By conservation, I mean management of human demands on nature to a sustainable usage that will preserve all our natural resources in perpetuity. We do not now thoughtfully manage our demands. Nature of itself is not preservative by natural law. Yet the slow processes by which it works will in stable times allow all competitors a chance to devise a survival strategy.
In unstable times of great natural stress, nature will allow most of its life forms to proceed to extinction in great survival of the fittest contests. Humans are a relatively new force, able to exert extinction-level stress on the species of the Earth. We are the apex predator Earth has ever encountered. Further, there is a direct connection between our actions and the survival of all species, for unlike the eagle or the bear, humans are capable of consuming all fish in the sea.
People generally express little to no concern for the consequences of wasteful utilization, of mankind’s oppressive footprint on our planet. Our short time frames and great ability to control our immediate environments renders invisible the true scope of the effects of our wasteful transgressions.
Many of those who do rise to show concern are susceptible to tokenism and symbolic gestures used deceptively to disguise the specific nature of the problems and the difficulty of the deep solutions. Sustainability will be hard to define, harder to sell, and harder yet to implement, even after dispensing with the political opposition and obfuscation of the exploitative naysayers. The Earth will continue to pay a high price in response to our demands as a species.
Conservation as sustainable utilization was first promulgated at the national level by Theodore Roosevelt, our Progressive President. Some of TR’s views, the product of a world long past, no longer resonate in our newly post-racial and post-nationalistic enlightenment. But conservationists today, and all our citizens, owe a great debt to his foresight in advocating for sustainability as a moral imperative.
The necessity for this imperative gradually arose within the people during the period of great westward expansion of our country, and during the subsequent great immigrations, urbanization of populations, and mechanizing of agriculture. People were being removed from the land to urban environments. Industrialization brought obvious pollution of air and water, a stark contrast to the foregone rural experience. New urbanites began missing the natural rhythm and sensual familiarity of the countryside. Artists and then photographers added to the sense of loss with images from the frontier and of spectacular wilderness phenomena.
As agricultural practice became more intense, the fragility of soils became more in focus. If we could see impoverishment of a resource in a single generation, it was natural to experience anxiety about the quality of land we would bequeath to our descendants. Other damaging practices to fragile riparian habitat were inflicted by the metals and timber extraction industries and livestock grazing industries.
For many generations, the eastern mixed forests had been sacrificed to harvesting before the plow, providing for energy, shipbuilding, and shelter, and providing jobs at thousands of saw mills. This was before heavy mechanization, and the land was relatively accessible, so not too much damage was done to the land in the process. Many of the small farms on their largely rocky soils were eventually abandoned, and native eastern forest is quickly reclaiming some areas.
Later, the decimation of the western and northern conifer forests by the clear cut was happening more quickly and wastefully, even though a more constrained approach to timber harvesting could have satisfied our national need for timber. As timber harvesting became more aggressively mechanized, great damage was done to the timber-bearing capacity and riparian health of the rugged western lands left behind as clear cuts. It will be centuries before they appear as they once did, depriving a large number of generations of their benefit.
Wherever industrial strength capitalism arrived, the threat to the land escalated. Capitalism’s lack of protections meant that all the resources extracted from the land, timber, metals, oil, were translated into short term massive profits for a few resource barons and their investors, at the expense of the people’s birthright, a healthy environment. This has always been justified by the jobs created, and by availability of useful products for consumption here and trade elsewhere. But the jobs have always been few compared to the costs to environment. The profit motives of the few and most powerful further precluded sensible discussion of sustainability. As always, the question is not whether the extraction was beneficial, but rather how the extraction was done, motivated solely by unregulated power and greed.
Man’s carelessness toward wildlife was readily apparent, for we had in the space of a single generation driven to extinction the ubiquitous passenger pigeon by hunting them and then cutting down the last of their needed habitat, the trees that supported their huge colonies. We further annihilated the great herds of bison on the great plains through wasteful utilization. Only some early actions by pioneer wildlife conservationists saved the bison from similar extinction. Other species also suffered dearly, including whales, seals, beaver, and egrets. Some might include the fate of the indigenous Americans in the conservation discussion here, for their welfare and very existence was also sacrificed in a genocide of economic expedience.
The scientific, moral, philosophical, and aesthetic conservation arguments, accumulating during the period of our rapid development, resonated strongly with TR. As a result, he formulated conservation ideas and elevated them to the level of national policy. Conservation visionary that he was, TR pragmatically had one foot firmly planted in a utilitarian philosophy. Resources are to be used for our benefit, but use must be wisely constrained by sustainability considerations. An excerpt from one of TR’s speeches captures the spirit of his views:
“Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children. That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children. The farmer is a good farmer who, having enabled the land to support himself and to provide for the education of his children, leaves it to them a little better than he found it himself. I believe the same thing of a nation. Moreover, I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few…”
Conservation will continue to be a political negotiation, seeking balance between public and private property rights, balance between Federal and state public property rights, balance between utilization and preservation. Many people support a national interest in setting aside valuable and unique habitat in a natural state as a public trust. Countering these enlightened folk are those who believe all land ought to be subject to private ownership, where the owner is free to do anything to his land and what lives on it.
