Garden Wilderness and the New Environmentalism
The final chapter in Charles C. Mann’s 1491 entitled “The Artificial Wilderness” elaborates his vision of the New World as having been thoroughly shaped by its Indian peoples. In the previous chapter, “Amazonia”, Mann suggests that as much as 1/8th of the Amazonian dryland forests may be in fact abandoned orchards. But the people of the Amazon basin were not the only ones that modified their environments in dramatic fashion.
Prairie Indians, such as those in the North American Central Plains, or in the high plains of South America, regularly burned vast swaths for a variety of reasons. Forest Indians acted similarly, keeping down underbrush growth and creating a woodlands more park than wilderness. Mountain Indians terraced the sides of mountains, carving out new arable lands. All Indian peoples either farmed the landscape or hunted and herded prey and predator alike. The combined effect of these actions undertaken by a population more numerous than Europe was continental-scale garden. The New World encountered by Europeans, though vast and seemingly so wild, was never a wilderness.
As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that there are two types of environmentalists: conservationists and pragmatists. For 30 years, these two groups have had a common goal, but that unity may not last too much longer because deep down, these two types are motivated by very different visions of the world and humanity’s role in it. This new history of the Americas that Mann and others are just beginning to tell will be hard for conservationists to accept and may hasten that split. But if it’s true that there never was an American wilderness as such, it’s time to think differently about conservation and the environment we are attempting to preserve. It’s time for a New Environmentalism.
Conserving the Environment for Mankind
Just in case it isn’t already obvious, I’m a pragmatic environmentalist. For good or ill, there are so many humans that the environment alone cannot support them. In addition to all of the services the environment offers us for free, we are forced exploit additional energy sources and augment natural processes in order to grow our food and heat our homes. The effects of these actions are only now becoming clear to us, but for every glass of water we drink or steak we eat, there is a cost.
Conservation for its own sake has too often pitted environmentalists against development. But true conservation now means something else, it means primarily assuring functional environmental services that clean our water, give us oxygen, and maintain the soil upon which we grow most of our food. This means among other things that we must save the Amazon rainforests, stop soil erosion and salinization, and restore natural wetlands that clean our fresh waters. Beyond that, societies can choose to preserve other environments for their aesthetic value, but development is not an evil thing. The natural world has value, as does every species within it, so we must develop in a way that minimizes destruction. But humanity is worth so much more, if for no other reason than rooting for the hometeam.
Environmental Lessons of the Indians
With exception, Indian peoples were first-rate pragmatic environmentalists. They understood the value of the natural world in providing for their own needs, and many even worshipped the spirits of the very creatures they consumed. Indians did not live lightly on the land, they lived smartly. Undoubtedly animals were destroyed in the fires they set, but as a result of those fires far more animals were able to exist in the grasslands than in the mesquite scrublands of modern North Texas. Deep respect of the natural world around them motivated many religious beliefs, and probably encouraged the thorough use of most parts of the animals they killed.
Centuries upon centuries of this environmental stewardship enabled more in some cases than we have been capable of today. Parts of Mesoamerica were more heavily peopled than they are today because the modern environment is incapable of sustaining greater numbers. Amazonia is to a great extent the orchards of people who lived half a millenium ago. The grasslands of the Central Plains were once verdant and productive where today they are dessicated and barren without the artificial inputs of chemical fertilizers and imported water. Indian peoples even managed to create empires in the Andes, some of the least hospitable terrains for human occupation on this Earth.
If this Earth is to support the perhaps 10 billion people projected by the end of this century, it must be reshaped. We are, of course, already doing that reshaping. The loss of arable land due to erosion, salinization, and urbanization are proceeding at a frightening pace. Human-induced global warming is causing rapid shifts in natural environments that will fundamentally alter their makeup. Invasive species are homogenizing the planet and wreaking havoc in thousands of places. Like it or not, the world and its biota are changing in response to the massive perturbations caused by so many humans.
The New Environmentalism
Though the efforts of conservationists have given us Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Northern Hawaiian marine reserve, among so many other places, their gains will be much for naught if these other problems are not tackled first. Unfortunately, the bitter disputes between conservationists and developers have created in the modern political climate a situation where nothing can get done. Development can’t occur in some areas, but progress on FAR more important issues is stymied by politicians representing bitter and mistrusting citizens.
It’s time to cut the pure conservationalists loose. If they cannot allow compromise on small issues for the greater good of mankind, then they must be marginalized. In some cases, high-profile disputes arrive over the preservation of individual sub-populations of a species. But where the hell is the high-profile dispute over global warming and America joining the Kyoto protocol? The Environment faces a set of dangers far greater than any dam or mountain-scalping mining project, but the groups set up to conserve are embroiled in relatively meaningless disputes and silent on the big issues.
As part of a broader alliance between parties on crucial energy issues, allow drilling in ANWR. But, as part of the price we need to assure real investment in new renewable energy projects and increase CAFE standards for auto manufacturers. The extra oil will help keep the economy strong while it shoulders the costs of transitioning to a low-CO2 emissions regime.
If conservationists refuse to agree, they need to be marginalized within the environmental community. We can no longer allow an extreme view to dominate such an important aspect of modern science and politics. I am not saying that conservation is not important, I’m saying that in order to conserve we have to sacrifice some to save the whole. A true conservationist’s view of the world is one of negative population growth, extremely restricted development, and heavy-handed regulation. There is some role for all of those things in the New Environmentalism, but it’s time for compromises and action rather than unyielding and self-righteous environmental purity.
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