Monday, August 22, 2011

AERIES


                                                    
   So long as I drove a car, here in Connecticut, I considered the New Haven intersection of Interstate Routes 95 and 91 an abomination, a dangerous example of the “technocratic fix” imposed by the automotive age of the 20th Century. Like others of their kind, the interwoven highway loops tore up much of the city’s downtown and separated it from its waterfront. In this, of course, it may have merely added insult to the injury the petroleum industry was simultaneously allowed to impose with it’s tank farms to feed the vehicular traffic that was somehow considered so vital. Trucks replaced freight trains. Short-sighted convenience and privatized profits!
   Even so, New Haven persisted, if lamely. Old-timers recall how disruptive the Oak Street Connector was, but it is a wistful complaint, lest they be considered negative. This is now what most adaptiveness consists of, the more interdependent we become: “the good old days”, and the half-blind Thatcherite notion that there is no alternative. Transatlantically, Reagan raised the stakes by foisting the lie that government is the problem. How quickly we forget the compromises that made democracy promising for hardly a century.
   So now, from the 17th floor outlook of a downtown residential center, I overlook this tangled mess and am surprised that it has an aesthetic appeal all its own. Distanced from its noise and its fumes, I am intrigued by the kaleidoscopic flow of boxlike truck forms during the day, and the colorful play of lights, golden or red, every evening. Beyond this circus is the gentle arch of the Quinnipiac Bridge and the docks of the inner harbor; to the right, the bay-like enclosure of the two-mile open harbor.
   But given our pronatalism and both widespread individual and institutional insatiability, one would be stolid not to ask what this scene will look like fifty years hence. Elide the more difficult question of regional habitability due to global warming constraints, whether sea-level rise or insufferable climate. What will running out of cheap gasoline do to the traffic patterns and the supportive infrastructures I now wonder at?  Will we recapture the waterfront for higher uses than storing and moving ephemeral resources? Will current tastes clue us in to what such higher uses might be? Shouldn’t such questions be natural for a species the taxonomist Linnaeus called Homo sapiens?           

AN ATOM-FREE ECONOMY?


                                   
     How ironic that Germany, which inadvertently initiated the atomic age, should also be the first scientifically advanced nation to recommend abandoning  it.  Along with carbon-based fossil fuels! Remember that before World War II, Germany was the foremost scientific nation.
     Of course, the United States first developed both of these energy sources, but it developed the atom bomb because it mistakenly assumed that Germany was about to do so. Hence the inadvertence.
     The compound disaster of a major earthquake combined with a monstrous tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, has initiated a widespread reappraisal. There have been prior atomic power plant accidents—at Lucens, Switzerland in 1969, Three Mile Island in 1979, and Chernobyl in 1986, but powerful industry lobbies have minimized the implications.  For example, there is a widespread media bromide to the effect that Chernobyl imposed less than a hundred deaths among “worker heroes” who subsequently buried the plant to contain its contaminations. Actually, a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Sciences coauthored by several Russian scientists calculated a toll of several hundred thousand premature deaths in the affected region. Remember that ALL media are owned by a handful of people, so what you know mostly depends on what they are willing to release for public consumption.
     The current German reappraisal was initiated in April by chancellor Merkel and her science advisors; with details in a governmental energy policy statement in June. China, Japan, and Italy also announced reexaminations of current policy. But not the United States, which has 104 atomic power plants in operation.  
     The mere announcement of a policy reassessment of course immediately generated opposition, with no real assessment of options. But since public apathy is generally the bane of policy-making, could there be a better time to assess the several presumptions that underlie present dilemmas?  People are beginning to pay attention. The looming questions concern not only the hazards of atomic use, but global warming, water shortages, climbing food prices, and overextended human populations, to name only those on our hazy horizon. 
     But where is there an open venue? The U. S. has brow-beaten the U.N. for so long that many consider its capabilities problematic. Perhaps a thousand blogs like this one could at least pose questions that expert panels have heretofore elided. Many of the questions are not technical at all: meaning, especially, that they are not questions that naturally occur to physicists, or economists.
     Nor are proposals to change the course of our civilization necessarily so radical, unless we let ourselves be scared into believing so by those who swallowed Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “There is no alternative!” Or Ronald Reagan’s lie that “Government is the problem.”
     The most unexpected advantage in the German announcement is that chancellor Merkel is herself one of the best-equipped political leaders to attempt it; and that Germany is likewise perhaps the country most competent to accomplish such a transition with minimum disruption.
     Chancellor Merkel is academically competent in both physics and chemistry, so more sensitive to what is feasible and what is not. As a conservative, also, she can hopefully more effectively enlist the cooperation of industrialists.  Other political leaders come mostly from law or business, and are mostly abysmally ignorant of the sciences involved. Germany, if it can coordinate its mixed strivings, may thus lead the most crucial social experiment of the century and beyond. And China might consider it advantageous to become a principal collaborator in reshaping our tenuous occupation of the planet.
     If, therefore, we defer argument until we see the details rationalized by technologically competent people, what else will most repay reassessment and reform? Where have we most obviously neglected what ought to be plain to everyone who can add two and two?
   That obvious stumbling block, we would probably agree if we faced the question, is that of overpopulation. Evolutionarily, we depended on high reproduction to surmount our susceptibility to broken bones and infection when we were hunter-gatherers. Becoming agriculturists required many hands, and our churches, which developed at the same time--in the West at least-- internalized our concerns and institutionalized pronatalism.     
     Agriculture produced food surpluses for a while, and population grew apace. This initiated village life, and now 50% of us are urban. Five hundred years ago we reduced the Roman Church to just another social organization. But we hung on to many of its social institutions, including the pronatalism which, by now, has been made counterproductive by medical advances.
     Importantly, The Church had considered usury unsocial, so forbade it. Freed of this constraint by the 16th Century Reformation, an entrepreneurial subset of Europeans forged a new economy based on free entry to the growing market. Based on an initial primitive accumulation of wealth—by expropriation of land and sheer taking-- this quickly (as The Church had feared) reduced society to classes of “haves” and “have nots.”  
     No longer having access to land, the “have-nots” must work for wages, and the struggle to keep these at a minimum became characteristic of the ensuing Capitalism. This privatized economy became global as the Unites States imposed its post-World War II military superiority. Excess population now enforces minimum wages, since being poor means being trapped because one cannot afford the education required by the increasingly technical society the new economy has built. Modifying these inequities brings accusations of fostering a demographic winter.
     But we know that relative well-being fosters a demographic transition, wherein the well-to-do reduce the number of their offspring. The poor continue to overproduce themselves because they mistakenly view their young as insurance against the decrepitudes of age.
     If, therefore, we are to reduce overpopulation, and the stresses this puts on social and ecosystems, we must begin by building a floor in economic well-being, so that everyone may expect a reasonable future. The Church once had such a policy, having learned that wages must support a family. We could easily do this again. The real test of an economy is thus its intelligent allocation of incomes, not the emphasis on production and profit-making that has ruled Economics in the last century or two.
      Start here, and every other problem is made easier. Ecosystem overloads are first stabilized, then reduced; resources can be more equitably shared; wasteful conflicts between haves and have-nots are minimized; essential education becomes affordable; cooperation outproduces competition; etc., etc.
     Let’s welcome the leadership of Germany and complement it with an awareness of the underlying problem of human overpopulation.                                                                                                                                                                         
                                                               end


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

EQUINOX

[Note: March 20th, at 7.21 pm., is the spring date when the sun  again crosses the equator to initiate summer for those of us in the New York City region. A good time to pay more attention to how we’re impacting the planet and how it is reacting. The Earth Society will celebrate the occasion at the U.N. See, also, my blog on an Anthropocene era. RCC.]


