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Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans
By Ben A. Minteer, Stephen J. Pyne
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Writing on Stone, Writing in the Wind
The preservationist mission—to shield nature from human manipulation, intrusion, and above all, destruction—has inspired generations of American environmentalists to take action on behalf of threatened species and wild landscapes. The movement's visionaries are revered figures in the tradition, from Henry Thoreau and John Muir, to Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson, and Ed Abbey. The preservationist policy record, too, is widely celebrated and imitated around the world (though often with mixed results): The Wilderness Act (1964) and the Endangered Species Act (1973) have for decades served as legal bulwarks against the march of human development and ecological exploitation.
"Saving American nature," however, has never been easy. The historical record is also strewn with the wreckage of failed campaigns and cratered with ecological losses: the extinction of the passenger pigeon; the damming of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley; the relentless pressure on American wildlands exerted by countless chainsaws, bulldozers, roads, cities, and summer homes. And even the signature victories—protecting the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest; keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil exploration; saving the California condor from the passenger pigeon's fate—remain tenuous and incomplete. Brower, who did as much as anyone in the tradition (and more than most) to make preservationism a potent political and cultural force in American life in the postwar era liked to say, in fact, that "when they [exploitationists] win, it's forever; when we win, it's merely a stay of execution." The preservationist challenge as he saw it was to maintain a sharp-eyed perseverance in the face of unrelenting environmental threats. If they wanted to ensure a human future rich in wild species and wilderness experiences, Brower implored, preservationists had better be "eternally vigilant."
Yet what exactly are preservationists to be "vigilant" in protecting? We've learned that this is far from a simple question in the time since Brower's zenith in American environmentalism. Rapidly changing biophysical conditions and shifting ecological baselines have at the very least seriously complicated the preservationist agenda. For some, especially for those who view "wild" as the essence of wilderness, it hardly matters because what results may be prompted by human actions but lies beyond human control.
For others these forces have made the very idea of preservation anathema to good conservation stewardship and environmental management in this century. Accelerating climate change, rapid urbanization and suburban sprawl, agricultural intensification, metastasizing fire regimes, the spread of invasive species, and other quickening anthropogenic forces—all appear to be collectively undermining venerable preservationist standards and sentiments. The traditional mantra—"preserve the wilderness!"—no longer seems very useful or compelling to those scientists, conservationists, and environmental writers today who argue that this celebrated object of preservationist passion and political concern is being radically challenged and transformed by global environmental change, most of it driven by humans. If it survives at all, they write, the future of the preservationist model in this "new normal" of global impact and disruption of earth systems will not resemble its past.
Many of these ideas about human influence and environmental control have converged recently around the idea of the "Anthropocene," a term that has migrated to environmentalist circles from its origins in discussions about the naming of the current geological period of human dominance on the planet. Originated by the Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and first promoted to the wider scientific community in an article published in the journal Nature in 2002, the term was an attempt to recognize the full suite of planetary changes driven by humans: extensive land transformation, control of the nitrogen cycle, water diversion, and especially anthropogenic alteration of the atmosphere through the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). People no longer just talked about the weather: they were changing the climate, although without much control. What had been an environmental fixture against which people acted was now another expression of the human presence. Crutzen argued that these changes, which he traced to the beginnings of the industrial era in the late eighteenth century, mark the beginning of a new geological period, the "Age of Man."
The "Anthropocene" has proved to be a polarizing designation. For some, the notion that humans have become a geological force on the planet—a species able to write its presence in the rocks—is a liberating revelation. It means that we should get on with the business of smart planetary management and get over outmoded myths of a separate, pristine, wild nature that exists free from human influence (and an environmental politics that limits human manipulations of nature). For others, the Anthropocene idea signals the tragic consummation of the destructive human domination of the earth, a last threshold crossed on the march to total ecological despotism. Even for those skeptical of its scientific basis, the Anthropocene remains a reminder of the singular power of humans on the landscape, and stands as a warning of what might lay ahead for us (and for nature) if we do not try to reverse the current course. The Anthropocene, in short, has become an environmentalist Rorschach.
