There’s no going back to nature

We are not in — nor about to be in — a world with a small human population living simply and leaving nature alone. The future belongs to proactive environmentalists who use information and technology to make ecosystems

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Some futurists say we are entering the “environmental century,” and this will probably turn out to be right for a lot of reasons — some good and some bad. The good news is, more and more people are beginning to understand that a healthy environment is essential to everything we do. The bad news is, we’re likely to have an ample enough supply of nasty problems to keep the environment on everybody’s mind for a long time to come.

This doesn’t mean the future is going to be terrible — far from it. It only means that there will be tough challenges, things for people and societies to work on and learn about. And it doesn’t mean, either, that environmentalism — at least all the varieties of it that we hear about today — will be a potent force in this global civilization. Don’t look for a great surge toward Green parties, or a worldwide burst of enthusiasm for deep ecology or bioregionalism. That back-to-nature sort of environmentalism seems to be enjoying a certain vogue at the moment, but actually the future will likely belong to what I call proactive environmentalists — people who are able to use information and technology, who don’t mind living in this world as it is, and who are unafraid to engage in the hands-on management of ecosystems.

It’s really amazing — especially in a society said to have reached the end of ideology almost 40 years ago — that the various strains of back-to-nature environmentalism such as deep ecology, bioregionalism, ecofeminism, and neo-Luddism have congealed so quickly into what any student of politics would recognize immediately as another ideology. It certainly has all the earmarks of one — a philosophy, a political movement, and enough jargon to gag a Washington speechwriter. Its dogma includes opposition to “anthropocentric” — i.e., human-centered — thought or action, a hands-off approach to nature, a deep suspicion of all things technological, a passion for the primitive, and a desire to get back to some kind of decentralized world in which people live and work within their bioregions, preferably with native plants and animals.

This hankering for the past is one of the chief badges of membership in the movement. Some Americans — such as farmer-author Wendell Berry — merely want to get back to the agricultural lifestyles of a few decades past, before the midcentury wave of mechanization. Many European Greens revere the medieval era. The real high rollers scorn agriculture altogether and yearn for the good old life of hunting and gathering. This last position was eloquently expressed by a former Earth First! Journal editor who wrote that “many of us…would like to see human beings live much more the way they did 15,000 years ago…” Such ideas as these are remarkably popular on the campuses and in the coffee shops — and remarkably irrelevant to most of the valuable environmental work that is being done now and will be done in the future.

And that’s the problem: The world is changing very quickly, and we desperately need a vision that engages this new world honestly and creatively, with daring and hope and perhaps even a touch of optimism. The appealing fantasies of back-to-nature environmentalism have the same effect on public dialogue that Gresham’s law has on the economy. Bad money drives out good, and muzzy slogans drown out serious thinking. We simply are not in, nor about to be in, a world that resembles the bioregionalist dream of a small human population, most folks happily living simple lives in the country and leaving nature alone. It might be nice if we were, or it might not. But that really doesn’t matter, because events aren’t headed in that direction. The world is becoming more densely populated, not less; more urbanized, not less; more technological, not less. Most important of all, human beings are exerting ever more — not less — power in nature, having a greater impact on ecosystems. This is our world, and this is our work.

The idea that people should somehow learn to “leave nature alone” has an aura of commendable humility, and it’s the easiest thing imaginable to put into words, but it’s quite impossible to put into practice in today’s world. Proactive environmentalism — which deserves greater support and understanding from progressives — involves managing ecosystems, sometimes in ways that totally transform them. Every ecosystem, every population of wild animals, is, in one way or another, managed by human beings right now. Sure, there are different kinds of management, some of them trying to keep ecosystems relatively pristine and protect wildlife. But everywhere conservation is an active business that involves much more than merely battling exploitation. It also involves understanding information, using technology, and often making decisions that change ecosystems and affect the evolutionary future of species.

Restoration is one of the most important pieces of the new environmentalism. People are rebuilding rivers and streams and ponds and beaches, reconstructing forests and prairies and deserts, sometimes coaxing populations of near-extinct species back to a sustainable size. I don’t know whether to call ecological restoration an art or a science or a technology, because it’s a bit of all those; but it’s sure as hell not a matter of leaving nature alone. In most places, certainly in the more developed parts of the world, you don’t get a restored ecosystem by fencing it off and doing nothing. Do that, and the result will be a lot of native plants and animals coexisting more or less peacefully with a lot of non-native ones. Many such mixed ecosystems can be found in national, state, and regional parks, and in the privately held rural areas that are not-too-accurately called “nature preserves.” And there’s nothing wrong with that; they maintain open space, habitat, and watershed, and they’re valuable and beautiful and productive in many ways.

