocentric. Solve the human consequences of environmental problems, and we can declare victory and go home. The rest can be left to nature to manage. If you doubt this characterization, let me underscore it with a true story. I was on a board of an organization chiefly interested in cleaning up toxic wastes and promoting clean (hydrogen) energy. We were talking about water, including the Hudson River. I suggested that we should argue for clean water not only for the sake of human communities, but also for wider biological populations, communities, and ecosystems. A fellow board member exclaimed, “Why, yes, we should. I like birds too!” Within less then a minute, our focus was back on human communities, never again to be deflected to the wild. (I finally saw the writing on the wall and resigned from the board, despite its good work.) 

If environmentalists tend to be anthropocentric, the conservationists are biocentric, life centered (the other simplification). They characteristically are interested in broader earthly life: the ecosphere and ingredient ecosystems; the wildness of nature; the biodiversity of wild flora and fauna; and the resilience of long-term evolutionary and ecological processes, patterns, and structures. They attend to environmentalist concerns, but chiefly as they threaten natural systems. Indeed, they have often been accused by environmentalists and other human moralists as being “environmental fascists,” that is, not carrying about, or running roughshod over, human beings and human life. 

It is hard to square such an interpretation of conservationists from a close reading of an Aldo Leopold or a Rachel Carson, and, though there are some extreme naturalists (for example, the more radical wing of deep ecology), most conservationists are concerned with promoting “biocultural diversity,” humans and nature together. (Indeed, this is the mission of our own organization, the Center for Humans and Nature.) Actually when the issue is explicitly raised, most people on both sides of the divide agree that going forward, there must be a much better integration of the concerns of environmentalists and conservationists. Yet the tension remains and does not seem to be going away. For example, in a recent meeting on biofuels, environmentalists chiefly concerned with climate change and carbon capture in promoting various forms of biofuels were relatively unconcerned with issues of the degradation of soils, water, wild flora and fauna, and rural farming communities. When this was pointed out, they did not seem overly disturbed or perplexed. Why the intransigence, perhaps on both sides? 

I think that we may be approaching the heart of the matter. We are amidst a deep cultural crisis, which we have difficulty sufficiently recognizing. We, as yet, seem unable adequately to think together humans and nature and our moral responsibilities to both, in all their intimate interconnections. Again, why? 

I want explicitly to discuss two flashpoints or tensions which may shed light on the problem. Recently, more environmentally oriented organizations have become much enamored with working with the business community and seeking market oriented solutions to environment problems, for example, cap and trade of carbon emissions, wetland mitigation swaps, or nutrient farming, returning floodplain farms to wetlands for cleansing polluted rivers. Put in their proper natural and social contexts, these are promising developments. 

However, for conservationists, the problem of human and natural contexts is precisely the rub. Economic solutions and profit seeking marketeers all too often do not take natural and cultural contexts into account. For those predominantly with economically trained minds, all things are fungible or interchangeable, and the future is always to be discounted relative to the present. For biologically trained minds, things are rarely fungible. All soils, wetlands, rivers, ecosystems, communities of flora and fauna are not alike. They cannot be freely traded without real consequences. Moreover, it is precisely the earthly future for which we presently should be preparing and sacrificing, not discounting. 

This is not merely economic thinking (frameworks of thought) over and against ecological, naturalist thinking, though that certainly is part of the problem. The second flash point is our American cultural orientation and specifically our educational system, K through high school through college through graduate school and beyond. We, as a national community and citizens, are for the most part biologically illiterate. Further, we and our educational systems are largely to blame. 

I have a hypothesis, born of my own experience, which I think deserves serious attention. When I was in school during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the so-called “best and brightest” were tracked through mathematics, physics, chemistry, and molecular biology, the so-called reductive sciences, if we seriously took any sciences at all, which many of us did not, with little shame or guilt. We got preciously little evolutionary and ecological biology, which is not “big money” science, like chemistry and molecular biology, with their biotechnological and other market promises. In high school, I took four years of math, one year each of physics and chemistry, but no biology. (I did not find the teacher appealing.) No one at the school said boo. 

In college, I did take a year long biology course, but that was in 1961. (DNA had only been recently discovered. However, I did get a 49 out of 50 points on a test about the uro-genital system, which no doubt shows where my mind was at the time.) The so-called dummies or the bottom half of the class took “Rocks for Jocks” and got at least a smattering of geology and the earth and life sciences (hydrology, climate regimes, soil science, etc.), of which the rest of us “smart ones” remained blissfully ignorant. For example, it was only about five years ago, at age 60, that I learned that it took glaciers grinding down Canadian mountains to carry crucial minerals to be deposited in the Mississippi basin, as requisite for engendering fertile prairie soils. Here was the origin of the Midwest becoming the breadbasket of the country, if not the world. How many others shared, or still share, my ignorance? Why would a responsible civic society allow such biological and ecological ignorance? Because it seems not to affect the market economy? 

In short, those in positions of decision making power – whether in business, government, education, religion, or often environmental NGOs – are in all probability as innocent (ignorant) of the earth and life sciences as I am. (I have tried to get myself up to speed over the last 15 + years, but still consider myself woefully uninformed.) 

In short, with few exceptions, we Americans remain a biologically illiterate nation. We are Ignoramuses, ignorant ones. We are amused or bemused when Kansas or other states try to ban the teaching of Darwinian evolution in our schools. How unenlightened these states are! Yet we fail to note that, for all intents and purposes, Darwinian biology is not broadly and seriously taught in any case. Most of us can use ourselves for evidence. (We can only hope that things are changing.) 

If environmentalists, conservationists, indeed all of us are to get our act together in meeting moral responsibilities to human communities and nature, for example, with climate change and biodiversity, as well as habitat loss, we are going to have to learn how in fact humans and nature historically and dynamically interact and mutually determine or influence one another. One may become a naturalist, moral or other, by roots other then formal education in science or other disciplines. However, the best present understanding of the sciences of evolutionary biology and ecology certainly would help in meeting the future, perhaps in saving our world. 

It is a no-brainer to say that our culture is more dominated by economic and market modes and frameworks of thought then those of the fundamental life sciences. Culturally and civically, we have the wrong dart board in our heads if we want the points of environmental and conservation warnings to stick, reveal their connections, and make a difference. Presently, we warmly embrace any new market product that comes down the assembly line, whatever the ecological consequences. We need to learn to connect the dots of humans and nature and to change our affections, thinking, and moral standards, as Leopold suggested more than 50 years ago. (Note how the stories, thinking, and prose of A Sand County Almanac are centrally informed by Darwinian biology and ecology.) 

I suggest a new cultural standard for ourselves: A Sleeping Beauty litmus test. Can we, as individuals and a civic society, willingly and warmly kiss a frog, with no expectation of a Prince Charming appearing? Can we so unreservedly love and respect nature? In truth, the values of our earthly world are sufficient unto themselves. Moreover, the virtues of naturalists deeply concerned with both humans and nature are their own reward. This is no grand, new insight. Spinoza had it over 400 years ago (the Ethics). Not only are these virtues their own reward, they have by now become a necessity if we and our fellow creatures are to survive and thrive into the future. Again, Leopold saw this 60 years ago. When are we going to get it?