Nothing is sustainable; some things last a long time; nothing lasts forever

This includes natural & human systems. Everything is in the process of continuous and sometimes discontinuous change. Everything is becoming something else. Change brings opportunities and challenges. The view the environment as equilibrium is a significant mistake and the source of much of the error of those who want to exclude human activities from … most of the planet.

I am been accused to seeing things from my own point of view and of course I am guilty of that. The point of view problem seems to be most acute in environmental affairs. I love nature and have for as long as I can recall. Yet I cannot understand the point of view of some self proclaimed environmentalists. I believe good environmental stewardship allows – requires – that we cut some trees, kill some animals and balance preservation, conservation and wise use. The individual tree, animal or tract of land is usually meaningless; the whole system is what counts.

Human intervention in nature can be a good thing or a bad thing. The very diverse and lush water meadows of Ireland, for example, are dependent on human activity. The tall grass prairies and spaced forests of North America were the result of human management of fire. The beech forests of central Europe grow on lands originally cleared by Neolithic humans. The beautiful park-like lands around places like Boulder, Colorado are the result of extensive tree planting and conservation building efforts in the last century. It is better than it was. There are many places in the world that would have a much poorer environment w/o human activity. We can all think of instances were the opposite it true, but it certainly is not a one-way street.

Properly managed human interventions can improve on nature. This is the place where those influenced by the deep ecologists and I part company. Their animist religion tells them that it is impossible to improve on nature. My science and logic tells me that we sometimes have done just that.

The belief that humans cannot improve nature is based on the idea that humans can only disrupt and implies that nature is in equilibrium w/o us. This is an incorrect formulation. The changes wrought by natural events makes what we do pale in comparison. It really is human arrogance to think we CAN play such a destructive role. We can make things unpleasant for ourselves, but that is about all. A place like Wisconsin (my native state) has supported a wide variety of ecosystems, ranging from ice a mile deep to warm seas, to grasslands, tundra, & forests of various kinds. Which is the natural, normal or balanced ecosystem?

Even a shorter time frame shows significant change. In the humid areas of North America or Western Europe, natural succession will take a bare soil to a forest in a few centuries. Each natural community gives way to the next. None of them is permanent or sustainable. I really enjoy watching the changes. Now that I have been doing it for more than thirty years, I have seen some interesting and significant changes in what looks like unchanging landscape, and my observation time is a mere moment on the earth. When I studied ecology thirty years ago, we used to think there was a climax system that nature was working toward in a kind of teleology. We now understand that constant change is the norm. Some systems last a long time; nothing lasts forever. The system that changes because of human intervention is not necessarily worse and may be better than the one that changes because of a random natural event.

Remember that nature does not plan. What we see in nature today is the result of a long series of adaptations to random events. It is not the way it has to be. There is nothing inevitable about what we have today. It is one of many possible outcomes. It is more likely that a disruption, human or naturally random, will cause trouble than benefit, but humans can learn and make their interventions more sustainable.

Humans can also undo “mistakes” made by earlier humans or random nature. Many areas of North Africa and the Middle East, for example, are rocky desert today. They used to have a forest cover and could have one again if properly managed. Visitors to Israel are often surprised by the extent of the forests. These are almost entirely human restorations. Left alone, random nature may have taken centuries to achieve this result and it may not have happened at all.

Some people would argue that we should leave it in its “natural” desert state. However, it was not desert before humans (and goats) got at it. Learning that, some people might accept “restoration”. But what is the difference between restoring a forest and creating one in a similar area devastated by nature? None, unless you have that religious view of nature, that someone nature plans.

Nothing lasts forever, but some things last a long time. A human managed ecosystem can be as sustainable as one subject to random nature. We just forget – or do not notice - how often a natural ecosystem changes.

Using nature and its resourcs wisely. Sometimes that will mean treading lightly, but not always. Some things need a good stomping now and then. We would just be immitating nature.

Posted by Jack at July 11, 2007 8:35 PM
Comment #225956


I don’t know any deep ecologists; they partake of an extremely rarefied branch of philosophy. None of the popular movements really capture it; it involves a radical movement away from the very sources we have to determine value and meaning.

In practice, all but the most esoteric of the various flavors of environmental or ecological movements are anthropocentric. We can have differences about how Man can best fit into the planet’s ecology without jettisoning the notion that Man himself is the determinate of value.

I have a friend who carved out a niche in environmental philosophy; he leans toward deep ecology but can’t quite get there. I’ve given him this thought experiment before: We live in an incredibly vast universe; there are virtually infinite vistas no one, no life, has or will ever experience — Can one truly take the mindbogglingly imaginative leap to hold that these unseen, unexperienced, unknown vistas have meaning in and of themselves? And if one can take that leap, why, in a practically limitless universe, which may be but one of an infinite number, should we be terribly concerned about our little planet? I wager there are not more than a few hundred people out of the 6.3 billion on this planet who can truly hold that position.

Having said that, the practical differences we see involve Man’s role in ecology. It is quite anthropocentric to hold that if we don’t take care of the planet we endanger ourselves. It is quite anthropocentric to take the aesthetic view.

I think you might be giving too much credit to many who support preservation or leaving certain areas untouched. Except for the very rare few, they are all still believers in “shallow” ecology.

Posted by: Gerrold at July 11, 2007 11:27 PM
Comment #225964

As described, “deep ecology” sounds extremely anthropocentric in its privileging of a human intellectual/moral attitude toward nature which is completely based on the assumption of Man as the determinate of value. This dramatic logical contradiction appears to lie at its very heart.

To say that nature cannot be improved upon and to maintain that we should not try to improve upon it requires you to create a special category: that which is not nature. That one part of nature capable of making such choices. Meaning human beings. How is that not anthropocentric?

Seems to me that any belief system which held that nature cannot be improved upon would logically be required to hold that human drives for consumption (and even waste) are a part of nature and shouldn’t be denied. What else could they be? Deny that, and you’re actually back at square one: what choices should we make that actually run contrary to our selfish (and utterly natural instincts) in order to create or preserve other parts of nature according to our wishes?

Posted by: Loyal Opposition at July 12, 2007 12:14 AM
Comment #225970


Yes, I agree. It’s a tough position to hold. It requires an enormous displacement of one’s own “meaning-creating” systems; yet it cannot involve elimination of them because of the need for some system to create meaning. What does it mean that something has intrinsic value apart from the value Man gives it. Mustn’t there be a “valuer,” so to speak? It does sound like a species of religion.

It never did make sense to me. But then, I never got over the “Is God good because he CHOOSES good, or is whatever God does IS good” question.

Posted by: Gerrold at July 12, 2007 12:50 AM
Comment #225977
The belief that humans cannot improve nature is based on the idea that humans can only disrupt and implies that nature is in equilibrium w/o us. This is an incorrect formulation.

Duh. Anyone who’s ever planted a flower knows that. Which straw man are you attacking today, Jack? Why don’t you name some names?

Posted by: American Pundit at July 12, 2007 2:10 AM
Comment #225983
Humans can also undo “mistakes” made by earlier humans

You mean like killer bees and kudzu?

Posted by: womanmarine at July 12, 2007 5:40 AM
Comment #225985


You cannot deny that we often run into some varient of the “nature’s way” argument. I see it very often in forests. People want to just “let the trees grow”. I hear it often with animals. When a cougar or a bear stalks an area, somebody can be counted on the say “WE are invading THIER home.”

Also, do not discount the influence of popular culture. You sometimes hear the term “crimes against nature”. Or we get the slogan “save the planet”. Save it from what/whom? I do not think the people saying these things really only mean, “use resources wisely for long term human benefit.”

Robert Kennedy Jr recently called people who do not believe in global warming traitors.

It may not be a variety of “deep ecology” responsible. Most people who hold some subset of a bigger concerpt do not even know it. It is more likely a much shallower version of animal rights. I have seen signs of a bear on my land. I am really hoping that the hunters will kill it, since I do not want to run into anything that might overpower me. You would not believe how unpopular this position is.

I also am pretty sure that most people have some idea that nature is in balance. That is one place where I have a little trouble with the global warming thing. Let me quickly recofirm that I believe global warming is real and a problem. But I think it is a problem of change, not of end state. There is nothing unique, special or normal about the climate we had from 1960-1980, for example. A warmer (or cooler) earth is not a good or a bad thing. There will be benefits and costs. It will just be hard to adapt.

Posted by: Jack at July 12, 2007 7:55 AM
Comment #226006


I’m mostly quibbling about terms. Most of us do hold to some degree positions that one could associate with deep ecology, just as atheists and agnostics in practice believe much the same things as the most devout.

For the most part, people just differ on what degree, for example, animals should have rights. I seriously doubt, Jack, that you deliberately abuse animals. You might want to kill something you perceive as a threat or a nuisance (me too; a rat in my house is toast), but I’m sure you don’t go out of your way to cause animal suffering. Why not?

As far as the “Save our Planet” bumber stickers go, very few people would take that to its logical extreme. Slogans are dumb, anyway, just like political labels are.

I’m not trying to minimize differences in perspective; I’m just saying that in terms of a spectrum, the true deep ecologists are way, way out there.

Posted by: Gerrold at July 12, 2007 11:06 AM
Comment #226048

Jack, your article misses the target by a universe or two. The issue is working to insure minimal negative environmental impacts as a result of our activities, specifically, whether we should sacrifice some of todays financial resources and convenience of status quo to work to minimize negative environmental impact for our children and theirs.

It is not about controlling the uncontrollable withing nature’s domain, but, controlling our contributions to environmental degradation to human habitat for the benefit of not only ourselves but posterity.

You frame the issue as quite something else, which, of course it isn’t. You frame it in a political manner as to create the appearance that proponents of expenditures to minimize negative environmental impact are fools reaching for the impossible. That is both disingenuous and illogical, since our activities on this planet do have negative impacts. HazMat would not exist if this were not factually true.

Posted by: David R. Remer at July 12, 2007 1:51 PM
Comment #226179

Just for fun,
What if we aren’t supposed to save all the creatures that are heading towards extinction? Is It possible that by trying to save every plant,worm, bird, animal, etc. we are interfering with the ultimate natural plans for our earth? (ex: if there were any dinosaurs around, would we feel the need to keep them from going extinct?)

I just have to play devil’s advocate in this issue….

Posted by: Linda H. at July 13, 2007 11:11 AM
Comment #227108


Can you please give some examples of where environmentalists want to stop improving nature (as you call it)? What does that mean? I mainly see environmental groups concerned about minimizing pollution, reducing global warming and the like. A factor pumping toxic fumes into the air, or bulldozing rainforests, isn’t about improving nature. If you mean something else, what? What conservative plans are there to “improve” nature for the better that these presumably nutty environmentalists are trying to stop?


Not at all. The many, many species that are rapidly going extinct are doing so because of our own actions, not because nature is just taking its course. Whole species dying out because their habitat is bulldozed or from pollution or being poached is not natural selection or something that would somehow benefit the ecosystem.

Posted by: mark at July 22, 2007 4:15 PM
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