Whether state of federal authority has responsibility for creating land trust set-asides is complicated. An argument can be made that land spanning state boundaries and land of such unusual character as to constitute a national treasure should be federally protected. Other trust lands should be set aside by the states, when they have the enlightenment and resources. Federal protection is the ultimate default authority; TR showed us the way.
We live on Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’. The conceit of sustainability presumes we can control the entangled processes at work on our bank. But how can we tell how many natural resources we can safely use in any given interval? In many instances, a rational decision would mean being able to sort through countless layers of unintended consequences. Thus, the complexity inherent in the task of matching our demands to our natural resources is of same order of magnitude as the complexity of nature itself, perhaps forever beyond our ken.
Drawing a simple food web is one way to begin to experience the incalculable nature of our sustainability task. The danger of this complexity is clear. Until now, all our mucking about with the natural order has yielded cascades of unintended consequences, a one step forward, two steps back dance. We are clever indeed, but incomparably less clever than would be required to successfully re-order nature’s priorities.
Yet the problems must be solved. For what can be the long-term prognosis for a colonization such as ours that reduces the livability of the environment in every generation? Given the exponentially negative footprint of our species on Earth, to have a future to worry about, we need to get a handle on society-dependent behavior modifications that can put the human degradation of the biosphere on a decreasing trajectory. TR exercised moral leadership and created land set-asides of great natural beauty for posterity. But even from his bully pulpit, he was unable to rein in politically-connected special interests and their lust for temporary profits at the expense of the environment.
How do we perform the hard work of changing behavior? Enlightenment is needed, but it comes very slowly, fought off by inherent human myopia and avarice. At the governmental level, reining in special interests will require more political will than we have ever mustered. Rules, regulations, and taxes are needed to shape correct and hopefully globally consistent behavior. All our laws should pass through a conservation filter: does this law permit or incentivize non-sustainable behavior? If so, vote no.
By definition, the natural world without humans is sustainable. Left to its own devices, it has evolved for four billion years into an unfathomably rich diversity of organisms that exploit their own evolutionary plasticity to colonize every environmental niche. Here, sustainable does not mean preservation of a status quo. Since nature is dynamic, status is always changing. Rather, sustainable means managed change that avoids lasting harm to the environment, maintains full biodiversity, and continues to allow evolutionary methods to maintain the exquisite balance in our tree of life.
Recently, humans have evolved as a part of this natural world. Soon there will be more than ten billion of us, and we increasingly behave as alien intruders across the entire biosphere, out-competing all other life and changing the basic rules of the game of life. Humans, by their clever devising and by their sheer numbers, increasingly squeeze the natural world to harvest its wealth of resources, and in doing so, cause change at a pace to which evolution cannot adapt. More and more niches lose their colonists due to the stress of this change, in a cascading effect that ultimately can cause all life to crash.
Several times in the deep geologic past, life on earth has crashed due to extraordinary and unavoidable environmental change; even nature herself is not always on a sustainable footing. After each crash, life rebounded robustly, but with a significantly different set of organisms. So we well might worry whether we humans will pass through to the other side of a human-instigated crash of the biosphere. This would be an experiment whose risk we may wish to avoid, particularly since we remain at the whim of unavoidable natural forces with potential to crash life here, plate tectonics, ocean current patterns, insolation levels, asteriods. Our ingenuity may help see us through a crash, but the threats can be further mitigated by choosing to live in a healthy environment that will provide us some margin for surviving rapid global change.
By continuing to ignore the warning signs that our current practices are not sustainable, we reduce the probability for long term biodiversity survival, ourselves included. These signs are everywhere we look, each a tiny indicator of fundamental cumulative change that negatively effects all species. Those species most affected are called indicator species. Milkweed is the giver of life to monarch butterflies, but it has diminished by 75% in the last few years. Look for monarchs, which are becoming an ever more rare sight. Look for the red knot shorebirds whose sightings have diminished by over 70% on their eastern seaboard flyway over the same time, as have their main dietary supplement, horseshoe crabs. Horseshoe crabs have survived everything nature could throw at them for 475 million years, including at least two great crashes of the biosphere. But unrelenting human pressure is weakening their populations to the point they may be susceptible to being wiped out by a brief succession of adverse climate events. Either we cease and desist, or these species will soon disappear, and thousands like them.