                                                                
The sun still shines brightly. It warms us and helps fulfill our promise. If we didn’t have computers to keep track of the numbers, we’d hardly know about the threat of global warming. The melting of the arctic ice would be just another puzzle.
But we’re learning fast: everything is connected to everything else, and we’re all in this together. It matters to everyone what we all do. As never before, we need to share and work together to avoid the worst consequences of the mistakes we’ve piled up.
Perhaps the most amazing meaning of the new discoveries about the history of the life process, its DNA and other mysteries, is that all we living things are much more closely related to one another than we thought. Our gene pools are amazingly similar. We borrow, swap and modify the same building blocks of Nature, the atoms and molecules, just to get through the day. And, of course, to explore the potentials we glimpse as the days and months pass. The very complexity of things confirms what we long felt—what our religions told us—that we must share more, and work together more. We don’t do well alone.
In fact, by now we should know well enough that this world is too complex to be competently managed by such a late-comer species as we are. Scientists and economists could lead the way. Our world councils must remind us of this constantly, and cajole us into letting Nature do most of the work. This of course means that we must not short-change the natural systems—the forests and wetlands--that have always done this constructive work—for us and the rest of the tribe.     
                                                                                                 RCC
                                                                                                

An ANTHROPOGENE Era?

                                       

A friend who thinks of me as more scientific than she is has asked that   I comment on geological eras in order to orient proposals that we label our own impact on the planet as unique. The Ice Age (aka Pleistocene) is said to have ended when continental glaciers melted back about 13,000 years ago.
Geologists called the short intervening era the Holocene. Some now propose that humans are changing Nature so much that we should label our era the Anthropogene. This will hopefully initiate wide-ranging discussion as to when the new era began, what it did, and what it implies. It could be a fascinating exercise in updating world views for everyone.
Given that most of us are specialists in one area or another, the first hurdle to that broad discussion I hope for is the tendency to see the task as simply one of coining “a stratigraphic signal” to end the Holocene and begin the Anthropocene. This would be preemptive, more clerical than reflective. But it is to be expected after our long affair with reductionism as preferred scientific methodology.  It has already been suggested that the advent of the Industrial Revolution, about 1800, is a suitable marker.
That would discount too much neglected history. Our ancestors  were hunter-gatherers for some 200,00O  years, wandering afoot on all the continents. We were part of Nature because our numbers were low, and our technologies simple, mostly extensions of our hands. We were semi-nomadic  and lived off biological surpluses. Except for the use of fire to modify vegetation, our environmental imprint was perhaps ephemeral.
It was the invention of agriculture, mostly between 5000 and 10,000 years ago, that began separating us from Nature, and led to grandiose notions of our having been put in charge of the creation, however that originated. We then had no clue to evolutionary emergence, so we invented causes, left and right.
Agriculture’s food production enabled more people to survive. More people demanded more food production, so world environments were drastically altered by cutting forests and draining wetlands to allow more agriculture. This truncated the accumulated checks and balances that tended to soften climatic change, at first locally, then regionally, now globally, as global warming suggests.  As Barry Commoner pointed out a generation ago, everything is connected to everything else.      
As human populations grew, so did problems of organization and decision-making, since we differ so. Is religion a social tactic to help keep us together? In The West we should be more mindful of the likelihood that Christianity was the bureaucratic imposition of Roman Emperors, probably to mitigate the problem of too many people in a climatically marginal Mediterranean environment.
 With agriculture, a gradual urbanization of the population also grew. This gave human ingenuity more vent.  As economic activity and accumulation systems grew in favored environments, some learned to monopolize surpluses. Usury was born. The Church contained this at first, but the 16th Century’s Reformation broke through that constraint, and Capitalism was born.  A free-for-all, so-called.
A chief problem of this economic mode, abetted by economists, is that it discounts innate value in most of Nature. Nature, we should recall, is the continuing creative synthesis of  accumulated,  successful evolutionary experiments on a climatic oasis, Earth, in the sun’s orbit: not created from scratch, but evolved one from another, and interdependent.
The concept of an Anthropogene era is timely, but not simply as marker in geology’s calendar of events.  The challenge is to make everyone aware that science, especially as ecology, now documents the ongoing interdependencies that religion’s insights early on glimpsed “as through a glass darkly.” 
Awareness demands normative guidelines, so there is much rethinking to do. A new marker in time must remind us not only of our accomplishments, but of failures like Mike Davis’ slum cities, which appear to be built-in end products of late-capitalism.  Is this how we want to be remembered?
 E  Era?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

DIVERSITY of SPECIES


Someone questioned that loss of diversity is an indication of human overpopulation, as I had suggested in a recent blog on that topic. Granted that perhaps only a naturalist would think so today, when most people are divorced from Nature.

   Birds, city people think, or any other living group, are just out there, on their own, like us perhaps. But, since Darwin, those who study these things have agreed that all of us, bird or man, have a common ancestor. We no longer need “missing links’ to close the deal. The more we study, the more realistic it becomes to consider every living thing as evidence of a successful evolutionary experiment.  Predecessors are history. Birds evolved from reptiles (from a small dinosaur, indeed); and mammals were another offshoot. Some mammals still lay eggs, as though to remind us.

   In 1927 Charles Elton of Oxford, one of the first world-class ecologists (see his Animal Ecology), demonstrated that the whole realm of life is inter-dependent, by drawing a pyramid of numbers. The broad base is occupied by plants, from lichens to grasses, to trees. Only plants, through photosynthesis, can harness the energy of the sun, and thus manufacture carbohydrates from which proteins and other edibles are formed.  This food base allows various animals to specialize as herbivores, whether as insects, mice, or ungulates; they occupy the middle of the pyramid. No plants, no animals. It takes almost ten pounds of grass to make a pound of flesh. Finally, at the apex are carnivores who subsist on herbivores, but only if these are in sufficient quantity. Hence the taper of the pyramid, and the basis of predation. A similar relationship exists in the marine realm.

   In addition, mature terrestrial plant communities make and anchor soil, and modify regional climates. So much so that the planet has at least six rather distinct large plant-animal communities, sometimes called biomes. Within these are niches that we call habitats, occupied by the multitude of species.

   At about the same time, but this time at Harvard, A. N. Whitehead the philosopher gave us a working concept of existence in this corner of the universe.