It has in the process exposed deep fault lines and areas of strategic disagreement over the motives, practices, and goals of nature protection in the twenty-first century. Or, to shift metaphors, nature preservationism today appears to be caught in a cross fire. On one side it continues to be assailed by its familiar political foes; that is, those who argue that the preservation of nature requires unacceptable economic sacrifices and reflects a radical philosophy far outside of the American mainstream. On another it's being raked by the apparently inexorable forces of rapid global change, which are upending preservationist ideals of a nature independent of human influence and impact—and consequently challenging the traditional preservationist ethic minimizing human manipulations of species and landscapes that require more intensive management if they are to survive in an uncertain future.
And on yet another side (perhaps its most exposed and vulnerable flank), nature preservationism is drawing the fire of a new wave of environmentalists promoting a more anthropocentric vision of humans and the environment, a pro-growth, often explicitly anti-preservationist politics appropriate to life in the Anthropocene. Arguing that we need a different way of thinking about the human-nature relationship, these "post-preservationist" environmentalists promote a vision in which human interests and needs take center stage and in which we actively embrace our responsibility as shapers and builders of the planetary future. The traditional focus on the wilderness; the knee-jerk hostility to corporate America and distaste for the market; the neglect of working lands and the city—such outdated preservationist beliefs are roundly rejected by the new Anthropocene-ic environmentalists. They praise instead the philosophy of human advancement and the geography and value of nature-culture hybrids—systems in which elements of wildness still persist, yet become inextricably intermingled with human interests, intent, and artifice.
Aldo Leopold once defined a conservationist as someone "who is humbly aware that with each stroke [of an axe] he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be." And, we might add today, signatures written on stone and in the wind.
* * *
After Preservation brings together a diverse and distinguished set of writers to consider whether and how the American preservationist ideal might survive in an era of expanding human impact on the land, its biota, and the climate they share. The contributors include some of the most prominent environmental scientists, historians, philosophers, environmental writers, journalists, advocates, and policy activists working today. All are known for their serious and sustained engagement with the challenge of American nature preservation, whether as an idea, a historical or philosophical tradition, or as an environmental practice.
We asked for their thoughts in their own voices. In the pages that follow you'll find spirited arguments for a greater human role in environmental systems in the Anthropocene alongside deeply skeptical assessments of the interventionist ethic and the more human-centered vision for nature conservation and environmentalism. But you'll also read attempts to find a middle ground, to reconcile the twin impulses of pragmatism and purity in nature preservation. There are ruminations on the meaning and value of wilderness preservation half a century after the passage of the Wilderness Act, as well as reflections on the management and enduring challenges of conservation, preservation, and restoration on public and private lands. You'll hear meditations on species lost and species saved, and thoughtful reflections on the challenge of coping with a rapidly changing landscape and society. And you'll watch many authors struggling to find solid historical and philosophical footing on the scree field that has become the terrain of preservationism.
We've tried hard not to enforce any specific editorial agenda on the discussion. Our goal instead was to encourage a variety of styles, arguments, and illustrations relevant to the future of nature preservation in the Anthropocene rather than to task writers with a specific writing assignment. We will cop to a modest editorial strategy, however, one that has caused at least a few of our authors to approach the discussion with some trepidation. The title of the book (After Preservation) is, we should emphasize, meant to be a provocation. It's a nudge to our authors and readers to think critically and carefully about the viability of the nature preservationist tradition in the "Age of Humans." In other words, we aren't suggesting that the era of preservation is over; we certainly aren't trying to hasten its demise. Maybe Holmes Rolston has it about right, then, with his interrogative rephrasing of our title in his own essay for the book.
