There is a pronounced tendency among environmentalists to propagate the notion that human beings are somehow unique from their environment. Through their rhetoric and their treatment of ecological issues, intentionally or not, environmentalists exteriorize the human species from the ecosystem that encapsulates every other species on the planet. This dichotomy between man and nature is, however, a false one, and effectively limits mankind’s potential to fully grasp and act upon environmental issues. In order to effect any proactive change in the future of environmentalism, environmentalists must first redefine their understanding of what it means to be human.
Unfortunately, the notion of humanity as an external, destabilizing force to the delicate balance of nature is one often perpetuated by those whose intentions toward the environment are positive; for years, environmentalists have been employing rhetoric in the development of a well-rehearsed, culturally-ingrained litany. In the field of conservation, for instance, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, in their book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, cite the use of such hackneyed terms as ‘”stop,” “restrict,” “reverse,” “prevent,” “regulate,” and “constrain”‘ (Shellenberger and Nordhaus). The tone of these terms is, in each case, retroactive; something must be done to somehow regulate the environment and our use of it. To treat the environment as something to be controlled and protected by humans (its stewards, to call on a common environmental cliché) is to actually absolve ourselves of responsibility to some degree.
The reasons for the belief that humanity is a foreign body to nature are varied. For some, such as early conservationist George Perkins Marsh, our separateness is evident simply in the degree to which our species has advanced over others in terms of technological development, and in our creation by God. As such a highly advanced species, Marsh contended, we have the capacity to dramatically alter the shape of our environment: “The fact that, of all organic beings, man alone is to be regarded as essentially a destructive power, and that he wields energies to resist which, nature – that nature whom all material life and all inorganic substance obey – is wholly impotent, tends to prove that, though living in physical nature, he is not of her, that he is of more exalted parentage, and belongs to a higher order of existence than those born of her womb and submissive to her dictates” (Nash 41).
Though Marsh’s intentions were positive (he writes here of conscientious land use and conservation), it seems egotistical and shortsighted to place himself and all mankind somehow outside of nature; anyone subjected to the raw power of a hurricane or tornado, or simply placed in a state of resource scarcity would surely contend that mankind is indeed “submissive to [nature’s] dictates.” The crux of Marsh’s argument for humanity as not only separate from, but of a higher order than nature rests on the Judeo-Christian belief that man was created by God and given the earth to do with what he will.
It is this perception of divine right (or Manifest Destiny) that gave impetus to the Frontier movement in America. In Marsh’s view, and of many of his contemporaries, the world was given to mankind as a gift, though admittedly “for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste” (Nash 41). Here, Marsh again urges responsibility in utilizing the land. In his mind, mankind must have resembled a prodigal son, squandering the inheritance of his father, rather than an intrinsic part of nature that must be conscious of his own place in it. Whatever his perceived relationship with nature, it is clear that Marsh viewed man as a detriment to the equilibrium of the planet, calling the species a “disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his feet, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords” (Nash 41). Though Marsh’s agenda was truly conservationist in nature, and his intentions admirable, it was his treatment of the relationship between man and nature that weakens his argument; it supposes a dichotomy between the two that results in an inefficacy of our species to enact real change in the way we view and treat nature.
Fortunately, there are environmentalists who contribute a different perspective of humanity’s relationship to the ecological narrative. Environmental historian William Cronin offers a noteworthy example of the understanding of man’s place not as separate from or above nature, but as an integral part of the ecological narrative like any other species. He cites the outmoded belief that a given ecosystem was either self-equilibrating (moving towards its climax state of evolution) or static (at its climax state). Cronin contends that, by implying that there was one single, natural state of an ecosystem, this model effectively negated history, excluding natural historical events, such as wildfires, disease, drought, and species extinction, and required that an ecosystem be viewed outside the terms of man’s influence on it. In a landscape drastically altered by man, such as New England, this was a difficult task.
Subsequent generations of environmentalists, however, learned that this impediment (namely, the impact of humans on their environment) should be viewed less as an obstacle to understanding the ecological narrative than an essential part of it. Cronin develops this idea further, and asks, “Are human beings inside or outside their systems?” (Nash 23). In response, he refers to the human tendency to refer back to an imagined golden age in Thoreauvian lamentation. This concept of a lost, idyllic time in which nature was pure and wild is an extremely common trope in environmental rhetoric, though perhaps first attributable to Thoreau. It effectively serves to divorce human beings from the rest of nature, a rift that makes little sense when our species is viewed from an evolutionary standpoint; Creation myths notwithstanding, it is the scientific consensus that our species has evolved over time to its current stage of development like any number of other species, and has a commensurate place in its environment. To assume otherwise speaks more to human arrogance than to any real biological or ecological distinction.
Cronin places the human species firmly in the sphere of the natural. He addresses the Thoreauvian belief that the American wilderness, before the influence of the colonists, was an unsullied land with a reminder that, “in Francis Jennings’s telling phrase, the land was less virgin than it was widowed” (Nash 23). Native Americans had been living in and altering their environment for thousands of years before the arrival of the first colonists. It is largely this capacity to change our environment, Cronin posits, that “is the crucial trait distinguishing people from other animals – and the best measure of a culture’s ecological stability may well be how successfully its environmental changes maintain its ability to reproduce itself” (Nash 23). Thus, for environmentalists and writers to lament the loss of an imagined virginal landscape betrays a lack of understanding of the history of their own environment. It has never been in an ideal state of equilibrium, but rather subject to the natural variables of time and weather, and of human interaction.
Another of Cronin’s central arguments for man’s place inside his system is the ongoing dialectical relationship between the two: “Environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those choices. The reshaped environment presents a new set of possibilities for cultural reproduction, thus setting up a new cycle of mutual determination.” Therefore, according to Cronin, a culture’s ecological relationship is just as integral as its social ones in determining its fitness. This ongoing interplay would not be possible if humanity were not an intrinsic part of nature.
Nash, Roderick. American Environmentalism: Readings in Conservation History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.
Cylke, Kurt. “From the Nightmare to the Dream.” Course handout. Environmental Sociology. Dept. of Sociology, SUNY Geneseo. 18 Oct. 2007.
IPCC Website. 19 Oct. 2007. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 20 Oct. 2007. http://www.ipcc.ch/