In Praise of Natureby Stephanie Mills
Five thought-provoking essays by Stephanie Mills are followed by reviews and excerpts of the ten most important pieces of related literature written by experts in the various fields. Reviewers include Peter Borrelli, David Brower, Ernest Callenbach, J. Baird Callicott, Lois Gibbs, and others. Following the essays is an annotated bibliography listing over 100
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Five thought-provoking essays by Stephanie Mills are followed by reviews and excerpts of the ten most important pieces of related literature written by experts in the various fields. Reviewers include Peter Borrelli, David Brower, Ernest Callenbach, J. Baird Callicott, Lois Gibbs, and others. Following the essays is an annotated bibliography listing over 100 important environmental works.
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In Praise of Nature
By Stephanie Mills
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1990 Island Press
All rights reserved.
IT'S ALL TOO EASY, in the dailiness of existence, to begin to take life for granted. And yet that there is life, and that life comes together in so many forms, from so many elements and smaller forms, is never less than astounding.
"A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels," wrote Walt Whitman. Life on Earth is the magic you can watch minute by minute. Every single cell is a wonder, a cooperative community of subcellular bodies that have come together in the destiny of being a larger metabolic unit. How many millions of cells, how different one to the next, differentiated from one tissue to the next, how many of those miracles compose the unity that is a trembling field mouse? In one human body, we know, there are a hundred times more cells than there are stars in the galaxy.
For oxygen to be present in Earth's atmosphere in an amount useful to air-breathing life-forms took eons. The development of soil and its fostering of millions of species required billions of years. Vascular plants, among them the grasses that make all flesh, are a sophisticated development. Woody stems, root hairs, capillary action drawing minerals and water up toward leaves for transformation through photosynthesis—flowers and seeds are inventive measures for life to have taken in its ongoing play. We all live by that greenness: Photosynthesis is the limiting factor for all other life on Earth. Even though we may procure it at a supermarket, our sustenance is entirely from nature, and in nature it cycles through. Eat or be eaten is the name of the game. There's no sustenance without something's dying, the dying in parts of perennial plants, the dying of prey in the jaws of a predator, the dying of predators and their reduction by the actions of myriad soil makers. Death drives reproduction, the paramount force in evolution. Transmission of genetic information is the aim of each being, transmission of characteristics and admitting to the possibility of change—gills to lungs, limbs to fins, the darkening of a moth species' protective coloration to adapt to a rain of industrial soot.
We don't know how many different kinds of life-forms there are. Estimates of the numbers of species range from five to thirty million. Because so many are as yet unclassified, microscopic, or obscure, nobody is quite sure how many there are actually. However many there are, habitat destruction—the clearing of tropical forests, the logging of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, the dredging and filling of wetlands, the smothering of coral reefs with effluents from development onshore—is quickening the pace of extinction in our time. Epochs of extinction have occurred before in Earth's history. The late Permian extinction removed half of the families of marine life, and the greatest mass extinction to date took place in the late Cretaceous period and wiped out the evolutionary lineages of the dinosaurs. The human species is on the verge of causing a mass extinction to top that, an evolutionary event the like of which hasn't been felt on Earth in sixty-five million years, taking an immense toll in genetic diversity. It's a dying on an inordinate scale, but we can take action to stop it, once we get, in our hearts and our bones, that our fate as a species is bound up with that of every other creature: We live one life.
Our early ancestors understood themselves to be as much a part of the Earth as anything else in their world, and felt that everything was alive and invested with power and mystery. A sense of the Earth as a great goddess, a bringer-forth of life and an enfolder of the dead, seems to have been widespread in Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Creation myths envision the Earth as a being—sometimes as a great animal. Native Americans saw their part of the Earth to be Turtle Island. They had a sense of the Earth itself as being vital and long-living, as turtles are, tenaciously enduring. A turtle's heart can beat for a long, long time.
Until well into the Middle Ages, even most Europeans believed that Earth was, in a sense, alive. The Enlightenment, with its clockwork sense of matter, dismissed that understanding from civilization until the late twentieth century, when scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis announced their Gaia hypothesis. Oversimply stated, the Gaia hypothesis is that together the planet, its life-forms, and its atmosphere are interacting and mutually creating, and have some of the properties of living tissue; that the Earth is like an organism. Thus, the Earth is not just a molten-centered ball of rock on whose surface life fortuitously happened to evolve. Rather Gaia (an archaic name for the Earth mother) lives.
Having access to great bodies of relatively new and rapidly developing scientific understanding is a sure blessing of our time. Geology, for instance, which emerged in the late eighteenth century, challenged the religious dogma of creationism by asserting that past geological changes were brought about by the same causes presently working on the Earth's surface, and by stressing the near-infinite slowness of the process of Earth-shaping change. Physical evidence that the Earth's surface was being unmade and remade, that continents were worn down and mountain ranges thrust up over the eons of time, was contrary to scripture, and blasphemous.