In terms of style and structure, you should think of this book as a "symposium" in the classical sense. Or, even better, a "salon." We've invited an influential and thoughtful group of writers to share their ideas about the fate of nature preservation in a humanizing world in a series of short, accessible pieces, often written in a personal style, and prepared for a general audience. Given that our writers were granted free rein to ruminate on the "After Preservation" theme, some chose to focus primarily on the Anthropocene construct, while others adopted an alternative tack, for example, exploring and reconsidering, in more general terms, conservation, preservation, and restoration in this century. We've imposed a domestic frame to the discussion to ground the conversation and anchor it in the American tradition. Still, we think that there are ideas and arguments in these essays that can be scaled up to a larger context, or at least start a more diverse dialogue with other traditions and cultural contexts that might reveal important sympathies and disparities among the American preservationist tradition and other narratives and social practices around the globe.
Finally, we've resisted pigeonholing authors and essays into narrow thematic sections or editorial categories. Still, we think there is a clear logic and rhythm to the cascade of essays that follow; a cadence that we hope will be discernible as you read through them. Among other things, this organization allows you to make your own discoveries, and to consider the interplay of voices and arguments on your terms rather than on ours.
We see ourselves, then, as something akin to stage managers in this production. Our goal has been to keep our own agendas from shaping the course or outcome of the discussions and debates here (beyond our own individual contributions as essayists later in the book). We've created the venue for the conversation and have tried to explain our rationale in putting together this august gathering of environmentalist voices. Our job now is to mostly keep out of the way.
Our final thought appears in the journalist John McPhee's masterful Coming into the Country, his account of the people and environment of the upper Yukon region the Alaskan interior. At the end of the book, McPhee, a man with clear and well-known preservationist sympathies (having written on the "Archdruid" David Brower), reflects on his attitude toward the Gelvins, a family of gold prospectors. As he watches them cut into a pristine Alaskan landscape, he neither condemns them nor apologizes for their actions. Instead, he finds himself in a messier and far less absolute moral gamut, one more appropriate to a world in which people and wilderness do and often must collide, in both admirable and destructive ways. "Only an easygoing extremist," McPhee concludes, "would preserve every bit of country. And extremists alone would exploit it all. Everyone else has to think the matter through—choose a point of tolerance, however much the point might tend to one side."
Welcome to the salon.
Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne
Restoring the Nature of America
Andrew C. Revkin
The deeply disrupted state of American nature, and conservation biology, was never more apparent to me than in 2007, when I was slogging through waterlogged saw grass in Everglades National Park with some government biologists, trying to close in on a radio-tagged 10-foot-long female Burmese python. The scientists' goal was to gain a better understanding of this South Asian snake's haunts and habits in hopes of blunting its spread now that pythons were breeding in balmy Florida thanks to reptile enthusiasts who had discarded overgrown pets.
Questions abounded. Would they make it beyond Florida, particularly in a warming world? Should the giant constrictor still even be called Burmese? How much of the overloaded workday of these park biologists should be spent figuring out how to extirpate this invader? Regulations—along with the freezer back at their lab filled with a dizzying array of park wildlife extracted from pythons' stomachs—made this battle a priority. But there was so much other work to be done: studying less flamboyant invasive species, assessing the park's endangered ones, gauging policies that might restore seasonal freshwater flows, projecting the ecological impact on the park from rising sea levels in a human-heated climate.
The beeps from the handheld antennas of the trackers indicated the snake must be very close. Close indeed. Glancing down, I jumped as I saw its marbled back sliding through the brush inches ahead of my wet shoe. Since then, snake hunts and traps have been tried, but herpetologists largely conclude that this immigrant is here for the long haul.
As with my python reporting, much of what I've seen in 30-plus years of covering the human impact on this planet's veneer of life reveals several things:
The traditional toolkit of twentieth-century environmental protection is utterly inadequate in considering the biological and social complexities shaping today's and tomorrow's environmental challenges.
The concept of ecological restoration has lost much of its meaning in the face of the biological Waring blender of global human mobility and trade.
In many instances, a focus on traits, whether in ecosystems or society, is more apt to pay off than a focus on quantitative goals or hard boundaries.