But a true restoration project — like the piece of American prairie that the great naturalist Aldo Leopold and his associates began carving out of a Wisconsin cornfield about 60 years ago — is a deliberate human creation. Those pioneer restorationists hauled in tons of soil, ripped out everything that didn’t have proof of citizenship, and planted thousands of native seeds and seedlings they had found in various places more or less close to the site. Nowadays we have lots of small restoration projects, even in urban areas. Volunteers in Marin County, near San Francisco, pitch in to restore local salmon streams where construction work and erosion from neighboring pastures have ruined spawning beds. Work crews spend their weekends making small check dams on the tributaries to prevent sediment from spilling into the creeks, wrestling rocks into place along the cattle-damaged banks, and rebuilding the spawning areas.

You can also find similar projects undertaken on a larger scale by professional restorationists such as the “river doctors” who work in places like Washington and Montana and Colorado, bringing back streams that have suffered badly at the hands (and feet) of miners, cattle herds, and developers.

Larger yet is the project to repair the Florida Everglades, which — if it’s carried out as currently proposed — will be the largest water-system restoration in history. Most of the work will be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which in the past has taken a beating from environmental writers, myself included. But the corps’ mind-set is changing. Instead of master-planning everything, the restorers are using what they call “adaptive management,” which means proceeding with a general objective, trying some things (different ways of modifying levees, for example), and seeing what works best. It’s a pragmatic and flexible approach that, while far from “hands-off” restoration, certainly isn’t the same as the heavy-handed replumbing of ecosystems so often practiced in the past.

The Everglades are not, of course, going to be restored to what they were a few hundred years ago — not in southern Florida with its enormous agricultural areas, its cities with millions of inhabitants, and God knows how many tourists coming to fish and take romantic boat rides through the sloughs. But restorations — even “true restorations” like the Wisconsin prairie — are never perfect reproductions of a past ecosystem. They are different because of what’s not there — species that have become extinct — and also because of what is there: Inevitably, some bird, insect, or plant newcomer succeeds in sneaking in and making itself at home. Also, the restorationist always has to make a choice about what past state to emulate. The image of homeostasis — like much of the rest of the pop ecology that informs the back-to-nature mystique — is inaccurate. “Undisturbed” ecosystems change too, sometimes dramatically, and any restoration project mimics a certain era, much as an “old town” mimics a certain stage in a city’s history. You have to decide what nature to go back to — which is yet another way of saying you can’t get away from human agency. Furthermore, restored ecosystems don’t stay restored unless somebody puts in a lot of work keeping them that way.

A restoration project, then, is a technique of environmental management in the present and not a return to the past. Some restoration projects are about improving the depleted soil of farmlands. Some are about restoring populations of certain plant or animal species, like the controversial return of the wolves now roaming in and around Yellowstone National Park. Others — like Holistic Resource Management (HRM), which includes a style of cattle ranching being tried out in many parts of the American West — are essentially techniques for using natural resources without using them up.

Holistic Resource Management uses herd animals to break up the soil, keeping it porous and receptive to rain.

Photographs by Tommie Martin

Before After

HRM ranching begins with the somewhat startling proposition that grasslands should be periodically trampled down and fertilized by big herds of hoofed animals — as they once were by buffalo and elk. This breaks up hard crusts, keeps the soil porous and receptive to rain, helps decompose dried grass stalks and other such materials, and works minerals into the soil. The tricky part is that buffalo herds moved around, whereas most cattle herds stay in one place, overgraze, and produce erosion. The “holistic” solution is to simulate the behavior of the long-gone native herds by bunching the grazing animals together, letting them feed for a while in one place, then moving them and giving the just-grazed area an opportunity to recover. I’m not yet convinced that Holistic Resource Management is the solution to soil damage from cattle ranching, but at the very least it is turning out to be a peacemaker in the range wars between ranchers and environmentalists. And it may be the key to the large-scale restoration of bison populations in the American West.

In forestry, a lot of attention is being paid now to the “reactive” kind of environmentalism — stopping the clear-cutters, saving the rainforests — and those are indeed worthwhile and necessary efforts. But most of the effective forest protection today, and nearly all of the reforestation, is active management. Agroforestry — which means either growing trees as crops or integrating tree-growing into other crops — is essential.

In Tanzania, where deforestation is so severe people have to travel miles to find wood, some farmers are using an agroforestry technology known as “rotational woodlots.” They plant trees, mostly varieties of Australian acacia, alongside their regular food crops. The farmers continue to grow and harvest food for two or three years until the trees take over. Then the field becomes a woodlot and a source of fuelwood, poles for buildings, and fodder for animals — meanwhile restoring fertility to the soil like any fallow — until the farmers clear-cut it and go back to growing crops between the stumps.

In other parts of the world, farmers are planting the New Zealand-bred “super trees.” These tall trees, sometimes called “kiwi willows,” sprout like mad. They are grown for energy, fodder, or timber, and may help forests store carbon dioxide. Since they are hybrids, they’re sterile and don’t produce seeds that can escape and take over an ecosystem.

But bioregional purists don’t like these kinds of agroforestry: Super trees are not exactly natural and Australian acacias don’t ordinarily grow in Africa.

Some of the most interesting and really innovative projects going on now — like the coastal desert developments in which crops are irrigated with seawater — don’t fit neatly into any category. They don’t meet even the most spacious definition of restoration, because they thoroughly make over sizable pieces of real estate, turning them into ecosystems of a sort that never existed before.

Fly over the coastline of the Arabian Sea or the Gulf of California, and here and there you can look down and see seawater farms — green circles on the parched land. They are the advance guard of an entirely new kind of agriculture, now being developed by a team of scientists at Planetary Design Corp. in Arizona. CEO Carl Hodges and his associates studied hundreds of saltwater plants and then began to focus on salicornia, which grows along marshy coastlines and produces a crunchy, pleasant-tasting stalk — kind of like a lightly salted string bean. Salicornia, under various names, has been known as an edible plant for centuries — it was a favorite snack of George Washington — but was never bred or cultivated. The scientists began breeding new strains, hoping to get one that could produce high-quality oil and meal. Eventually they got two promising varieties. They plan to use salicornia not only for seawater-based food production, but also for soil-building, stimulating new urban development along coastal deserts, and taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. Salicornia will be a piece, perhaps a small piece or perhaps a very large one, of the effort to feed the world during the next 50 years or so of continuing population growth. And it will also be a piece of the attempt to find methods of development that are not only locally sustainable, but active contributors to environmental management on a large — indeed, global — scale. Hodges calls it “climate defensive food production.”

Salicornia farming is an excellent example of proactive environmentalism. First of all, it starts with recognizing and accepting the present and near-future global situation. The world in which the salicornia enthusiasts expect to do their work is not ecotopia. It is a densely populated, urbanizing, developing world with vast amounts of land already degraded by erosion, depleting freshwater supplies, and an ever-increasing need for fossil fuels.

Farming salicornia is not chemical intensive, because the seawater provides most of the nutrients needed for growing the crops, but otherwise it violates most of the ideals of small-scale bioregional agriculture: It’s commercial farming; it needs a good-sized capital investment; it uses sophisticated irrigation technology; and it is based on a plant native to few of the places where the crops now grow.

Projects such as this inspire enthusiasm from most people — but are scornfully dismissed as “technological fixes” by back-to-nature true believers.

The term technological fix deserves some attention here, since it’s one of the staples of ecotopian rhetoric, along with the promiscuous overuse — to the point of meaninglessness — of the word “natural.” The argument against simply fixing up something with a technological repair job may well apply in some specific cases — if, for example, a person is presented with the choice between having a quadruple bypass and adopting a healthy lifestyle — but it really doesn’t have much relevance to most current environmental concerns. The world is not faced with a simple choice of either adopting more environmentally sensitive attitudes or applying new technologies. Rather, we are seeing both a rapid evolution of technology away from heavy industrialism and value shifts about the environment.