Two great forces working against sustainability are population growth and the avarice of resource gatherers and extractors. The human footprint increases most in subsistence agrarian economies, where family size provides the buffer resources to ensure that some family members survive to another generation. In primitive subsistence economies up until the current time, human birth rates have spiraled ever upward, limited only when starvation intrudes, ending a human ability to endure hardship. The land suffered under the oppressive weight of new generations of ignorance whose only plan for life was to further sacrifice natural habitat to the plow and pollution. Such practices traded short term sustenance for loss of bio-diversity, leading to potential desertification. With foremost thoughts always of feeding their children through subsistence farming techniques, there was no time for them to increase insight or resources. Without insight, these peoples could have no conversation regarding sustainability.
The days of the subsistence peoples are of course self-limited. Clearable, arable land will run out sooner rather than later. Their days are even further numbered by large agribusiness that will push the remaining subsistence farmers off their meager lots. This is happening across Africa, South America, and China. In South America displaced farmers are replaced with cattle ranches and vast swaths of soybeans currently shipped to Asia to be used as animal feed. Governments and agribusiness collude on these land grabs. In China, subsistence farmers are being displaced by planned state development and more intensive agriculture practices. In all these cases, the peoples of the land are forced into camps or into urban areas, their lot immeasurably worse because now they can no longer fend for themselves, but are largely dependent on government largesse. They have gone from the poor to become the poorest of the poor, separated from the land.
In our modern societies, humans live in the thin veneer we call civilization, devised to paper over nature, making it serve us. We moderns are just as profoundly embedded in nature as was the subsistence farmer, although we envision ourselves far above it. The wolf is not already at our door, but is just down the road, the more treacherous for being out of sight. We rely on markets and restaurants to provide our sustenance. Just as the very young who suck at the teat, we don’t ask where the warmth comes from, where the food comes from, what it is made from, at what price. We behave like infants. Mother Earth will warm us and feed us. Until she can no longer.
Having lost harmony with the land, we are disassociated souls absent the primal sense of what it means to be alive.We have lost power due to our loss of this most basic knowledge. How can we have a real conversation regarding sustainability if our basic knowledge has been abstracted away? Author Michael Pollan characterizes this loss by observing our continuous movement away from self-preparation of the food we eat:
“When we no longer have any personal knowledge of how these wonderful creations are made, food will have become completely abstracted from its various contexts: from the labor of human hands, from the natural world of plants and animals, from imagination and culture and community. Indeed, food is already well on its way into that ether of abstraction, toward becoming mere fuel or pure image.”
Some of us from developed societies are clever enough to have sustainability conversations, but these societies do not now conserve except in insignificant and symbolic ways. Our limited voices of concern are swamped by the noisy human progress march through the Anthropocene. The voices of reason are outspent and outvoted by a global corporatism and coalition of overlapping national self-interest that will deny itself nothing, making impacts on Earth’s biosphere at scales greater than humans are readily able to perceive.
In addition to transnational corporatism and corrosive nationalism, our voices are also diluted by people who call themselves ‘conservative’. To be ‘conservative’ now means likely to be aligned against conservation, construed as a government scheme to constrain basic freedoms. Conservationist progressives must challenge ‘conservative’ views that humans are entitled by their deity to do anything they want to the land with impunity, that laws and regulations do not apply to them, that their definition of freedom includes being free to abuse, being free to not pay one’s debt to the future, but to pass that debt on with compound interest. We must challenge ‘conservative’ views that humans are not only entitled to increase their multitudes, but are demanded to do so by their deity. Observe how the words republican and conservative have been co-opted and corrupted in the last century. It is no coincidence that the very people who deny evolution are the ones that would sell out the natural order with a turpitude masquerading as moral authority.
If it be true that only a minority of humans understand or accept the sustainability problem we are creating, education must become the priority issue of conservationists. Once we get a sustainability conversation going among the educated, we can look at improving human practices through revising our poorly-considered policies for agriculture, energy use, land use, and harvesting of natural assets. It is easy to sense that population growth exacerbates these issues. Thus excessive population is a priority education issue. But the political forces aligned against sustainability conversations form a formidable stumbling block.
All of our policies and practices need to be reviewed as part of a general sustainability conversation. Consider our genetic crop modification policies, or our policies for application of antibiotics to livestock. Our ill-considered push to biofuel subsidies has induced farmers to convert every available hectare to a continuously-grown monoculture, further destroying natural habitat and impoverishing soil, requiring ever more fertilizer whose phosphate and nitrogen runoff are major pollutants of waterways. Our developmental sprawl builds on and paves over large swaths of natural habitat and arable land which ruins it essentially forever (in the human time frame) for growing useful plants.
We live in our suburban sprawl on oversized parcels and plant lawn and decorative plantings that largely have no benefit to wildlife. We create roofs and hardscape that allows water to run off into the paved streets where it carries unfiltered toxic substances into our waterways. We fill in wetlands and develop them, removing them forever as a wildlife resource and water filter. We allow non-native species to be imported that threaten the remaining native species.