   All of us borrow from the same pool of building blocks, the atoms and molecules, enriched as this pool may be regionally by the accumulation of evolutionary experiments. We may add a bit of style in our use of these materials, but we pass them on within a century or so. Whitehead said that his studies had yielded no evidence of subjective immortality; but that since we change the world somewhat in passing through it, for better or worse, we achieve some objective immortality.

   Whitehead summed up the process of existence thus:  “The basis of democracy (the common sharing) is the fact of value experience as constituting the essential nature of every pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.”

   Given this valuational process as the basis of existence itself, a question of morality arises.  He suggested that we have no right to deface the process, but should help maintain the value intensity achieved thus far (see his Modes of Thought, p.111, 1938).

   Practically, then, our numbers, and the greed of too many, currently preempt the evolutionary system’s potentialities for ourselves, at the expense of too many other species. To be responsible members of the life community we should reduce our numbers, fence out the greedy, and let natural processes continue the experiment.
    

Monday, February 21, 2011

GOD as Social Construct

                                           
To understand reality in a reasonably concrete way we must know something of the historical processes that shaped that reality. If we can do that we feel at home in that environment.
    However, we have been at this type of enquiry for less than 50,000 years, whereas our corner of the universe is now known to be about  fifteen billion years old. So we are still groping. Our predecessors, the hunter-gatherers, also groped.  But we know very little of their early attempts to make sense of the complex world they were adapting to, continent by continent.
    In a 1984 book, Relativism and the Natural Left, William P. Kreml suggested that a consequence of this life-long probing of reality tends to scatter us along a left-right behavioristic spectrum. Those of the right, the conservatives, have more angst and feel that they need to control more. The left-leaning liberals are more accepting of Nature’s flux, and are more sympathetic to human hopes. But it is the same hopes that scatter us.
    The Chinese, apparently, had less existential angst and accepted as fact that their world was a self-sufficient, self-perpetuating environment. They honored  wise men, but invented no Gods, and needed no churches. The people of India somewhat similarly, though they were more inventive in trying to explain reality.
   Western thought about these origins suffered from the paranoia of the Hebrew who were marginalized in the semi-deserts of Mesopotamia; and the bureaucratic impositions of Roman emperors who shaped Christianity as their state religion. Paul Shepard, in Nature
and Madness (1982), outlined these tensions as few others could. We should ask why Westerners have seemed more aggressive.
      Science is the most disciplined method of enquiry we have so far invented, but it is only now coming into its own after a long mechanistic detour based on the positivism of first physics, then chemistry. The challenge now is to make it serve our understanding of environmental realities, rather than mere commercial ends.
    Like art, religion is apparently a search for togetherness, and thus a reaction to the stress of existence, particularly for a social species like us. Europeans have probably had more exposure to these questions  than most. The Reformation that rent Christendom five hundred years ago was a first-hand rehearsal. A Frenchman among their successors. Lukacs, recently expressed a novel perspective in a book, History and Class Consciousness.
    God, he suggested, is a projection---as myth—of our frustrations  with the beginner’s intellectual failure to understand reality as a historical process. Adding science to one’s keyboard may answer a lot of the remaining questions that still plague so many. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Human Overpopulation

                                              

Starting from different bases on different continents, and different cultural assumptions, all three major civilizations had nevertheless overpopulated their environments by the turn of the 20th century.     
Although biological evolution had given humans a high reproductive potential to compensate for the high mortality of hunter-gatherer life styles for the first 200 millenia, it was the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago that initiated our unbalanced relationship within Nature’s productive systems. Indeed, that is what  Nature is: a set of evolving, mostly living, and interdependent systems and their byproducts.   
So long as our numbers and our technologies were modest, we were just one species among many, adding diversity and contributing innovations in the use of the same building blocks that the rest of the life process utilizes to maintain itself, the atoms and molecules.  At first nomadic, our demands were scattered and replenished in a few seasons of vegetative growth. In fact, native vegetation is the mainstay of all higher animal life on planet Earth, hence a principal index to Earth’s carrying capacity for animal populations.
Agriculture is a specialized form of exploitation for seasonal crops grown especially for human use. Such crops therefore contribute much less to the larger biotic community than native plants. Being seasonal, they also induce more erosion. And since we contest the tithe competing insects impose, we end up with impoverished biotic communities, a high price for the maintenance of one species, since we resorted to chemical pollution to do this. 
Of course, agricultural specialization (a competing land use) produced more food, but since this mostly enabled more growth in human numbers, it also demanded more food production, hence the sacrifice of more and more  natural environment to cropland.   A no-win economic game, though we called it production.
But human mortality remained high, since as populations grew, so did crowd diseases. Being sedentary, agriculture soon fostered urbanization, at first in small villages. Village life, and more so city life, encouraged specialization and invention.  Having by now lost the sense of Nature as a community, we developed a new mind-set: everything out there was “things,” awaiting some clever application for our use. This was reductionism: a useful but unfortunate mental short-cut: an “it works for me” attitude, yielding a false sense of creativity and blinding us to long-term effects. And the more things we made, the more leftovers accumulated, another crowd problem, pollution.
Mortality was at last greatly reduced by the invention of public health engineering, perhaps originating with the Roman aqueducts but culminating in the 19th Century, with buried sewers. Antibiotics were discovered in mid-20th Century, thus controlling most infections; and medical science soon learned to control trauma, mend bones, and transplant organs.  This was the turning point. Human population graphs spiked.
The tragedy of all this “progress,” especially these last 200 years, is that we did not see that our successes in controlling mortality also reduced the need for compensatory human reproduction. We had built that need into our religions, and specialists, even medical doctors, did not want to challenge the conventional wisdom. They still don’t. Who will lead the way?
Fortunately, and hopefully just in time, the new science of ecology is demonstrating that this world is a system of interdependent processes whose functions, especially in the last few hundred million years, have made it inhabitable for us.
It is this comfort zone our excess numbers and our thoughtless utilization now threaten.  Global warming is a negative feedback warning. The decline of biodiversity is another. Despite a handful of nay-sayers, there is consensus among that minority capable of reading the computerized data-sets, that we are pressing life-support systems to the brink.  The tipping points may remain iffy, but it should be obvious that the costs of climatic disruptions will be infinitely higher than the costs of exercising prudence. We should act now and reduce both our numbers and our demands.
Rather than the demographic winter that a few pessimists envisage, we can substitute a focus on perfecting our cooperative and aesthetic capabilities, and end up with smaller but more responsive and happier human populations.
RCC  2/28/11          

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Life’s PURPOSE



                                                                   

To study Nature in order to fit yourself into its productive systems without diminishing their life-support functions;
To develop your talents and apply them to the general welfare;
To help others do so, since you are part of a community.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

