Is Nature part of the environmental problem?

Is Nature the thing that the Environmental Movement should defend?

The major issues of the 21st century are environmental. Climate Change will have a significant impact on all aspects of our lives. We have to effectively imagine alternatives to rapid climate change and part of doing this is asking how we got to this point. This much is very clear.

As we at SPURSE dug into our culture’s deep underlying methods of perceiving and engaging with the world around us, while writing the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook, we came to be deeply troubled by the very idea of “Nature”.

We began to be haunted by the question “Is the very idea of Nature part of the problem?” While the whole of the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook is a meditation on this question, below is an excerpt for the final chapter:

“HUNTING TO REFUSE NATURE

There is more to say about hunting:

It was our first day in Nome. Quite late. We had lost track of time, not being used to the long and drawn-out sunsets. We were immersed in the gloaming, wandering in the middle of empty ice covered streets. Looking up, when we realized that it was really late—every restaurant must be closed. We asked the first person we saw where to eat. They directed us to the one place open at all hours, a Korean-Italian restaurant. Hard to find, down in the basement of another big business, only accessible through a snow-piled back alley. Bulgogi, pizza and cheap beer. There was only one other person in the restaurant and he was watching basketball on TV. We got talking and it turned out that he was the mayor and basketball coach of a nearby town who was in Nome for a regional meeting. A thin guy, Iñupiaq, baseball hat and a mustache, he seemed to be in his mid-fifties. Somehow the conversation got onto the topic of hunting and for an hour he regaled us with wry stories of evading the local conservation officers. The tricks were numerous and endless. We were too polite to ask him why, given that he was a mayor who was deeply committed to both local hunting practices, and the preservation of the ecosystem (keeping oil, gas and mining out), was he, and seemingly everyone else, so against the conservation department? Wouldn’t they be natural allies against the harmful encroachment of big business? At the time we just put it down to a general resistance towards authorities and the historical tensions between sovereign peoples and a foreign power.

Over a year later, as we prepared to head out to Detroit, Petia and I revisited this conversation. I think it started because we would be hunting. We were asking ourselves why, in general, we imagine that hunters are opposed to conservationists. Then we remembered this conversation at the Korean restaurant and wondered: “Is there a distinct cosmological level to the tension?” If you look at the history of conservation from the perspective of the Iñupiaq peoples, it was a critical component utilized to displace them from their land, out of a subsistence economy, and into the official labor economy. In the language we have been using with regard to the commons, we could say, that the acts of conserving nature were acts of enclosure, clearing and privatization. The concept of Nature was developed at the same time as “forest” and the enclosure of the commons. These are conjoined practices and concepts. For the peoples of the High Arctic, colonization brought a new set of laws, practices and ways of speaking of the land. This new discourse spoke of nature, conservation, resource management and resource conservation. It was a discourse that said quite clearly to them, as it does to all of us: “Nature does not include you. You are an outside force of extraction and depletion. Nature is a scarce resource, and in these modern times it is a precious trust that needs to be managed for everyone. Therefore we must displace you and control your access. You, like all humans, belong elsewhere.” Historically, what happened across North America was that nature got imposed on indigenous peoples. Nature was, and is, part of a larger system to dismantle alternative cosmologies and displace  all of us forcibly into the realm of culture.

The ethnic clearings which made our National Parks possible, are an obvious example of this phenomenon. When first appropriated, these parks were not wild settings devoid of people; they were the homes of indigenous communities. This phenomenon persists today as countless new nature preserves are set up worldwide which violently displace millions of people. Our dinner companion in Nome was not trying to pull a fast one on the conservation officers so he could get a little more than his fair share of meat. Not at all. He was refusing to leave the Iñupiaq way of being of a shared association. He was critically monkey-wrenching the continued attempts to impose nature upon his multi-species nibbivik. He was refusing our Nature+Culture cosmology. At what cost will we continue with this problematic cosmology of Nature+Culture? Isn’t it time we stopped?

OUT OF NATURE

Before Europeans got to North America the environment was not a pristine undisturbed wilderness (what we like to call nature), but rather an ecosystem that had been intensively co-shaped by, and co-evolved with, the actions of human communities. From the Pacific Northwest with its transformed seashores and rivers, to the irrigation systems + raised fields and the use of fire that dominated the area from the Mississippi basin deep into the Southwest, to the forest clearing and shaping practices of the East Coast, human entanglements occurred on a massive intensive and sustained 10,000-year plus scale of co-transformation. Early Europeans did not understand this. From their cosmological perspective they imagined that they had arrived to an undisturbed new world, a pure nature, inhabited by only the odd Indian, seen to be too primitive, naked and savage to achieve much in the way of ecological transformation. They saw the “new world” primarily through a biblically shaped lens: this land was there for them as part of a project to form a new compact with god which would allow them to dwell in Eden (nature). They were primed to see an Eden, and they found it.

To the degree that we still think in a similar manner to the first European colonists, and I believe we do, we are still under the spell of a biblical framing (Indo-European). We assume a nature exists “out there” that contains all living things but us. Our world is divided into two distinct independent dominions: Nature and Culture. In this world composed of two dominions, it our job to monitor and maintain these two realms as independent. Nature needs to stay natural. This is only possible by keeping us out of it and in our special realm: culture. Our primary job is a negative one: “stay out, don’t mess nature up —don’t touch and don’t engage”. If wild animals (nature) encroach on our world (culture), if a wolf wanders into town, send it back outside where it belongs.