Most of the other back-to-nature terms are similarly pumped-up and carelessly repeated concepts that have a certain amount of reasonableness if taken in moderation. That great favorite, “anthropocentrism,” for example. This isn’t just a challenge to the habit of valuing plants and animals only for their usefulness to humans — which is something that needs challenging. The self-described “deep ecologists” are not interested in any such sensible objective. They escalate the rhetoric and prescribe that human beings learn how to live in equality with all other living things. However charming this might sound, it has utterly nothing to do with a world that is about to have 6 billion people in it, whether we like it or not.

Bioregionalism, too, is a useful idea in some contexts — such as governance of air basins. But it becomes pure nonsense when people begin to advocate it — as Kirkpatrick Sale does in his book Dwellers in the Land — as a solution to be imposed on the whole world, by relocating people from the cities to rural areas where they would then take up ecologically correct lifestyles. There are indeed people who remain in one place, don’t get hooked into the global economy, and rarely travel — all parts of the bioregional answer — and that’s a perfectly fine way to live. The trouble is in turning it into a universal mandate and a political agenda — a crusade to get everybody living that way. Not everybody does, not everybody wants to, and not everybody can.

Even the people who talk bioregionalism don’t live that way — and don’t seem to notice the gap between what they say and how they live. Some years back, Sierra magazine ran an interview with poet Gary Snyder, in which he advised all of us: “Quit moving. Stay where you are…become a paysan, paisano, peón.” He then proceeded directly, with no evident sense of irony, to telling of his recent trips to China and Alaska. A bit further on he added: “I’ve been traveling eight or 10 weeks a year, doing lectures and readings at universities and community centers around the United States. I’m able to keep a sense of what’s going on in the country that way.”

I don’t think this makes Snyder a hypocrite. I think he’s a perfectly honest guy who would rather recycle green platitudes for admiring listeners than think hard about what it really means to live in a global civilization.

Probably the most serious weakness of pop ecophilosophy is its Luddite tilt. Technology isn’t just a thing — it is human thought, action, information, and invention, and a living part of who and what we are. Some applications of technology are lousy and some are wonderful. But simply taking sides for or against technology is the lowest common denominator of public discourse.

Some technologies are and will always be central to environmental protection. I doubt that most people realize how important information technologies are in environmental management today.

We worry about the hole in the ozone layer — and we should worry about it — but don’t appreciate the exquisite technology involved in detecting it, monitoring its ebbs and flows, projecting its future. Nobody sees a hole in the ozone. Like many other major environmental issues, it is accessible to our understanding only through the use of monitoring technologies.

An enormous environmental information system has grown, spreading and connecting around the world. The living Earth is now inseparable from this ever-expanding complex of satellites, transmitters, relay towers, computers, and software. With these devices, people observe the condition of the ozone, speculate on the future of the world’s climate, study tectonic movements deep below the surface, brood over the oceans, track the migrations of wild animals and the changes in forests and deserts. This is technology that doesn’t fit into any simplistic pro vs. con debate. It is neither the malevolent cause of our problems nor their magical solution — just an essential means of acquiring information. And it will play a larger part in bringing greater environmental awareness than the collected works of all the writers and philosophy professors who push deep ecology and bioregionalism.

So far most of the buzz about the “information revolution” has focused on its organizational, economic, and cultural impact, with far less attention paid to its biological side. It’s high time we recognized that we are becoming not just an information society but a bioinformation society. And a global one. Ecological information will play a central role in everything people do in this society, and so will biotechnology.

Biotechnology has become the Great Satan for the back-to-nature ideologists. But their crusade against it is a tangle of misperceptions, flaws, and half-truths. Let me mention five of the big ones:

1. Biotechnology is the same as the biotechnology industry. This is a correct perception of who controls most of the biotechnological research and development — at least in the United States and Europe — but it isn’t an accurate perception of what biotechnology is. It is a far-reaching scientific revolution that is transforming all the life sciences and being applied all over the world, by all kinds of people.

You get a whole different picture of biotechnology if you go to one of the conferences that bring together scientists who are working on agriculture in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most of their research is supported by governments and foundations rather than by large corporations and entrepreneurial start-ups. They are using the new biotechnologies to improve local crops such as sweet potatoes, yams, rice, corn, and bananas. They don’t talk of technological fixes, pro or con; they just apply the best tools to the problems at hand.