RACHEL CARSON’s LEGACY


Every anniversary of Rachel Carson’s contributions brings new books and a flood of reviews, this more than forty years after Silent Spring, the 1962 book that woke us up  to the hazards of poisoning the world with chemicals. May this continue.
Of course not everyone cheers her wake-up call. There are many with vested interests in the commercialization of everything, no questions asked about  environmental effects. So beware.
Even her friends too often distort her message, and who she was. Some of this is inevitable because we always reinterpret things form a current point of view; but some of it is careless language and perhaps over-enthusiasm.
For example, one reviewer enthused that Silent Spring brought “immediate results” by prompting the federal government to regulate persistent pesticides uses. But it took ten long years of stubborn legal advocacy by the nascent Environmental Defense Fund, from 1962 to 1972, to force EPA to adjust to these embarrassing facts. And few have noticed that although most uses of DDT were restricted in the U.S., no hindrances were put on industry to continue producing and exporting this chemist’s panacea.
Language is a climate of opinion: it frames and encumbers what we are trying to say. This is why Ecology was called a subversive science. Carson was said to have subverted  the fundamental values of her time, partly to encourage a less homocentric world-view. But are our fundamental values dependable?  What oversight of the history of ideas confirms or questions such self-confidence? The notion that the last few hundred years have been marked by Progress still rules, if increasingly shaky.
More aware of our own mixed history, we must learn to see, and value, Rachel Carson as the sensitive prophet and naturalist she was. Not scientist, or biologist, or even ecologist. These specialists are all still too reductionist, too controlling, as even one of the  greatest among them, Carl Woese the microbiologist, warned  in 2004 when he called d for “A New Biology for a New Century.”
Carson, who became an habituĂ© of the Marine Lab at Woods Hole, and  the National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, knew their  work and respected their  insights. But she was already into that new biology Woese wants, listening to the wind, more akin to James Lovelock’s Gaia than to Watson and Crick’s  double helix. Naturalist was title enough. She knew that we must relearn to let Nature be.

Friday, January 28, 2011

COSMIC PIETY

                                                 

The 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale were well-presented and technically fascinating, but can hardly be said to have delivered on their promise to integrate a new creation story and our place in the universe so as to better address the global warming challenges of our day.

What was missing, it seems, was a sense of the cosmic piety that might help us combine new cosmological insights with existing religious commitments in better fitting us to planet Earth’s carrying capacity. In a continuing exploration of  these questions, therefore, we may do well to begin with a critique of  several existing assumptions, both scientific and religious. Some of these are ancient and hallowed, but they have obviously not sufficed to guide us safely.

For example, the concept of dark matter and its associated energy fields is so new, and so esoteric, that it can hardly be expected to inspire a lay public, especially one beset by  seemingly more personal problems, like those of the economy.

Indeed science, thanks to the mechanistic positivism it imposed on us for centuries, is vaguely but widely distrusted by the general public. This is not a know-nothing’s blind spot. The inadequacies of “hard science” and its reductionism are increasingly obvious, as Stuart Kauffman, a good physicist, reminded us in a 2008 book, Reinventing the Sacred.  Academic people need to be more sensitive to this dilemma. It implies the tragic fact that  although scientists are at the vanguard of  today’s new knowledge, they may hardly be ideal advocates for the cosmic piety we need. Belief requires trust, and professional specialism gets in the way. Again, merely as example, we confuse and distract the public when we parade the details of  three million years of fossil history for the genus Homo.  Those were just other hominids. What really concerns us is the much more recent history of our own very different large-brained species, even though perhaps prematurely labeled Homo sapiens.

As though this questioning were not irreverent enough, what can we ask about the many biblical dicta we lean on, directly and indirectly?  For one thing, we forget that these tenets were articulated, transcribed, and translated for and by an oral society. There are usually many a slip between the tongue and the word in such transmission. When is the time for emendation at hand?

We realize now that the artful one-week creation story was designed for youthful ears.
Does this make us more open to the billions of years that geologists say were involved in the processes that gradually made Earth habitable?  After all, we didn’t learn to date the rocks until the mass spectrometer was invented in the 1940s! 

And although Genesis I and its emphasis on dominion has been most often quoted to us, there is an alternative account, Genesis II, that emphasized husbandry, or stewardship, as the proper human vocation. We should keep in mind that the land of  Israel was and is a semi-desert, where “dominion” over scant resources would be mere boastfulness. A shift in quotation may very likely be in the province of  those who do the quoting, especially if one keeps in mind all the self-serving quotes we’ve heard about Adam Smith’s “hidden hand,” when the master himself put the emphasis on “keeping the firm small” if one wants it to serve the public interest.

Similarly, one may question whether the churchly emphasis on sin and the superiority of spirit over the body, were not constrained by the agricultural existence of  that day. This would hardly have occurred to me, a city boy, except for the intimacy of  life in barracks
during three years of World War II military service. It then became clear as farm boys laughingly admitted that their early sexuality included considerable beastiality, simply because they grew up with farm animals. Nor were they worse off for that. We are still struggling to bridge the seemingly obvious dualism of mind and body, but success here may soon open the way to reinterpret much of our ten millennia as agriculturists-cum-urbanites.

So, perhaps what we need is not cosmology but a bit of old-fashioned natural history. Darwin pointed the way when he saw that we are all cousins.  But we demurred, again probably because of our agricultural past. The young of farm animals may be cute, but we just didn’t like the idea of being kin to pigs and cows. Debasing, if not actually humiliating!  Of course, as urbanites, we had long lost contact with the admirable skills and alert demeanor of our wilder evolutionary compeers. They became caricatures in a diminished vocabulary.

Shouldn’t, by now a century on, the millions of people who say they love birds, have effected the rapprochement with nature the times call for, since the crucial task is that of reducing the human footprint on the planet?  But their voting record obviously did not match the proclaimed  love, else the generation of neoliberalism that followed WWII leading to the fiscal debacle of 2008 might have been averted. You may say that the birdwatchers didn’t make the political connection. True enough, but the real failure was in not seeing that all the destructive land use we complained about as “habitat loss” was a failure to see that politico-economic institutions, the rules of the game, decide these issues, willy-nilly, unless we rouse ourselves sufficiently.

Were the birds we pursued simply Roger Peterson’s virtual field guide birds, each with its own field marks, rather than real birds perishing because they were enmeshed in the natural world we were destroying in the name of Progress?  It is difficult to reconstruct the attitudes of such sad episodes, and perhaps even a million politically sophisticated birdwatchers could not have averted the disaster.

So, why cosmic piety? Philosophers seem agreed that this is the foundation of all our religions.  It is the appreciation of, or one’s duty to the creative process. Of course, so few read philosophy that it is not common parlance. Besides, when we were all oral people, not much more than 500 years ago, we were also all pedestrians, so rather sedentary, localized, perhaps put-down as “country-bumpkins” by slightly more sophisticated city folk, even then. Such social isolation fosters dialects. Localization by trade or profession fosters jargon, really another dialect. This is why words are confusing; they have limited currency.

If you marvel at the night sky, this may be all you need to know about the cosmos beyond the planetary system which is our corner of the universe. The sun is our star, and our planet merits much more appreciation than everything else out there. At least right now, when our amateurish or heedless practices are backfiring.

It is amazing how few people know about the life-support systems, the continuing creation processes that make Earth uniquely habitable. Much of this naivety  may be a result of Western civilization’s notion that this world was ready-made for us, and that we were competent to take over as managers. The hunter-gatherers seemed more sophisticated than that. The lapse may be a byproduct of several millennia as farmers, a life style which involves a love-hate relationship with the Earth. 

Plant and animal capabilities are mostly a byproduct of our inheritances, and although Earth’s history provided most of these, the categories we recognize may not be the ones that matter most. A record of these accumulated changes is imprinted on the planet in the seven faunal regions that the geographers of life-form have mapped.  It helps to know how the interactions of precipitation and temperature constrain much of this distribution.   

Perhaps the most illuminating way of visualizing the life support systems that maintain all of us is ecologist Charles Elton’s three-tiered “pyramid of numbers” (see his Animal Ecology, 1927). This applies to both aquatic and terrestrial environments. It integrates almost everything.  

Plants are the foundation of this pyramid of numbers because, generally, only plants can, through photosynthesis, utilize solar energy to manufacture carbohydrates that initiate an edible food supply on which animals maintain themselves.  Of course, a varied collection of microscopic bacteria paved the way in exploring life’s potentialities. But without plants, again generally speaking, no animals. Also, by penetrating or being
incorporated into various sediments produced by the erosion of rocky substrates, plants make and anchor arable soil. They thus enrich the environment for themselves and others, even modifying the climate.

The advent of nutritious plant life thus made it possible for a variety of preexisting organisms to learn to specialize in plant-eating; the successful ones became herbivores.  And the advent of herbivores, by providing a standing crop of flesh, enabled some herbivores to specialize in flesh-eating, thus becoming carnivores, all in good time, and all by now interdependent. As the pyramid suggests, the progression is systemic. It takes about ten pounds of grass to make a pound of mouse flesh, for example; and even more herbivores to make units of carnivores.

Humans, since they feed on both plants and animals, are omnivores. So long as we fed on natural surpluses, when our numbers were small, we were bona fide members of the planet’s biodiversity. We added diversity and enriched the process by introducing extra aesthetic elements. This is what the logic of evolution would seem to call for, and for millennia our numbers grew slowly because, since we pressed against other demands, our mortality was high. Our high reproductive rate was an evolutionary adaptation required to keep ahead of mortality factors, on average. 
                            
Brought up, actually or indirectly, on the notion of creation by fiat, and indoctrinated with the idea of our dominance and an otherworldly destination, it is no surprise that we so long neglected to study the processes that actually support existence on this planet. Not until 1929 did A. N. Whitehead show that life is a continuing, creative synthesis. We borrow from preexisting evolutionary accomplishments to maintain our short stay in the sun, add a bit of style to the process if we can, and pass it on.

It becomes exciting when someone recombines existing functions to accomplish new capabilities. This is innovation and may mark a great leap forward. Otherwise, change comes slowly, from selective pressures the environment itself imposes. Since our capabilities usually involve a range of skills, we adapt to modest demands for change. We are then said to have been preadapted.

If, however, too much change is imposed too fast, the resident populations may not adapt quickly enough. They perish instead. The accelerated human growth of the last two centuries, especially, has introduced such disruptive change. We have actually preempted living space essential to a host of other species.                                                                           

In a sense, we truncate the pyramid of numbers. We do this directly, by killing top predators who otherwise compete with us, thus lowering the pyramid; and by preempting space for agriculture and urbanization, and by polluting, thus reducing the pyramid from the sides, which makes it less productive for everyone. In 1997 Peter Vitousek and colleagues showed (see Science, p. 494-9) that we were consuming nearly 30% of  Earth’s basic productivity just for ourselves.  Another impressive illustration  of our imprint on what were once supportive natural systems is a map of  the road network we have imposed on the coterminous United States (see Science, 4 May 2007, p. 736-7).
We have diffidently called this fragmentation of habitat, and habitat loss, but failed to regulate it so as to maintain the diversity of life.

This failure, viewed objectively, should suffice to disqualify us as environmental managers of the four billion-year old evolutionary systems. The threat of global warming we have set in motion is another, more proximate accusation of incompetence. Our future is now threatened because the current ruling elites  know neither the language nor the science, and are thus tone-deaf  to the consequences. This is Greek tragedy writ large!

Our exaggerated individualism—nourished by monotheism, notions of an implanted soul,
and the otherworldliness already mentioned---conspired to overlook that (1) we are evolutionary end-products of cooperative systems built on interdependence (not mere competition); (2) that the persistence of current populations depends on the proper functioning of all the participating systems; and (3) that a continuance of the innovation we consider progressive depends on access to the whole pool of existing accomplishments, since we cannot know, except experimentally,. what adaptations will
be successful tomorrow. We know only that current assumptions have brought us to the brink.  Hence the need to acknowledge that the nearly seven billion people on the planet are perhaps five billion  too many, partly because of the greedy mismanagement of some, but also because of sheer overextension beyond the supportive capacity of the planet’s systems.

The only way for all of us to prosper, perhaps to survive, is to reduce the so-called human footprint. Currently, evolution is thought to have been reduced to human cultural change. This is too narrow a base, a sort of “all our eggs in one basket” dilemma. The challenge is god-like, but the dominant minority’s “one God” has yet to intercede. Our option seems forlorn. The humility involved in cosmic piety may be a last recourse. Succinctly, this means letting Nature run the planet. It may require that we zone the planet for use and non-use. Our parks and reserves are token contributions to what is needed.

                                                          



Thursday, January 27, 2011

YOUR OWN TANGLED BANK


A friend recently circulated a newspaper account by someone who has learned to make a living by traveling the world, observing its wildlife, and writing about it.  Lucky guy. 

I pointed out that this had been my life’s approach also. Whatever the details, the commitment involves appreciation of  what Darwin called the marvels of existence observable in almost any quiet, reasonably “natural” environment, say the cut-bank of a brook. My favorite example is A.A.Saunder’s little book on the Birds of the Quaker Run Valley, Allegheny State Park, N.Y.  Henry David Thoreau chronicled such in Walden  and other writings. And Aldo Leopold’s posthumous Sand County Almanac was a more recent example. Unfortunately, I never wrote my own.

But it is timely to remind everyone that such “tangled banks” still occur in most neighborhoods. Adults can find fascinating involvements in simply observing these remnants of nature in our mostly urbanized landscapes, and children especially need to be introduced to this complex “other” world, so that they may grow up aware that our man-made world is still largely dependent on the natural world.

Our predecessors, especially the more ancient hunter-gatherers who roamed the planet for some one hundred thousand years before we came along, knew this natural world intimately. They needed to know in order to make a living harvesting the surpluses. They obviously did this well enough to provide the leeway that allowed us latecomers to become specialists, thus beginning to think of ourselves as civilized. 

What reminded me of all this was a short walk I took last spring.  I live in an apartment house along a main thoroughfare  that serves as traffic artery for the exchanges that keep New Haven livable. Daily, hundreds of trucks bring food into the city, and then take away the wastes that would otherwise accumulate to the point of choking those of us who live here. Thousands of automobiles and busses move tens of thousands of people along this same route daily.