Let’s take a minute to understand how we got to this idea of “nature = stay out”—and what the consequences of this might be. This matters immensely to the ethos of foraging and our ideas about the commons. After all this paradigm of nature asks us not to engage. We are supposed to await gifts and be thankful.

The landscape of the 1491 post-contact period was one of an environment in crisis. Disease and warfare had killed millions of indigenous peoples, who were critical co-composers of the ecological landscape of the Americas. With the cultivated and managed woods of the East Coast missing their human entanglements, the oak trees no longer dropped their acorns for the production of flour. Now the acorns of the vast North Eastern food forests fell to be eaten by a minor species of bird, consequently it transformed by this sudden surplus into one of the most famous ecological creatures: the passenger pigeon. Contemporary observers simply took for granted that the billions of passenger pigeons filling the skies had always been part of this Eden. This was not the case. Recent archeological excavations along the East Coast show decisively that the population explosion of passenger pigeons was a post-contact phenomenon. The massive herds of buffalo have a very similar story. For early conservationists the soon to follow demise of the passenger pigeon and buffalo was a clear-cut illustration of how we, as avaricious industrial humans, are out of synch with the environment, violently destroying the timeless bounty of a virgin nature. The lesson, as they understood it, and which became the foundational to the modern conservation movement was: leave nature alone —stay out, humans can only do harm.

The biblical framing of the demise of the passenger pigeon and buffalo missed the original crisis: the removal of the indigenous peoples from the environment, they were the cornerstone species. This oversight was no accident, for within the framework of nature, humans are never an intrinsic part of any ecosystem. We are forever the outsiders who properly belong elsewhere. The modern Western movement to conserve nature was born from a tragic metaphysical mistake. Today we should not take the killing of the last passenger pigeon as the warning call: “we are destroying nature, and that we need to get out”.  Rather it should alert us to the fact that we have destroyed a unique way of humans and other creatures co-shaping an environment while operating from a distinct metaphysical basis. The lesson should not be “stay out,” it needs to be “entangle intra-dependently.”

The terrible irony is that demise of the passenger pigeon and the buffalo was not the beginning of the end of nature, but rather the beginning of the production of nature. The colonization of North America reorganized a continent along either side of a metaphysical boundary, separating human from nonhuman, and urbanized from wild. Within this metaphysics, land use designations were developed, ranging from pure and wild (meaning nature = no humans anywhere near) to fully urban (meaning keep the rare and wild out so as not to corrupt them = culture). Basically this logic runs from Yellowstone National Park to the Mall of America. We should never forget that this nature was produced through genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced resettlement and crippling re-education programs, not just for humans, but across all of the entangled multi-species assemblages that existed.

The early conservation movement produced a “spiritual” alienation to join the physical alienation of peoples from an entangled world. We, the worn down urban folks were invited to “return” to nature for mental solace from the deadening effects of modern culture. This was the birth of the National Park System. Welcoming us back into the woods was not a welcoming us back into the world we were forced to leave: a world of the everyday subsistence life, of building, living, hunting, killing, foraging, eating and the cosmologies that went along with these ways of being in the world. This invitation to journey out into nature was for “rest, inspiration, and prayers” as John Muir, one of its key architects so aptly put it. We return to this capital “N” Nature as we would to a church on Sundays. We are there to be spiritually recharged by its sublime wondrous and sweeping otherness. It exists to point us to a more pure and perfect realm. We can only visit this temple to sense our better selves, a gift from the outside, a better world without us, a nature that is now only for the eyes and spirits, no touching please.

The slogan that most effectively exemplifies this no touching gift ethos is “take only memories, leave only footprints.” A slogan that was falsely attributed to Chief Seattle. This slogan says it all in regards to nature being an alienating spiritual temple of renewal. It is equally telling that we believed with such conviction that this slogan is something an “Indian” would say. Did no one notice that they hunted, foraged and quite substantially transformed their world?

By the time of the creation of the National Park system, nature had become something to only visit on special occasions, not to eat from, not to dwell in, but just to have an immaterial engagement. Look but do not touch. No wonder tourists are happy to drive away from the Grand Canyon after ten minutes on the viewing platform, never having stepped into the canyon. It is only intended to be part of their world “in spirit,” in documents and “memories”. For those of us who go beyond the parking lot and the viewing platforms, we now enter nature as a sport—hiking—in which we paradoxically stay out of this world, while being in it, you know the drill: walking only on carefully prepared trails, carrying all of civilization miniaturized on our backs to be set-up on camping platforms, where we will fall asleep in self-enclosed bubbles after dining on foods similar to those that were taken to the moon. What could be more perverse? What could be further from the experience of being-of-a-shared-association? I don’t say this criticism as somebody who frowns on hiking from a distance, I say it as somebody who deeply enjoys hiking, who has hiked and climbed in many remote places the world over. I say it as someone who has indeed found respite and spiritual uplift in National Parks. I say this as someone who sees the value in staying on the path, and sleeping on the platforms. But what have we become when our cosmology lets us enter the world only as self-enclosed and self-sufficient strangers? In this historic age of global warming and other troubling human induced transformations to the earth, is it not troublingly ironic that environmentalism suggests we are not and should not be part of the world? The question can no longer be how to best remove our entanglements from the world, this was never a possibility. We have always been and are of a world. Now it is time to leave that fiction behind and evolve cosmologies that entangle well, that co-produce new emergent associations worth having.

This is the end of this excerpt. If you are interested in learning more please take a look at the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook.