I’ve been an “environmentalist” for my entire life. I watched the T.V. shows Nature and Nova on PBS, hiked in the woods, recycled, lamented the spread of human development, and donated money to environmental causes. For the most part, my behavior has followed in the footsteps of other environmentalists, repeating their behavior though not necessarily understanding why. And enjoying it along the way.
But what is Nature? Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the environmental movement, Nature is the world in its theoretical state without human interference. We may visit it, but it is separate. The birds living in the backyard tree or the rafters are not in Nature, but are some sort of visitor or cling-on. The Natural world is the world that would exist if humans society could suddenly be replaced with what would be there otherwise. Wikipedia agrees: “Manufactured objects and human interaction are not considered part of nature unless qualified in ways such as ‘human nature’ or ‘the whole of nature.’”
In this essay, I will argue that this definition, inherently people-centric, is not a useful paradigm for environmentalists. Philosophically, this dualistic definition of nature leads to one of two ultimate conclusions: the elimination of Nature or the destruction of Civilization. The world may hang precariously stuck between these two options, but one or the other will occur at some point (Though, in the case of human civilization becoming omnipresent, it could always revert back). Under this definition, it is no surprise that nearly all human members of Civilization do not side with Nature, especially when it threatens their livelihood.
In other words, few among our species are willing to sacrifice themselves (or their children’s future) in order to halt the destruction of Nature. In the following essay, I will try proposing an alternative philosophy that will preserve our Civilization as well as Nature, (both re-defined, of course).
For me, Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael represents the height of Nature vs. Civilization (or “Takers”, as he calls them) dualist thinking (or at least, the height from the pro-Nature side of the argument). The philosophy contained within its pages lies at the heart of much of the environmentalist movement and its definition of Nature.
The fansite Ishmael.org summarizes the book’s core philosophy well:
“For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.
“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren't born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.”
For Ishmaelites, biodiversity and co-existence are not merely facts commonly associated with the functioning of the Natural world, but moral imperatives, defining what is and is not good behavior. They are also considered natural “law,” organizing biological existence in the same way gravity organizes the stars and planets. Most species (the “Leavers”) that follow the law, “environmental conditions permitting,” continue to exist, while some humans (the “Takers”) live in violation of the law before quickly becoming extinct. The law includes the following rules, which the Takers break: 1) Never exterminate competitors; 2) Take what you need, leave the rest alone; 3) You may deny competitors access to the food you are eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general. In conclusion, “Those who threaten the stability of the community by defying the law automatically eliminate themselves.”
On one level, they have it right. Humanity cannot consume a finite number of resources at an increasing rate indefinitely. At some point, the music will stop and there won’t be many chairs left in the room. The earth’s resources are limited to the energy dispensed by the sun (at a very constant rate) and the material resources found on and in its crust. Unless long-term space travel is realized, this is all we’ll ever have.
Besides this basic point, which I will return next week, the Ishmaelite’s worldview is plain wrong. The so called invasive species are an easy, recent example. Invasive species are species that have been introduced by humans into an ecosystem. Typically lacking a predator or having some other competitive advantage, these species quickly inhabit the new ecosystem, often driving out a “native” species it either consumes or competes with. While this phenomenon has been exacerbated by human travel, it is a normal occurrence in Nature.
Here are some examples:
- “The predatory brown tree snake, introduced in cargo from the Admiralty Islands, has eliminated ten of the eleven native bird species from the forests of Guam.”
- “The first sailors to land on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena in the 16th century introduced goats, which quickly extinguished over half the endemic plant species.”
- “The zebra mussel, accidentally brought to the United States from southern Russia, transforms aquatic habitats by filtering prodigious amounts of water (thereby lowering densities of planktonic organisms) and settling in dense masses over vast areas. At least thirty freshwater mussel species are threatened with extinction by the zebra mussel.”
- “ When the Asian chestnut blight fungus virtually eliminated American chestnut from over 180 million acres of eastern United States forests in the first half of the 20th century, it was a disaster for many animals that were highly adapted to live in forests dominated by this tree species. For example, ten moth species that could live only on chestnut trees became extinct.”
- “Rainbow trout introduced widely in the United States as game fish are hybridizing with five species listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the Gila trout and Apache trout.”
- “The endangered, endemic Hawaiian duck is being lost to hybridization with North American mallards introduced for hunting.”
The first two examples, the snail and the goat, might be good examples of what the Ishmaelites get right. If you eat your food supply to extinction, it is likely you will follow. Except that both species continue to live on said islands, 500 years after introduction in the case of the goat and over 50 in the snake’s.
The zebra muscle might not actively hunt down and destroy its competitors, but it is on the path to eliminate its competition and is surely breaking the second rule: eating more than its need. Likewise, the Asian chestnut fungus breaks rule #3, denying many species access to food and driving them to extinction. Yet like the snake and goat, it continues to thrive despite having violated the supposed laws of nature.
And what sadistic, lawless animals those ducks and trout are, fucking their competitors out of existence! Surely these species will some day meet their doom for breaking Nature’s moral code? Perhaps, but I doubt it will come about as a result of said immorality.
It is possible that Quinn just didn’t do his research. However, Ishmaelites and many environmentalists in general make a basic philosophical mistake when they deny “conscious intent” to all non-humans. Or, perhaps more precisely, when they grant it to humans. Either way the outcome is the same: living things are by and large designed to eat and reproduce (or assist fellow members of its genetic group in doing so), and if they do it better than another species competing for the same environment or food, the later species will either evolve, or see its population reduced, even extinguished.
The problem – and it is a problem – is that when a species is much, much better at eating and promoting the growth of the species, then it can threaten its own existence. This is not a moral issue, but a physical fact.
I strongly disagree with the Ishamelites on the moralizing of the Natural law, not because it isn’t a viable moral system (its as good as any), but because it is counter-productive to their cause. The Ishmaelites condemn humanity for living the way that feels normal, for the way most people prefer, and the way human culture pushes them. The Ishmaelites offer no redemption, no salvation – only damnation. This, as I have said, does not have a wide appeal. Most people do not want to condemn the poor to starvation, which Ishmael portrays as Natural, and therefore morally correct. Starvation in the modern world often has little to do with the state of Nature and more to do with the state of Civilization.