We pollute the air with ever increasing carbon emissions that stimulate climate instability and cause acid rain that can further marginalize aquatic life. The entire food chain of our oceans is in peril if the invisible microscopic life becomes eliminated through our haplessness. Our ability to feed our multitudes is at risk.
All these insults inflicted by modern society add up to eventual impending disaster for all of us, and the fish, bees, butterflies, and birds to list a few. Think how much harder it will be to grow any food at all if we allow ourselves to press ‘delete’ on the birds and insects whose needed habitat we are destroying. The great majority of our food crops are pollinated by birds and insects (think 80%).
When we ruin underlying nature with our profligate ignorance, our veneer cracks and peels away, exposing our own ruin. Neither rich nor poor can avoid this accusation, nor the debt that will come due. But the rich bear the vast majority of the blame, and the poor always bear the vast majority of the hurt.
Rachel Carson exposed our earlier chemical desecration of nature in her seminal book, The Silent Spring. The impact of this book was one impetus to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. In the front matter of her book, she quoted E. B. White:
“I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.” (We love E.B. also for Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web).
We underestimate nature on two fronts, both the fragility of the natural balance of life, and its ultimate resilience. The latter may be our ultimate salvation, for it may buy us some time. Hopefully, we will ‘smarten up’. If in the worst case (from our perspective), we humans were to disappear, there will be virtually no trace of us in a few millennia, except for at most a few artifacts that we use all our skills to preserve. Nature will survive us. It is we that will be kaput.
If we continue our possessive bending of nature to our will, the nature that does survive us will be without many or even most of its current genera. It will take millions of years to bring back a comparably full bio-diversity after we commit genocide on ourselves and take untold species with us. Nature will throw off our insults and resume the integrity and dignity of its natural order, initially sick and impaired, but eventually healthy once more.
What can we do to arrest the negative elements of the human ‘progress’ vector and prove ourselves worthy of survival? Some may be waiting for a new voice from the wilderness to set an improved path for us. But the voice better get here soon, for there will not long be a wilderness here for voices to spring from. Our continued prosperity as the top predator species demands we come to terms with our dependency on preserving the natural order.
The evidence from the Anthropocene up to the industrial revolution is that nature is well equipped to meet human necessity at rational levels of population and consumption. But we will need to shout down the anthropocentric naysayers in order to pull off such a miracle. These naysayers, the curiously myopic, would rather just continue to reap their one time rewards, smug in their surety that the bill will not come due on their watch, and even suggesting that there will be no debt to pay.
Uninformed wishful thinking is an innate human trait, hallmark of the anthropocentrics who spout that our glorious path through the Anthropocene will continue to carry us all into an endless future of plenty. Who needs limits? Certainly not us. No worries about overpopulation, all these apologists tell us. Rules and regulations are anathema to us. Science and human ingenuity can cure all damage we do, as they have done since the dawn of the neolithic. We can just merrily continue to buy and sell it, re-engineer it, shoot and trap it, pollute it, fence it off, fish it out, slash and burn it, dam it, despoil it, clear-cut it, dig it out, pump it out, pave it over, watch it die and blow away.
To counter such foolishness, rational voices can make a difference. Education about the negative impacts our practices impose on our planet is one side of the save-the-earth coin. On the flip side, we should further educate positively and constructively, particularly regarding our deep human past and how we used to live as one with the land.
Barry Lopez wrote the book Arctic Dreams, expressing in poetic prose some thoughts on our obligate reciprocity with the land. Early on, human society did not have the power to destroy nature. We lived on nature’s terms. Perhaps by looking backward to our roots in nature, we can get in touch with attitudes and feelings long buried.
Unable to equal the author’s eloquence, I will let his words speak to this premise:
“By coming to know a place where the common elements of life are understood differently, one has the advantage of an altered perspective. With that shift, it is possible to imagine afresh the way to a lasting security of the soul and heart, and toward an accommodation in the flow of time we call history, ours and the world’s. That … is the dream of great and common people alike.”
“To have no elevated conversation with the land, no sense of reciprocity with it, to rein it in or to disparage conditions not to our liking, shows a certain lack of courage, too strong a preference for human devising.”
“At the heart of this [human] story, I think, is a simple abiding belief: it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well. And in behaving respectfully toward all that the land contains, it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us.”
“In approaching the land with an attitude of obligation, willing to observe courtesies difficult to articulate, … one establishes a regard from which dignity can emerge. … The things in the land fit together perfectly even though they are always changing. I wish the order in my life to be arranged in the same way I find the light, the slight movement of the wind, the voice of a bird … . This impeccable and indisputable integrity I want in myself… making life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”