Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The End of Nature (What the Heck--We’re Still Here)

My class & I have been reading Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) in anticipation of McKibben’s visit to Miami U on April 8th.  The book is 16 years old at this point, but like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), it is still disturbingly current.  (There is even a dead bird on the cover McKibben’s book, which harkens back to Carson with her roadsides “silent, deserted by all living things”—especially the calls of birds.)  The End of Nature is rather more depressing, however, than Silent Spring—perhaps because we know that many of the most (obviously) egregious pollution problems are at least adequately dealt with, while our response to climate change appears to be not equal to the magnitude of the challenge.  Within 10 years of Silent Spring, you had the Clean Air Act (1963), formation of the EPA (1970), a rewriting of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972), and the Clean Water Act (1972).  Within 16 Years of The End of Nature, the first book dedicated to the topic of climate change for general audiences, we have…inaction and denial, as well as some movement and momentum for change.  Perhaps by writing this book, he thought we would be motivated to change and address the problem—the way the public outcry in 1962 led to regulatory action.  (Oh well!)

His premise is that “nature” is dead because humans have altered the earth to the point that things that used to be beyond our control are within our ability to manipulate.  It is an interesting idea that I am trying to inhabit a bit.  Although I wrestle with this too.  If we are to consider ourselves as members of the community (Leopold), then is it really in our ability to end nature?  Forests generate change and create weather. (Although, of course, “good” weather.) Elephants change nature.  Sure, the current changes in greenhouse gases are resulting in giant changes, global changes—we are a natural species capable of creating holes in the ozone layer.  We create rather large problems that reveal our short-sighted idiocy at times.  But does nature end?  Odds are in favor of nature persisting, albeit in some altered form—and perhaps drastically altered—despite us.  Most species alter the environment.  But still, I think I get what he’s saying.  Humans are filling the atmospheric tank with gases that will alter the course of the planet for centuries to millennia and that is fundamentally problematic to life as we’ve known it and to life as we’ve liked it. 

He uses a rhetoric of fear, and I wonder how effectively that works on the short-sighted (most of us) humans.  But, honestly, a rhetoric of optimism grounded in reality does seem a more challenging path to take.  I buy the science, but I am playing close attention to how effective his approach is in capturing the imagination of people in a way that ultimately alters behaviors.  Only a few of the students have started writing about this book in their blogs, but so far, they seem down on what they view as a pessimistic message in general (see here).  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

“Sometimes there is no leaving, no looking westward for another promised land. We have to nail our shoes to the kitchen floor and unload the burden of our heart.  We have to set to the task of repairing the damage done by and to us.”  --Janisse Ray

One of the joys of being at a liberal art institution and actually interacting with the humanists as a scientist, is that you discover writers who are writing the exact book you have been dying to read, but that you have failed to find. Janisse Ray is one of those discoveries. She visited Miami U a few weeks ago and talked about “Being Human in Wild Times” – she gave a wonderful talk and reading, so I ordered her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (1999)--her first book and the first of hers that I have read, but it will not be the last.  She weaves a tale of her human family with that of the natural world in southern Georgia where the long-leaf pine forests once dominated. She makes you feel the loss of the diversity that was harbored in the long-leaf forest. With less than 3% of the long-leaf pine ecosystems persisting today, there has also been a decline in the species associated with this habitat:  Bachman’s Sparrow, the gopher tortoise (and all the species that goes along with it), the indigo snakes, red cockaded woodpeckers, wiregrass. 

Ray links the poverty in the land to the poverty of the people, who in many ways suffer more once the habitat is destroyed.  In many cases, people were destroying what they didn’t understand and didn’t know.  She says:

“Passing through my homeland it was easy to see that Crackers, although fiercely rooted in the land and willing to defend it to death, hadn’t had the means, the education, or the ease to care particularly about its natural communities.  Our relationship with the land wasn’t one of give and return. The land itself has been the victim of social dilemmas—racial injustice, lack of education, and dire poverty.  It was overtilled; eroded; cut; littered; polluted; treated as a commodity, sometimes the only one, and not as a living thing.  Most people worried about getting by, and when getting by meant using the land, we used it. When getting by meant ignoring the land, we ignored it.” 

But this book is not just an environmental lesson and a reminder of how the condition of the people affects the condition of the land, it is a story of how place shapes families and communities and connects multiple generations.  It is a story of discovering the ecology of an ecosystem that her family (and many others) has altered and loved--it is about a relationship with the land, one that needs repair and awareness and connection.   

I have long been interested in how nature and the science of conservation biology can be translated to more general audiences with a message that is inspiring instead of devastating, emotionally authentic instead of contrived, and enlightening rather than didactic.  Janisse Ray translates the data of habitat destruction into a story that is both personal and scientifically astute without the reader left feeling that they are being emotionally manipulated to a specific end.  Thank you, Janisse Ray for translating the data in such an engaging and moving way.  Janisse Ray said at her talk to pick up her books at the library.  I was happy to have a copy of my own, because there were many sections worth starring and underlining! So, you might want to get your very own copy--and we will all say a small prayer that long-leaf pines were not felled to publish this book (ah, actually, published on recycled paper).  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Flip-Flops in Winter with Leopold

These are not Aldo Leopold's feet.  To my knowledge, Leopold never wore flip-flops.

It is getting to be political season again and there is talk of the flip-floppers, the wafflers, the crowd pleasers who will switch their opinions as it suits them.  Although I understand the concern—it is nice to feel that we can trust what someone says is based in truth—flip-flopping can be the logical outcome of new information or greater awareness.  (Oh how I wish some people that I know and love would flop on some issues.)  In science, we should always be able to flip or flop if the evidence overwhelming says we should do so.  So the talk of flip-floppers always makes me as uncomfortable as actual flip-flops (what a questionable piece of footwear). 

Our Conservation Biology class is finishing A Sand County Almanac – I have read it a few times now and I must say it does get better with each read as I get older and, naturally, wiser.  I listened to an interesting video of one of Aldo Leopold’s former students who read some of the essays and told Leopold that they sounded a bit preachy and that he needed to explain how he came to his conclusions.  In essence, I think, the student was saying, reveal your flip-flops.  In “Thinking Like A Mountain” Leopold does this.  I have come to think of this passage as his road to Damascus as where in the bible Saul comes to a dramatic realization that he’s after the very people whose side he should be on and in a blinding revelation he flip-flops and becomes Paul.  Leopold’s revelation may have not been quite as swift and dramatic, but his trigger happy finger had been more than ready to shoot at any wolf his eye saw, a practice encouraged and condoned as part of their pervasive predator-control.  He says:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” (P 130) 

There’s even a light in Leopold’s story—perhaps we should have renamed Aldo at this point.  (Waldo?)  It was years before he formally changed his position on predator control, but something shifted for him here.  He flipped.  In light of new observation and additional evidence, he changed his position.  We are lucky he did so—otherwise, we might not have this book and we might be less likely to admit our own mistakes and be ready to reverse course and hope that in the end we can make up for our past sins.