Leaving Nature Behind

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(Pete Suechting)— I recently attended the Five Colleges Rally to End Climate Silence, which I covered for the Amherst Student. Not included in the article, though, was a personal observation I made that I wanted to share here. Accompanying the rally signs (“end climate violence, break the climate silence”, and so on) was a giant, modeled sculpture of “Mother Earth”, depicting her as a green goddess with flowing leaves and vines for hair. Opposing “Mother Earth”, students had created two smaller masks, labeled coal and oil, sporting nasty frowns and lowered brows. They grimaced menacingly at passer-by and, when she got close enough, “Mother Earth”.

The symbolism is obvious: Mother Earth is the vital source of the environment we draw life from, and the fossil-fuel demons are greedy, destructive forces, working towards profit and destruction. Formulating the environmental crisis is in this way is effective as propaganda, but is ultimately counter-productive. It fetishizes the concept of “Nature”, turning it into ideology. Ideology does mobilize, but it also simplifies, and thus mystifies. Much of the environmental message today is based on this belief in “Nature”, facilitating its rise as a new “green” religion. At risk of revealing my recent obsession with Slavoj Zizek, here he is discussing the emergence of this new green religion, or in his terms, ecology, as a social ideology:

…it takes over the old religion’s fundamental function, that of putting on an unquestionable authority which can impose limits. The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering is our finitude: we are not Cartesian subjects extracted from reality, we are finite beings embedded in a bio-sphere which vastly transgresses our horizon. In our exploitation of natural resources, we are borrowing from the future, so one should treat our Earth with respect.[..] While we cannot gain full mastery over our bio-sphere, it is unfortunately in our power to derail it, to disturb its balance so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process.

In a world where religion is fading from ideological dominance, nature is rising as the new “unquestionably authority which can impose limits”. Many are embracing this new green religion, wanting to utilize its power as a social movement to combat the environmental crisis. This impulse ignores the limitations of Nature as a foundational concept, though, further mystifying a problem that is already mystical in its global scale and complexity. Nature is an inherently conservative concept, based on an idealized notion of a balanced and harmonized natural world. Evolution is sometimes imagined as the theoretical embodiment of this ideal Nature. Each plant, animal, insect, and bird is perfectly adapted by evolution to its environment, each serving a specific and invaluable purpose as part of an ecosystem. Here is Zizek again:

“…There is no Evolution: catastrophes, broken equilibriums, are part of natural history; at numerous points in the past, life could have turned into an entirely different direction. The main source of our energy (oil) is the result of a past catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions.[…] nature is already in itself “second nature,” its balance is always secondary, an attempt to negotiate a “habit” that would restore some order after catastrophic interruptions.”

Do not misunderstand Zizek’s assertion that there is no evolution. His point is that there is no “Evolution” as the theoretical embodiment of “Nature”. Evolution is in many ways a beautiful process, but it is also violent and blind, destroying one species and uplifting another as environmental conditions fluctuate. We need to accept “the utter groundlessness of our existence”, and leave behind “Nature” as an “unquestionable authority that can pose limits”. Limits must come from within humanity, not from without.

To offer further proof of the myth of Nature, let’s take a look back at its ideological roots in thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Edward Abbey. Thoreau, while living in his cabin on Walden pond, wrote eloquently on the transcendent beauty of nature and incomparable benefits of solitude, yet he lived close enough to town that he could frequently receive visitors and have his mother wash his clothes (New York Times). Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire, considered by many to be the bible of environmentalism, documenting his three years working as a park ranger in Arches National Monument. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey declares his ascetic and solitary life immersed in Nature to be ideal. However, in his private journal, he often yearns for human interaction. Even more astounding is that his wife and son often visited with him, but he never even mentions their presence, instead sticking to his narrative of solitude (Lynch, “Nature, Domesticity, and Exile…”).

The first public implementation of this ideal of Nature comes from the work of John Muir and the establishment of Yellowstone:

Though Yosemite was a state park when Muir arrived, it was occupied by Miwok Indians growing crops, white settlers raising sheep, and miners seeking gold and other minerals. Not long after he built himself a cabin and a water-powered mill, Muir, as head of the Sierra Club, decided the other occupants had to go. Muir had sympathized with the oppression of the Winnebago Indians in his home state, but when it came time to empty Yosemite of all except the naturalists and tourists, Muir vigorously backed the expulsion of the Miwok. The Yosemite model spread to other national parks, including Yellowstone, where the forced evictions killed 300 Shoshone in one day.

This excerpt comes from Peter Kareiva, chief scientist and vice president of The Nature Conservancy, in a recent essay for the Breakthrough Institute, entitled “Conservation in the Anthropocene”. His essay raises similar concerns of a Nature-focused conservation movement that is just as willfully ignorant and destructive as the governments and corporations it fights against.

The lesson I think we need to take from this is that an idealized version of Nature cannot be the foundational concept of the conservation movement. That is not to say that parks and reserves do not have place in the new conservation. I am merely advocating that we need to be open to new approaches to conservation, ones that will include and sustain human communities while simultaneously preserving the natural systems they aim to protect.

To tie this back into the Rally to End Climate Silence, I think we need to let go of Nature as a mascot. It is certainly effective as a rallying cry, but I think I can find one that is better. If humans survive, then it necessarily follows that the natural systems that support us will also survive intact. Therefore, rather than survival of Nature, we need survival of Humans.

Here are some avenues for further exploration of what the new environmental movement could look like:

Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility – http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/conservation-in-the-anthropocene/

Conservation: Indigenous Peoples Enemy No. 1? – http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2009/11/conservation-indigenous-peoples-enemy-no-1

The once notorious Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island is being developed into an urban park –

http://www.nytimes.com/video/2012/12/17/arts/100000001961196/fresh-kills-landfill-to-park.html

Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as the New Opium for the Masses –

http://www.lacan.com/zizecology1.htm