Surprisingly, behind  my residence, parallel to Whitney Avenue, is a quiet abandoned city street, Lake Road, itself paralleled by the long, narrow reach of  Lake Whitney, above the waterfall in East Rock Park. Lake Road is a quarter-mile-long shaded road available for quiet walks, from Putnam Avenue to Davis Street. All this within two-miles of downtown New Haven.

 On June 1st and 7th I spent a morning hour watching the birds of this pleasant lane, curious as to how many birds are resident..   Robins are the most conspicuous, running a yard or two, singly or in pairs, to pick up insects, flowers, or buds that fall from the overarching trees. They also shelter or feed on either side of the road, on the steep bank of the lakeside, or the equally steep bank behind  the buildings on Whitney Avenue. They are at first difficult to count, because they crowd ahead, then exit, if you walk toward them.. But waiting quietly and watching the length of the road through binoculars I decided that there were four pairs of robins.

The same was true of Bronzed Grackles. They are less territorial, thus range more widely, and bunch more here and there. But there was a total of nine birds.  A pair of Gray Catbirds left the shelter of  tangles on the lakeside to feed on the road briefly. So did a pair of Cardinals, and a pair of Song Sparrows.  A single Northern Flicker flew in, checked the macadam driveway, but saw that it held little promise of food, so flew off again.

I left it to some other visit to check the nature of  the food supply that allows these eleven pairs of  birds to summer here. This would round out my basis for calling this a tangled bank. I know what to expect, but won’t just guess. A yellow Swallow-tailed Butterfly and a chipmunk rounded out my list this week. The chipmunk came from the lakeside, sheltered along a fence that closed the road, and came upon me quite unaware as I stood motionless next to a fence post.  It smelled my left shoe, then my right shoe, and moved on, apparently oblivious that I watched its every move. Happy day.




Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We Birdwatchers

                                          
                                              

Birding, it is time to reflect, is a strange genre of nature appreciation. It is a thoroughly modern activity, evolved from the secular world-view of modernity which questioned but did not replace the special-creation view of Medievalism.

John James Audubon signaled the new awareness a hundred and fifty years ago. But it was Roger Tory Peterson who jump-started birding when he perfected the “field mark” technique for quickly identifying birds at a distance, through prism binoculars, in the mid-Thirties.  As Ludlow Griscom had shown, this eliminated the need to “collect” a
specimen in order to identify it.

Even so, until the advent of commercial aircraft after World War II, most of us remained regionalists. We walked, used trains or street cars, and increasingly, automobiles, to access the countryside. When Bill Drury and other friends graduated from Harvard in the mid-Forties, they invited me to join an automobile junket to California, just to see birds. I missed that adventure. Roger Peterson first visited Kenya as guest of John Bull of Canada because a tea company subsidized the venture to obtain bird illustrations for its advertisements.

But birding did not become dominant until the Seventies, as the birders’ invasion of the tropics illustrates. For my wealthier New York City friends, Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, was the target. In early 2004, a group of blind people in Texas “made”  The New York Times by organizing field trips based on competing in listing birds only by hearing them. What changes will birding survive in this postmodern era?

On reading Wendy Steiner’s The Colors of Rhetoric, it occurred to me that socially, birding is to ornithology what cubism was to painting. Both are the consequence of a studied process of abstraction.

A century ago the cubist, newly alerted to the physics of vision, represented the visual act of scanning by concentrating on the steps in that process. The abstract expressionists who followed focused on the process itself—spattering, dribbling, and scarifying—all to remind us that the artist is intent on achieving a separate creation. Copying nature is passĂ©. Hence the stress on the physical properties of the media they use—the brush stroke, impasto, color field—since these are more “thing-like,” an example of the objectivity which modernity admires.

For the new birder, know it or not, the illustration in a field guide, though only a virtual bird, becomes its own empirical reality. Like the scientist and the abstract artist before him, Peterson’s minimalist art ousted metaphor from his illustrations: no shadows, no
reflected  light, no confusing vegetative backdrops or occlusions.

If trained mostly in this idiom, the birder accepts the picture in the book as an expression of the real world. Tragically, and again unknowingly because unreflected upon, this new
thing-world tends to replace the real world—the complex, confusing, living world—in his or her mind. It seems simpler, better-organized, easier to remember, sufficient.

When a real bird is seen it suffices to confirm that it matches the picture in the book. Check! Let’s move on. Ludlow Griscom, Peterson’s guru, used to say, “Things are getting dull.”  This was driven home to me recently when I expressed admiration for Jon Fjeldsa’s lively illustrations in Birds of The High Andes. A capable young tour-leader we were with immediately responded, “But these illustrations are of little use to birders. They don’t focus on field marks systematically.”

The field mark becomes a substitute for the virtual bird’s identificatory “gesture.” Birders recognize this when they refer to a real bird’s gesture as its ‘jizz.” Good artists long ago learned that some general characteristic suffices to identify most of us most of the time.
Though he copyrighted the field mark approach, Peterson simply applied it to bird
identification. He did not invent it. Ernest Thompson Seton had paved the way.

As one comes to expect, birders invented a metalanguage to deal with the esoteric clues that represent this truncated view of birds in their landscapes. Sandpipers become “peep”  
or “stints.”  Red-tailed Hawks are “tails.” Turkey Vultures are “TVs.”  Birders also often affect a sort of “antipassatismo,” a down-with-the-past attitude. They have trouble referring to anyone in the field who was prior to Roger Peterson or, now, David Sibley.
Even Griscom, who helped launch the movement, is already a mythological figure, as Peterson will soon be also.

Not that birders are any more idiosyncratic than those around them, though they are distinguishable enough. One may wonder whether birding is a civilizational malaise generated by the specialism of the modern era. Ornithology itself, the specialty of professional bird people, is going through a crisis concerning the origin of birds. This is mostly generated by a new system of classification, cladistics, wherein you let a software program sort out only what is currently measurable. Things may become saturated with ideology and pose as the only game in town.

One can hardly characterize the nature of modern birding except in the context of what is happening to us in the larger culture. Such analyses have hardly begun. There are clues, however, in Guy Debord’s 1988 complaint about  “the society of the spectacle.” But it is symptomatic that this work became available in English translation only in 1998.  

Debord was reflecting on the implications of the post-World War II make-over of the world through commercialization, which is turning nature and every-day life into commodities. Our unease at this transition may even be one cause of our return to nature through birding. Debord called this commercialization process a new form of colonization, a social end-product of our four-hundred year old system of wealth accumulation, capitalism.

President Eisenhower first called our attention to the military-industrial complex, fearing that it was dominating our lives. This is now acknowledged to be a military-industrial-entertainment complex, and it dominates our waking hours. The only antidote is to give up television and newspapers. The economic system’s capacity for overproduction now requires it to manufacture a growing desire for goods. It must make us into habitual consumers that will satisfy the insatiable beast that is the production system. Our very subjectivity is milked by corporate psychologists to produce a flow of saleable addictions so as to fuel the essential consumerism.

