August 20, 2009
Postnaturalism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Human Nature
To the traveler, it may appear that a given stretch of forest or grassland or high steppe exists just as it has for thousands of years, untouched and in a pristine state, sculpted only by the hand of mother nature. Chances are, the traveler is dead wrong.
Erle Ellis, an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland's Department of Geography and Environmental Systems, wants you to understand this. In fact, he argues that understanding this is absolutely essential to understanding man's place on what so many like to lovingly refer to as "spaceship earth".
Ellis believes humans have been "interfering" in the development of the Earth and its biosphere for far longer than we give ourselves credit for. The danger of these prelapsarian narratives, as we at Breakthrough have argued in the past, is that we fail to see our own proper place in the greater scheme of world development.
In his latest op-ed in Wired magazine, Ellis argues bluntly that Nature -- and the idea that there exists a place untouched by Man, the John Muir wilderness where the River Runs Through It but little else -- is long gone.
Nature is gone. It was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet.
If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene -- a geological epoch in which Earth's atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.
Nature is, as he puts it, a back-seat driver, annoying us with natural disasters, those pesky laws of physics and the ultimate limits of certain resources; but in no position to "take the wheel".
Who took care of the sabre-toothed tiger? It wasn't the Ice Age. The wooly mammoth and the giant sloth? Man and man again.
The species that humans eliminated were keystone species whose lifestyles, like those of elephants in Africa today, tended to profoundly shape and sustain ecosystem form and function by their feeding habits. ...
And what of the wild forests of Amazonia and North America that we think of as pristine? Think again. The second line of evidence -- from archaeology, paleo-ecology and even epidemiology -- that humans lived all over these lands is growing. Man burned down the forests millenniums before Columbus, first to enhance hunting for the wild species attracted to the regrowth, and later for agriculture....
So there you have it: Ours is a used planet. Thanks to us, Earth has become warmer, less forested and less biodiverse for millenniums.
So what now? First of all, we've got to stop trying to save the planet. For better or for worse, nature has long been what we have made it, and what we will make it.
And it's time for a "postnatural" environmentalism. Postnaturalism is not about recycling your garbage, it is about making something good out of grandpa's garbage and leaving the very best garbage for your grandchildren. Postnaturalism means loving and embracing our human nature, the nature we have created to feed ourselves, the nature we live in. What good is environmentalism if it makes you depressed about the future?
This is about recognizing that our farms, and even our backyards and cities, are the most important wildlife refuges in the world and should be managed as such. We can keep people out of places we want to think of as wild, but these places will still be changing because of global warming and the alien species we introduce without even trying.
If we want these places to look like they did before us, we will have to constantly recreate them. It will be a huge job for us humans to keep nature "wild." ...
Don't like it? Stop trashing it!
Use renewable energy. Clean it up. Repair it. Get to work. There is plenty more mileage left in this spaceship Earth. Think about that while enjoying a trip to your local zoo or arboretum -- the most biodiverse places that ever existed on Earth.
Ellis is the director of the Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology, and anyone who cares to visit his website will discover his fascination for what he calls the planet's anthropogenic biomes, wherein Ellis divides the world's surface based on regional characteristics but also based on the interaction humans have had with their natural environments.
Read the full Wired magazine article here.