The imagination it takes to grasp the spans of time it took for the planet's surface to cool down, and to slow down, and for there to begin to be a less cataclysmic shaping of the surface than by meteor bombardment; and to picture the dance of the plates, bearing along the continents, and, with them, the arrays of species that would diverge and change once they were separated by new oceans and landforms, as the forests of Asia and the forests of North America did, is wilder than the imagination it takes to believe the myth that it was all made in six days.
Earth seems ancient; yet there was a time when Earth did not exist, and then a long time, 750 million years, give or take a few, when it was inhospitable to life; then billions of years when Earth was amenable only to microbial life, whose presence, over these great spans of time, transformed Earth's atmosphere and made it possible for yet more complex forms of life, like nucleated cells and multicelled plants and animals, to evolve.
We now believe that Earth was formed some 4,600 million years ago, from the collisions and mergers of small planetary bodies that were spun off as the sun condensed. The formation of the Earth's crust and its oceans took about 800 million years. Over the first 4 billion years, the Precambrian era, Earth's permanent crust was formed, deposits of metals and massive formations of metamorphic rock laid down.
Then weathering and erosion began wearing down the mountain ranges with wind and rain; sedimentation began laying down sea bottoms and continental shelves.
Next came the Paleozoic era, the age of invertebrates and marine life. At its beginning, in the Cambrian period, which commenced 600 million years ago, the continents were covered by shallow seas whose floors would become sandstone, shale, and limestone. Then for the 65 million years of the Ordovician, North America, Europe, and Africa moved together. About 350 million years ago, in the Devonian period, Europe and North America collided once again, churning up first the Appalachian, then the Ouachita and Marathon mountain chains. During the muggy Carboniferous period 345 to 280 million years ago, forests that would eventually be transformed into coal sediments were flourishing in great swamps; more continental collisions were taking place.
Geologic time marched on, through the Mesozoic era, which lasted from 230 to 65 million years ago. The climate changed; Pangea, a supercontinent, formed and began to break apart again. The ocean basins opened; the Appalachians were worn down, and the Pacific plate cruised under the North American plate (plates are the vast puzzle pieces, floating on Earth's core of molten rock, that, according to tectonic theory, carry the continents and portions of the ocean bed slowly and inexorably about the planet) and kicked up the mountains of the West; and then the continents were flooded. Dinosaurs roamed.
Inching closer to our own moment, the Cenozoic era, age of mammals and seed-bearing plants, began just 65 million years ago. In the beginning, the seas retreated. Volcanism created the Rockies, and weather began to erode them. A mere 23 to 5 million years ago, such timeless features as the Himalayas, Alps, and Andes were being built up; Earth's climate began to cool. During the Pliocene period the polar ice caps were growing, and the familiar outlines of the North American continent appeared. The earliest evidence of humanlike apes and human artifacts dates from the Pliocene period of the Cenozoic. Next came the Pleistocene period—the Ice ages—with snowfalls accumulating over ever-colder summers to become glaciers—rivers of ice grinding rocks to powder, reshaping the surface of continents, and carving deep lake basins during their advances and retreats, all the while pushing around the ranges of plants and animals. This epoch continued from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago. (Indeed, some theorists argue that our present time is just an interglacial episode.)
Strange to think about the dynamism of the face of the Earth, its continual transformation, and of the profusion and diversity of life taking hold everywhere it can. No two places in nature are identical; every inch of living Earth differs from every other, and in ways that may be fateful for their inhabitants. A particular forest—maple-beech or tropical rain—cannot just spring up anywhere. Ecosystems result from different combinations of soil, slope, elevation, precipitation, and proximity to pole or equator. The living creatures inhabiting ecosystems may be indigenous rarities—fish found only in a few desert hot springs, unable to survive anywhere else, or a salamander wanting to dwell in sluggish peace under a moist rock by an Olympic forest stream whose riffles are kept at just the right velocity by the impediment of occasional fallen giant firs. They may be more common and adaptable—like coyotes and opossums, two species that are currently expanding their ranges. Whichever the case, each species has a unique lifeway and an essential relationship to the health of the whole system, a role to perform.
Humanity is flatly incapable of replicating anything so complex, fortuitous, and subtle as an ecosystem. Ecosystems are the Earth's way of maintaining a dynamic equilibrium among groups of organisms in particular locales: not unchanging, but diverse enough to be able to integrate the changes taking place over evolutionary time. The more diverse the ecosystem, the greater its resilience.
Diversity is a measure of the numbers of species present. Thus species extinctions simplify, and destabilize, whole ecosystems. Because each ecosystem is different, quite place-specific, no formula counsels how far we can push the forgiveness of ecosystems in our desire to exploit the resources they provide, or that underlie them.
As a tool-using, cosmopolitan omnivore, the human animal perhaps finds it difficult to understand how inseparable some creatures are from their ecological niches, how finely attuned to specific temperature ranges, nesting spaces, diet, and territorial needs. Change one too many of these critical variables and a species vanishes. Even before the last member of a species vanishes, its numbers may decline below a level at which there's sufficient genetic variation to allow its evolution to continue. Even though it may be possible to preserve specimens of endangered species in zoos, some qualities, real and ineffable, vanish in captivity. As David Brower commented on the decision to resort to a captive breeding program for condors, "A condor in a zoo may feel a breeze, but it will never know the wind."
The human species has, for the most part unwittingly, committed habitat and species destruction from the beginning. There is some speculation that overhunting by native ancestors may be accountable for the dying-off of the great mammalian fauna—such as mammoths and giant ground sloths—of North America during the Pleistocene era. The Biblical cedars of Lebanon are long gone. The deforestation of the Mediterranean landscape was being deplored even in antiquity. Much habitat destruction has been a result of our (sometimes willful) ignorance of the reality that in changing nature we can never do just one thing.
Science is only now beginning to transcend the boundaries of different disciplines in order accurately to describe relationships occurring in the natural world. Scientists are coming together to mesh their expertise and to grapple with some of the questions raised by ideas like the Gaia Hypothesis, which describes the working of an immense, complex system, and, more urgently, to consider the evolutionary threats posed by the elimination of species-rich habitats like ancient temperate and tropical rain forests and coral reefs.
When we talk about the need for science to develop the knowledge necessary to preserve biodiversity, we must remember that this essential knowledge—what Aldo Leopold termed a land ethic—has been the lifeway of aboriginal cultures. Thus what we are really urging is to have that knowledge expressed, and possibly enhanced and detailed, by science, which seems to be the sacred language of our culture.
Today wilderness and ecosystem preservation has become more than a matter of fighting for legal protection, or acquisition, of a particular habitat (although those alone are no mean feats). Now, if anything like wilderness is to remain, biospheric threats must be confronted as well. Acid rain and greenhouse warming, which by changing the pH of lakes and soils and altering the climate, may compromise whole ecosystems whose members are unable to adapt to such radically changing conditions.
For any attempts to address these problems to have some chance of succeeding, there must be effective control of the growth of the human population. There is an undeniable correlation between the exponential growth in human numbers, the loss of topsoil and trees, and the decline in the population size and overall numbers of virtually all other species.
This correlation isn't exact: Culture and consumption patterns, finally, determine the per capita impact of humans on the biosphere, complicating the population problem with the inarguable need to achieve a more just distribution of the world's goods.
There is little hope for population control without an equal commitment to meeting basic human needs. Many ecologists argue that planning for family sizes below replacement levels (which means a one-child family), and thus an eventual decline in human numbers, is crucial. Granted that the factors that have spurred population growth are complex, and family limitation changes individual lives profoundly, some reduction in family size is generally desired by the world's women. Provided that the commitment to meeting basic needs and fostering self-help development strategies is honored, a decline in overall numbers of children born, in favor of greater quality of life for children surviving, can be positive for human, as well as other, life.
If the individual's stake—and role—in population control is rarely grasped, and acted upon, simply because immediate self-interest usually overpowers any feeling of responsibility for the collective interest, the human stake in ecosystem health has been the informing idea of most preagricultural people. This principle once again is painfully clear to villagers throughout the less-developed countries, and increasingly to national governments. The awareness that the ecology is the economy is beginning to dawn, quickly for subsistence peoples, more slowly for urbanites. Third World villagers hug trees, plant greenbelts, resist being relocated to make way for mining and hydroelectric developments. In the United States the threats to ecosystems and biodiversity are the same, but the perception that these threats threaten us as well is not so keen. Here, ecosystem defense has been given impetus by aesthetic concern.
North America, with its spectacular mountain ranges, coastlines, Great Lakes, and deserts, has a dazzling array of ecosystems: more wilderness to treasure than the Old World knew, and, since the arrival of the Europeans, a fiercer pace of wilderness degradation. All this engendered a strong conservation movement, with visionaries and just plain citizens organizing to defend beloved places. John Muir's losing battle to prevent the drowning of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which rivaled the Yosemite in its beauty, is one of the turning points of American environmentalism. So, too, the creation of our system of national parks, wildernesses, and national monuments.
U.S. conservation activists fighting mining, road building, clear-cutting, and other inappropriate uses of public lands have resorted to tactics ranging from letter writing to lobbying to litigating to legislating, and as the assaults on remaining wilderness escalate, to nonviolent direct action—sometimes risking life and limb.
Excerpted from In Praise of Nature by Stephanie Mills. Copyright © 1990 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Stephanie Mills is a writer and editor whose career began in 1970 at the helm of Earth Times, a muckraking tabloid. Mills also served as editor of Not Man Apart, CoEvolution Quarterly, and California Tomorrow. Her first book, Whatever Happened to Ecology? was published by Sierra Club Books in 1989.
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Having been an Earth worshiper long before it was fashionable. I like that there are like minded people writing for the cause beside Rachel Carson. Thank you Stephanie Mills and Mr Hayes!