This is not the place to enter into the political problematics created by the commercial domination of our lives. But it may help to become aware that the market’s needs required dragging in government to help manage, enforce, and police the commercial system. The spectacle of 9/11 was an ultimate version of the manipulation of symbols, this time to our disadvantage. The neoconservatives proceeded to confuse individualistic rebellion among  those who felt abused, and called it war.

The addition of the entertainment industry to Eisenhower’s complex became necessary  to explain the development of the “perpetual emotion machine” which television, videos, and newspapers now provide. This is why the monopoly of the media became a systemic necessity.  The image-makers can suffer no significant alternatives. Now they can lie at will, and change the subject if we complain. How different from Rome’s provision of  bread and circus to pacify the crowd is this?

It may be premature to try to apply this sociology to birding, but we need reminding that there are new problems out there. Anything that intrudes between us as interacting agents and the real world diminishes us. This is the danger of commercializing everything.

The field guide is of course a useful tool. But if we allow its virtual birds to truncate our relations to real birds in the real world, we are both short-changed. Let us begin by observing birds closely enough to become critics of the illustrators of our field guides.
We might then think of birds as the “extended phenotype” of the habitats they need if they are to survive. This will help us see that the destructiveness of the greediest among us is really part of our own extended phenotype. Only we, together, can insist that the carnage of profit-making, which turns nature into commodities, be fenced off.

By inventing “the list” we changed birdwatching, which was once amateur field ornithology, to a competitive sport. For many the list tended to become more important
than the bird. We commercialized birding and its chase for the list when we began going abroad under the flag of ecotourism. We were teased into this, first by the airlines who saw the market potential of this hobby; then by touring agencies, old and new; and by our own conservation organizations whose upper-middle-class members were preconditioned and eager to join in seemingly more meaningful travel.  It sometimes gnaws at me that I unwittingly facilitated this transition.

Better and better binoculars and telescopes, capable young leaders willing to devote three or four years of their lives to this poorly-paid vocation; playback tapes of bird songs, even laser pointers to help locate shy birds in dense foliage. All these helped, but it all becomes  suspiciously like “pay per view” entertainment.

This is why, in the end, I think that Roger Peterson, the Audubonites, and other advocates of ecotourism were wrong when they thought that modern birding contributes significantly to bird conservation. Historians who have studied tourism call it a way of destroying the beautiful places. It changes the local economy. But biodiversity is a provisional  commitment.  

Despite a significant increase in public awareness, much of it stimulated by birding, the world’s birds continue to decline precipitously because habitat destruction is actually accelerating as the greedy vie for the last rich resource parcels. Our focus on birds, real and virtual, has blinded us to the irresponsible politico-economic realities of the resource utilization process we call capitalism.  

THE TRAGEDY OF AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM

                        

                                                        
Looking back on thirty years of professional devotion to wildlife conservation and the broader concerns of environmentalism, plus thirty years of retirement spent on reflection and continuing study of the human condition, unfortunately forces the sad conclusion that mine was mostly a failed enterprise. Awareness of the environmental problem has grown. But the idea systems that brought it on are barely dented, except in a few journals where speculation about the aftermath of a long generation of extreme  neo-liberalism simmers. 

Since I hope my long half-century’s struggle yielded some understanding, however, sharing my perspective may at least help thin the ideological brush. It may save time.   Others may then address the unmitigated problems more effectively.  The struggle is more important than my generation thought. For a naturalist, some of the problems appear dire.

Intriguingly, this belated recapitulation is a byproduct of having read Gary Will’s humanization of William F. Buckley (see The Atlantic, Sept. ’09), that late arch-conservative whose views could hardly have been farther from mine on politico-economic issues. It struck me how dependent we are on the ruling elites of our day to manage a “soft landing” in adapting to the results of our half-blind economic Progress.  Environmentally, even religiously, we are all in this together; and exactly where we sit on the liberal-conservative spectrum should be moot while we solve real survival problems.

We need more awareness of the problems the passing generations bequeathed. Since the world is always more complex than we think, we inevitably frame what we think we know in some narrow perspective. We are always amateur specialists of some kind.

We may be the most evolutionarily specialized species of the animal kingdom, but we  flaunt hyperbole if we rank ourselves “the thinking reed.” We think only part time, and still lamely because our cognitive and emotional capabilities are built on a patchwork of inherited sensory equipment which is poorly integrated. This is the probably the basis of our dualism. Only quite recent studies of comparative neural anatomy are revealing this. We learned to think, but were not originally designed to do so.

It is symptomatic, and ironic, that we could not date the rocks--and thus begin to understand Earth history--until the late 1940s, when the mass spectrometer was invented.
This is hardly more than half a century ago!  Many of our descriptions, like “the eternal hills,” were guesswork. 

This made much early mechanistic science a dangerous detour. Fortunately, ecology is at last helping picture the consequences of the imprint of our own short history. But it  remains to be seen whether this awareness came in time to compensate for the accumulated environmental burdens of several centuries—perhaps a few millennia—of what economists call “externalized costs,” even though they themselves have hardly begun to see this as a central problem.

We need reminding  that understanding is more important than the knowledge we hunger for and find so exciting. Understanding involves an awareness of interrelationships and the implications of acting on what we know. It is more reflective and humble than cognition.

Further, we badly need more appreciation of what a young species we are. This may warrant patience with our immaturity, but should also be a warning about acting on such shallow grounds. Specialists distract us with details of the origins of our genus Homo.  We need to focus on the capabilities and behavior of our own species, H. sapiens, which is  less than 200,000 years old.

For most of those 200 millennia we were hunter/gatherers, wandering afoot from continent to continent. It was patronizing and prudish of Thomas Hobbers to characterize these predecessors as having led lives that were no more than “nasty, brutish, and short.”  We share the same gene pool. It only took a few thousand years to invent different civilizations on the very different continents we occupied. The admirable point is that several of the scattered groups did so, mostly independently, and some of them before we of  The West did so.

On every continent the hunter/gatherers proceeded to decimate populations of large life forms that were useful food sources. Combined with the use of fire, these inroads modified ecosystems everywhere. But the impact of these wandering tribes on the total environment seemed modest because there were relatively few of them, their technologies were modest and, except for fire, mostly individually applied.

The advent of agriculture, less than ten thousand years ago, changed all that. Despite all the praise we have heard heaped on this new life-style, it was the beginning of the man/nature crisis that confronts us. Hunter/gatherers  had developed a “go-light” approach to the environment, and being egalitarian, they were socially frugal. They mostly let Nature be, were partly nomadic, and sustained themselves on ecosystem surpluses---one species among the accumulated biodiversity of the long evolutionary experiment in multiplying life forms.