With all of this in mind, when I consider strategies for "saving American nature in the Age of Humans," I find myself needing to modify some of the terms. "Restoring the nature of America in the Age of Humans" feels better.
I'll explain what I mean shortly. But first I'll explore why I think this semantic adjustment is needed in the first place. For one thing, nature, as some of the other contributors to this volume have articulated for a long time, has never been some separate entity that humans are in a position to save—as in reaching from a boat to snag a struggling swimmer. Ever since Homo sapiens evolved and then spread to become a near-planetwide presence and now a powerful climatic and evolutionary influence, nature has included us. Implicit in "saving nature" is saving ourselves. We are all in the same boat.
Then there's the word "saving." It can mean either rescuing or setting aside for future use. Individual species can be saved. But nature generally doesn't need rescuing. Odds are that corals, an ancient group of invertebrates, will persist far longer than we will, although particular coral reefs that we cherish may not fare so well as temperatures rise and ocean pH drops. Even there, subjectivity clouds preferences. Marine biologists have done work concluding that the diversity and productivity of a coral reef and one dominated by algae and seaweed is quite similar. I prefer the former. If I fight to save the corals, is that saving nature?
Excerpted from After Preservation by Ben A. Minteer, Stephen J. Pyne. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsWriting on Stone, Writing in the Wind
Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne
Restoring the Nature of America
Andrew C. Revkin,
Nature Preservation and Political Power in the Anthropocene
J. R. McNeill
Too Big for Nature
Erle C. Ellis
After Preservation? Dynamic Nature in the Anthropocene
Holmes Rolston III
Humility in the Anthropocene
The Anthropocene and Ozymandias
The Higher Altruism
The Anthropocene: Disturbing Name, Limited Insight
John A. Vucetich, Michael Paul Nelson, and Chelsea K. Batavia
Ecology and the Human Future
A Letter to the Editors: In Defense of the Relative Wild
When Extinction Is a Virtue
Ben A. Minteer
Pleistocene Rewilding and the Future of Biodiversity
Harry W. Greene
The Democratic Promise of Nature Preservation
Green Fire Meets Red Fire
Stephen J. Pyne
Restoration, Preservation, and Conservation: An Example for Dry Forests of the West
William Wallace Covington and Diane J. Vosick
Preserving Nature on US Federal Lands: Managing Change in the Context of Change
Norman L. Christensen
After Preservation—the Case of the Northern Spotted Owl
Jack Ward Thomas
Celebrating and Shaping Nature: Conservation in a Rapidly Changing World
F. Stuart Chapin III
Move Over Grizzly Adams—Conservation for the Rest of Us
Michelle Marvier and Hazel Wong
Endangered Species Conservation: Then and Now
Jamie Rappaport Clark
Resembling the Cosmic Rhythms: The Evolution of Nature and Stewardship in the Age of Humans
What People are Saying About This
“Whether you like the label ‘Anthropocene’ or not, whether you find the prospect of what it signifies inevitable or appalling (or both), the time has come to address its implications, as these thoughtful, battle-tested authors attempt to do. The time has long since come.”
“After Preservation asks one of the big, hairy, audacious questions of the early twenty-first century: How should humans relate to Nature in the Anthropocene? Minteer and Pyne have assembled an impressive assortment of contributors to offer a wide-ranging set of answers in concise, poignant, and powerful essays. This is an important and timely contribution that should be read by people working to construct a thriving and sustainable future.”
“This is neither a predictable text on environmentalist refusals nor a whistle-in-the-dark expression of shallow optimism about humanity’s great future as a planetary conquering force. This is a great swirl of debate at this critical crossroads in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. No holds here are barred. In prose sometimes pragmatic and sometimes anguished, some of the best minds in the business—some of the wisest people around today—argue about our place in nature, what it could be, what it should be, what it is, what it will be, and what we must not let it become. I regret that my own book deadline prevented me from contributing to this work. Feeling left out is my highest praise.”