2. Biotechnology is naturally opposed to organic farming and sustainable development. Some new biotechnologies — such as cell and tissue culture — are already being applied in crop plants grown by organic farmers. And, as the various tools and insights of biotechnology gradually spread through all of agricultural research, they will contribute to sustainable development around the world.

Most of this work has to do with rather unspectacular modifications of crop plants to improve their nutritional value or resistance to pests and diseases. Mexican scientists, for example, are genetically modifying potatoes for virus resistance. The potatoes are different, but the farming methods will be about the same — the commercial growers just won’t have to use pesticides against the insects that carry the virus, and the small subsistence farmers, who couldn’t afford pesticides in the first place, will get more food from their crops.

But sometimes you do hear of more radical possibilities, leapfrog jumps into the 21st century. “Pharming” — using genetically modified plants and animals to produce medicine — will become increasingly important in some developing countries. People who have traditionally raised goats may start raising transgenic goats as a source of medicines — which is more practical than building and operating high-tech factories to produce those same medicines. Some researchers have already developed potatoes that can confer immunity to cholera and various other diarrhetic diseases, and are now engineering the same traits into bananas. This means people can produce vaccines locally, getting around the storage and refrigeration problems that so often hamper immunization efforts in tropical countries.

3. Biotechnology is opposed to environmentalism. Research in biotechnology is producing useful environmental applications such as bioremediation (microbes that take chemical pollutants out of water; plants that take up mercury from the soil), and new kinds of materials including genuinely biodegradable plastics. There are plenty of pro-biotechnology environmentalists and ecologists now (the Ecological Society of America published a declaration of support for biotechnology some years ago), and I expect that in the future the new biotechnologies will be seen as more similar to the solar technologies than to nuclear power.

4. Biotechnology is inherently dangerous. Yes, there are risks that we need to watch out for. One is the possibility of getting allergenic substances into food products. Another has to do with developing crops with built-in pest resistance: Pests might evolve resistance to the resistance, or (in areas where there are wild relatives of the crop plants nearby) the pest resistance could spread to the weeds. I’m glad some environmental organizations — such as the Environmental Defense Fund — have biotechnology specialists who concern themselves with these problems, and who can speak up on regulatory issues, countering the industry’s representatives. But this is much different from opposing biotechnology as a whole.

That brings us to the fifth fallacy:

5. If you oppose biotechnology strongly enough, you can make it go away. You can’t. What you can do — as Jeremy Rifkin demonstrates admirably — is poison the dialogue, confuse the public, and get your name in the papers. You can also discourage the leaders of environmental organizations from demanding more research in areas such as bioremediation. But biotechnology is inseparable from the rest of biological science and an irreversible evolutionary transition, and it is not about to go away. It will — and has already to a far greater extent than most people suspect — become an integral part of research in agriculture and medicine, and a basic part of the fabric of all our lives. Most people now neither know nor care that they are eating cheese manufactured with rennin produced by genetically engineered microbes. Sooner or later we will all understand that it makes no sense to be simply for or against biotechnology, any more than it does to be simply for or against technology. The real arguments — the ones we should be having — will be about how we use the tools and who gets access to them.

We are going forward into an interesting few decades. With a bit of wisdom and good will — not to mention luck — we will reach the latter part of the next century with population on the decline, new opportunities for restoration and ecosystem management, and a great tool kit of technology and bioinformation. But along the way, we will have to come to terms with power. The back-to-nature mystique is based on opposition to human power in nature, and its followers are always reluctant to acknowledge having any themselves. This pose has its advantages: If you say you don’t have such power and don’t want anybody else to have it, you both establish your own personal goodness and duck all the problems that come with having it. But the truth is that we all have a lot of power — both individually, and collectively as a species — and will have more as time goes on.

In his book Power and Innocence, Rollo May eloquently dissected the psychology of “pseudoinnocence” — a willful inability to deal maturely with power. “We cannot develop responsibility,” he wrote, “for what we don’t admit we have.” He was talking about interpersonal relations, but the observation applies equally well to the larger human undertaking of learning our way into the 21st century. We have to admit to having power, face the impossibility of leaving nature alone, and cultivate our environmental ethics and policies accordingly. And as that happens, we may begin to develop some genuinely deep ecology.

Walter Truett Anderson has written numerous books and most recently published Evolution Isn’t What It Used to Be.


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