All We See is $s and Dinner

(This piece was written Fall 2007.)

Our perception of Nature has everything to do with the way that we live our lives. People who trivialize the importance of nature to their daily lives take for granted what Nature has given and allowed us to accomplish. It may seem that we may rely on Nature’s resources indefinitely, but at what cost to Nature? Our time on Earth has been but a few blinks of the eye in the great geological scale of time yet the impacts that we have made while “conquering” our domain will most likely last for much longer. Differing perspectives on Nature will define the relationships and the types of interactions that we have with Nature.

Two great thinkers who approach this topic are William Cronon and Aldo Leopold. Both believe that the characteristics of man’s relationship with Nature depend on how man approaches Nature. The overarching Western idea that the Earth with its natural resources were meant for man’s use and progress came to the Americas with the Europeans. Several thinkers argue that this school of thought is deeply rooted in religion, and so is that much more ingrained in the culture. Followers were taught that the resources given to man by nature were limitless and for the taking while in other parts of the world people believe in the interconnectedness of all things in the world. This fundamental difference in thought has lead to many advances in society but at the expense of the natural world (i.e. the Industrial Revolution).

Cronon’s article titled “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” discusses the common interpretations during his time of the idea of “wilderness” and why that is important to the way the public views and thinks about Nature. One of his major points is that the “wilderness” to most people during the colonization of this nation was a savage and dangerous place in need of “conquering.” The Frontier was for everyone’s taking. Once the wilderness was conquered, however, the perception of nature is changed. People began to think of the wilderness as something to use for their own benefits and economic gains. Eventually, the frontier no longer existed and this passing of the frontier started people thinking that maybe something should be done to prevent complete loss of their beloved “wilderness.”

Cronon states that wilderness is a human creation, made up to satisfy the needs of man including a means of escape from the civilizations also created by man. He agrees that there is value in the feelings and experiences brought upon man by experiencing the natural world but the search for those places is something that was created because of the detachment of the civilized world from wilderness. Wilderness was the “antithesis of all that was orderly and good”(Cronon). People were “reclaiming” these wastelands to use for their own benefits. This self-righteous ideology gave settlers the power to do whatever they wished with the land and take without second thoughts as to consequences because anything they did with the land was an improvement in their eyes.

Cronon uses the word sublime to describe a worldviews on wilderness. Sublime landscapes were the rare and hard to get to places where nature could envelop you in its vastness and beauty while evoking emotions of awe and pleasure. The value of landscape from this point of view was the emotions and experiences when visiting the landscape. “Visiting” is a critical term because it means for most people these kinds of landscapes were not part of normal life and their grandeur is part of the cause for the awe phenomenon. These vast landscapes were separate from their homes and places of habitation. Segregation creates the idea that nature and wilderness is something to be traveled to and is not part of normal life or thoughts for that matter which makes justifications of the exploitation of places other than “wilderness” much easier.

Eventually the sublime landscapes turned into domesticated wilderness by tourism and were tamed by those who sought it. In a way, wilderness becomes the “pet” of man, its only purpose to amuse while under total control of its owner, who exercises complete power for fear of rebellion of the mastered. Cronon makes the argument that there is “nothing natural about the concept of wilderness.” Even if wilderness is being revered and hailed for its beauty, it is still only being used by man to fit into man’s concept of why nature is here and how nature should be exploited. Man forgets, however, that nature is not just the landscapes that are grand and awe-inspiring but is all around and part of everything.

Nature existed before man did and exists as a part of everything so there is nothing that man does on this world that will not in turn affect nature. What man perceives as “natural” changes constantly to fit the needs at that point in time, whether it is the need for recreational areas or for fuel for our fires. Man seems to need to draw boundaries to justify actions around those boundaries. Behind these perceptions is the notion of property. In Western thought, all man needs is a flag to stake into the ground to claim “uninhabited” lands for himself. Aldo Leopold touched on this in his essay “The Land Ethic.”

Ethics begins with the notion that some actions are socially accepted and others are not. But what is right and what is wrong will be different to people from different parts of the world. The incentive for having ethics is to survive in a world where cooperation is necessary. But where does the natural world fit in? Does it count as a member of the community? The fatal mistake here is in Western man’s unrelenting notions that the only usefulness of nature is for economic means. Granted that we would not be at this point in society and culture if we did not take advantage of innovations in technology and opportunities to increase the standards of living, but sacrificing much of our natural resources is a high price to pay for an “easier” life. Even the use of the term “natural resource” is a form of economic measurement of what presently exists in the natural state of the world. In this way we are all trained to think in numbers and selfishly take what may or may not exist for our taking.

Leopold suggests that the solution to many of these philosophical problems is a change in the content of conservational education. To instill a type of ecological conscience that treats the natural world with the respect that it deserves must start from the lessons learned earliest. We are taught to treat others the way that we want to be treated and to respect our elders. But what of things that exist in nonhuman ways? Are they too unworthy of our respect and consideration? Even most of the conservation practices today must have some sort of economic or social payback in order for them to be practical and effective practices at all. Are we too self-centered to do anything for the good of the community and world that include living things other than ourselves?