Agriculture, on the contrary, required exclusive use of varying patches of land. This fostered selfishness and greed because it required contesting alternative uses of the land by other humans or wildlife. The farmer’s sedentary existence made him dependent on the regional vicissitudes of nature, now seen as an uneven contest and resented. Too much rain, or not enough; too much sun, or too much wind  When harvests were good, that induced hoarding, both for next year’s planting and hoped-for profiteering should the next growing season be skimpy, or competitors less cunning.

Of course, for a while agriculture seemed bounteous, a social blessing. It nourished more people; but these begot more people, who then required more agricultural production to maintain population growth.  Egalitarianism no longer seemed virtuous. Greed had to ramify. Notice how like metastasis.  Self-sufficiency became more difficult . Access to land divided rich from poor and laid the foundations for slavery, and wars to acquire slaves to work the land.  Indirectly, to allow landlords to enjoy their beatitudes. How blessed the strong.

We have now industrialized agriculture, so it is no longer a life-style.  Indeed, the few modern agriculturists of the developed world produce commodities, not food. The products of this system become ploys to dominate other people’s economies. This is  globalization: domination on a global scale.

In The West, while it lasted, the agricultural life-style fostered its own religion, notably Christianity.  The Church had to internalize the insecurities of the day, and invent compensations. In this concocted vale of tears, the emperor’s lawyers decided what dicta were socially effective, what not.  When, about a thousand years later, schism rent the fold, Protestantism may have given voice to a latent excess of individualism. Max Weber suspected this but did not elaborate. We need to ask more.

That combination of growing human populations and an expanding agriculture to sate appetites of course preempted space for crop monocultures. Forests had to be cut and wetlands drained to provide acreage. We expanded into dry land as soon as it
became feasible to pump out aquifers. Proteins were augmented  by exploiting the oceans. All for the benefit of one species, God’s favorite, we convinced ourselves.

Biotic extirpation and extermination multiplied, an environmental  holocaust that biologists euphemistically call competitive exclusion. We may be about to learn whether natural systems, built on biodiversity, falter when truncated. Pollution, which is really ecosystem overload, now worsens at both ends of the pipe because the impoverished systems can process less of it.  

About 500 years ago, when The Church’s precautionary constraints on usury were abrogated by self-appointed prophets, human modification of natural systems was given extraordinary impetus. The new excessively individualistic mindset, divorced from Nature by some five thousand years of agricultural existence, set out to commercialize everything within human grasp. That grasp grew apace, thanks to an explosion of technological innovation, itself a byproduct of the narrow, mechanistic science of its day.

As control of natural processes and commercial domination increased, prior valuational protocols were discounted. The commercial creed gloried in unending accumulation, and this required continuous territorial expansion to provide the essential cheap resources and the cheap labor to work them. Attempts to draft value-free sciences and would-be-sciences were acclaimed. For a generation or so during this era of late capitalism, we, the favored few, were assured that greed is good.

These introductory paragraphs on Western history are of course a mere sketch of the
circumstances that faced the first conservationists at the turn of the 20th Century. The tragedy implied in the title of this essay is that almost no one perceived the institutional nature of the ruling assumptions.
 We still don’t. The downside of  practice was judged to be a byproduct of  individual ignorance or greed, at worst a form of  malfeasance. Or, more generously, the unfortunate price  of  Progress, an unavoidable conflict of possible goods. Early in my conservationist career I was warned that although malfeasance may be criticized, the system itself  should not be.

The conservationist  plaint—focused on birds, bison, and White Pine, was thus a moralistic plea; doomed, like the two-thousand year plea of  Judeo-Christianity, to be observed in the breach. It failed to see its task as that of  imposing social constraints on the vandalism of the greedy exploitation system itself, by first reforming its assumptions. Meanwhile, our specializations divorced us from the consequences of our practices.

When I studied wildlife conservation practice in the 1940s, the guiding principle was still
“scientific efficiency.”  Aldo Leopold became our guru; but he learned, before he died, that eliminating waste would ultimately not suffice. Even so, he was a generation ahead of  the times in glimpsing the social reality. Tragically, the chief  accomplishment of a century of conservation doctrine was to take a few thousand acres off the open market, to nurture wildlife locally instead of profits.

The 1960s brought a new awareness of our profligacy, in large part because World War II, though it was the bloodiest of all our conflicts, had also lifted a few million people out of poverty for a while. Rachel Carson alerted us to the poisoning of the world by the chemical revolution of the 1950s. The space shots made us aware that our planet was a blue oasis in space. The threat of the atom eclipsed its claims as a source of energy. But this new Environmentalism could not be more specific than to insist, “Don’t Change the Ecology!”

Not until 1999, when the flower children of the beat generation joined the unionists in Seattle to protest the greedy partitioning of the world’s resources by the World Trade Organization, did a few awaken to the fact that the modern corporation is the spearhead of the destructiveness of human enterprise gone astray. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had seen that to serve the general welfare one must downsize corporations. Adam Smith had warned us to this effect two hundred years earlier. But no one heeded them.  At Seattle, David Brower was the only conservation mainliner to join the march.

So we rushed on. Come the 21st Century, a United Nations panel on climate change warned that our uses of fossil fuels threatened to initiate a dangerous epoch of global warming. Many denied the forecast as pessimistic. The United States was struggling to maintain its economic dominance. In October, 2008 a fiscal crisis jarred the world’s complacency. World leaders soon agreed that getting the economy going again would have to take precedence. It was just too inconvenient to address the likelihood that global warming was itself a consequence of too much economic growth rationalized, however lamely, as necessary to maintain excessive population growth.

A generation ago Paul Tillich, that gentle philosophical theologian, suggested that the salvation of man and nature are one and the same task. Jonathan Lear, a contemporary ethicist, suggests that love is Nature’s way of holding things together. Herman Daly wrote a persuasive book to show that a steady state economy is feasible, even though his professional contemporaries were denying it. We appear to know what is wrong with us, but our ruling elites have yet to accept the notion of fundamental reforms.

Those best-equipped to guess what the aftermath of the collapse of neo-liberalism implies suggest that we will be lucky if the existing “concert of powers” can stave off a more complete financial meltdown.  The least dire forecasts may be those that predict no more than a long generation of stagflation. Time, perhaps, to rethink human destiny.

The conservationists of  the 20th Century were the more conscientious fraction of the ruling elite. Mostly middle-of-the-road,  pre-Reagan Republicans. The organizations they formed were thus muted by a polite restraint concerning the roots of the environmental
destruction that dismayed them. There were no antisystemic sympathies with labor, small farmers, or the very poor, those other victims of the blind exploitation we called Progress.
The Environmentalism of the Sixties broadened the base, but was prone to “outrage” rather than intent on practical reform.

Can we learn to appreciate that we are the lucky, but fragile current end-products of a long but not timeless evolutionary process?  That the “mind” we inherited is still a rather primitive decision-making capability? That we achieved what we have by cooperation, not competition? That, indeed, the competition we so touted since misinterpreting Darwin is a fallback for failed cooperation? That we are only one of many species produced by this evolutionary process? And that if we fail to rise to the occasion, Earth’s biological experiments will go on for another five billion years? But without us.