The “tragedy of the commons,” as it has been named, has yet to be fully challenged and a fitting solution has yet to be found. Leopold brings up the point that most conservation efforts must be left up to the government because private landowners only have personal benefits in mind. If they act for the benefit of the community, it is only with an “outstretched palm,” as Leopold puts it. But is it not only natural to think only about oneself or ones own relatives in the struggle to survive? Darwin based much of his work on the “struggle for existence.” Surely a sign of fitness could be considered financially stability when that means steady flow of food income and opportunities to reproduce. If existence to the next generation were not guaranteed, then an act for the good of the community and future generations would not be profitable enough to be worthwhile.

But that brings up deeper questions of “What does that really mean?” and “Is money really the most important thing in life?” In many cultures money is not the central goal of life but somehow it often is in our culture. The “American dream” is often glorified by the media and has been the collective goal of most people in our nation for hundreds of years. But while people are occupied with efforts to reach a goal that most can only dream about, they forget about the things that sustain them. The milk and cereal for breakfast, the bus that takes the kids to school, the office job that brings home the bacon, none of these would be possible if not for the support that “Mother Earth” gives us.

Leopold introduces the idea of a “land pyramid” where plants are at the bottom because they harvest the energy of the sun, and thus supply all living beings above with energy. All the levels of the pyramid rely on each other and interact in complex ways that have yet to be understood completely but the basic idea is fairly simple. Each level decreases in energy stores because of the expenditure of energy to acquire enough to live long enough to reproduce. Often there are only a few species of living things within a landscape that are useful to humans, so when they are exploited an imbalance in the pyramid is created. In this era, however, we have become so accustomed to having anything we want at nearly any moment that we desire it that we are manipulating the pyramid in ways so that we will not know how the pyramid is being affected until perhaps the farther future. So when people happily go to the movies and go shopping and having a meal with friends, the many resources that go into making that movie, that blouse, and that burger and fries (those that come in wrappers being the most wasteful), really come at a greater cost than the actual dollar amounts. Life in excess has become the ideal life of luxury and the goal of many who live in this country.

This also has to do with the point that Leopold brings up of transportation. It is the costliest of processes that taps into the energy of the environment and changes cycles that usually are local and self-sufficient into ones that cross the globe and so are thinned by stretching. Moviemakers travel around the world to find suitable locations; blouses made in China find their way into department stores in Manhattan; and food is probably one of the most traveled resources of all. These actions disrupt the “land pyramid” which keeps the energy circuits flowing, all for the benefits to humans. Only recently has the realization of some of the consequences really caught up with us and we are stumbling as a society to find ways to prevent the more serious ones from happening.

Cronon and Leopold question our society’s perspectives on the natural world. Cronon thinks about what the standards for “natural” are and why a “separate” view makes it easy for society to behave irresponsibly. He strives to bring home the point that “wilderness” is not the only type of nature that requires management and care because any actions that we take will affect nature in a worldly sense. To Leopold, the “ability to see cultural value of wilderness boils down…to a question of intellectual humility.” By this, he means the realization that the land does not exist solely for our benefit.

The underlying common utilitarian perception of nature is what has brought us to our current situation in the world with its many conservation issues. Nature is not a commodity and cannot fix on its own all of the problems that we have created. When we are able to change this selfish view of nature, we will see that there is a greater purpose for nature which does not include satisfying our every whim and fancy. Though at this point any type of conservation practice may be better than none at all, it may not be enough to stop all of our problems, just slow them down a bit. We cannot sit back and say we are doing what we can. We must change the way we think, the way we interact with nature, and how we use what nature graciously gives us. So, as Einstein once said, we cannot go about solving the problems we have created with the same line of thinking we used while creating it.

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2 Responses

  1. chewbear says

    I agree! There is a great conflict between acting in the best interest for our species, and acting in the best interest for ourselves individually. When both can somehow be reconciled, we may make progress towards living more harmoniously with the planet and what else lives on it.

    I think an overall change in mentality is needed, and we may be on the way towards it already, but we have to be doing it for the right reasons. It can’t end with the “green” trend. It can’t be a fashionable thing to be “green.” It has to become a part of our survival strategy, a way to think about life.

  2. Nick says

    Nice article. Both of these writers make very valid points, but the challenge that we face as a society is how to turn the realizations they refer to (that nature does not exist solely for our exploitation and that all our behavior exerts influence on our environment in ways that we don’t fully understand) into widespread action. It’s exceedingly difficult to convince others to make small changes in their lives for the benefit of the planet and their fellow humans, especially when those changes are seen as inconvenient and worse, as having some kind of social stigma associated with them.

    Can changes on such a large, social scale be made only over long periods of time, with the passing of older generations, and if so, what should we be trying to change first in order to achieve the quickest possible reversal of the course we’re currently going down?