these are careless overall impressions more than systematic observations. i think the region where i live (let's say mid-atlantic) is considerably lusher than it was, say, thirty years ago. the vegetation is thicker, with vines and suckers all over everything. it's greener, and of course the east coast has overall reforested in the last half century, and existing forest has matured, even though logging continues in relatively small doses.
the greening may well have something to do with warming, and the vibe is going from temperate to semi-tropical. but also, the way they farm out here is having perhaps underappreciated environmental effects. so the way operate around here is that they come early in the spring and spray round-up on everything with large combines, killing the spring green immediately. then a week or two later they seed soybeans or corn in rows and spray the fields with fertilizer. the seed must be round-up resistant. they return late in the fall and harvest, and that's the sum total of the interaction of farmer and field: it's all done with very big machines extremely quickly. i'm betting it's ten minutes or less per acre for the whole season.
i'm quite surrounded by intense ag at my little scholhouse is adams country, pa. i'm below many fields, and i think the runoff partly accounts for the incredible green fecundity all around me (also, this is a very wet area; every town named for a spring: york springs, boiling springs, mt holly springs, etc). but i also think that a number of species of plants around me have become herbicide resistant. it's been amazing trying to get rid of the poison ivy, which grows around here in a way that entirely covers whole barns or hundred-foot trees, or where you realize that what you thought were branches of that maple are gigantic ivy/oak vine/branches.
you can soak this viciously toxic vegetation pretty thoroughly in the stuff that home depot bills as 'poison ivy and brush killer,' and give it barely a pause. the crap is insanely hard to handle. i feel i have to kill it with herbicide before iattack it or else i'd need a head-to-toe hazmat suit. as it is, i've worked with coveralls and a mask at times. anyway, even to have a crack at it, i need to mix a triple-strength solution.
i think the same is true of the english ivy and the honeysuckle around here. i've never seen anything like the honeysuckle: there's an acre of just thick bowers of vines around my house. the whole county smells like honey. here's a pic.
at any rate, i think we are in an experiment with this manner of farming to see what happens when you drench whole counties in herbicide every year. and then what happens to ag and everything else if a hundred resistant weeds emerge.
on the other hand, i wouldn't say that all this stuff seems to be making this area any less alive, per se: my heavens it's a blooming buzzing confusion of birds bugs animals and no doubt everything else.
one thing i'm puzzled about: the ethical stance, associated with the left at the moment, where the question is 'what if everyone did that?' what if no one recycled? what if everyone had five kids or drove a car that got 20 mpg? sometimes i share the intuition. sometimes i doubt the effects would be as described. you can get some pretty draconian stuff out of this, like it makes an argument that everyone should live urban, for example, which reduces your carbon footprint but might tend to delete in important respects everyone's relations to non-human nature, with incalculable long-range effects. in some ways it's a sort of an extension of the golden rule or the categorical imperative: live as you could want everyone to live. it sounds sensible.
on the other hand it sounds crazy. what if everyone was a philosophy professor? imagine the social costs! what if no one read novels? the publishing industry would collapse! what if everyone raised tomatoes? too many tomatoes! what if, at 3pm, everyone in the whole world stopped what they were doing and watched general hospital? it would be incumbent on someone who was trying to tease this into an ethical theory to distinguish cases where one ought to from cases where one needn't or ought not calculate the effects of everyone doing 'that'; possibly some thinkers have had a go.
now, when i choose to live rural, should i ask myself what would happen if everyone lived rural? why, exactly, when it's so obvious that not everyone will? many of my own beliefs and even actions are, i admit, taken precisely because in fact most people don't do 'that.' so how would we work in that sort of impulse? now, i guess it's ok until you get the point of using it as a taser: like, requiring people to live as would be best if everyone lived like that (note, with the effects anticipated this week by experts or faddists or scientists or or bureaucrats or whatever).
i do think it's kind of an interesting way to generate ethical intuitions: something you should ask yourself. however, when you get right down to it, i am not going to take responsibility for a kind of sci-fi hypothetical counter-factual scenario. i have enough trouble trying to take responsibility plainly for what i actually do and the effects what i actually do has on what actually happens (including what happens to other people, of course).
the intuition engine turns us into a vague collective cloud, but not even that: it asks you to operate morally in a world that does not or cannot exist, and as a person who cannot exist: a general person. honestly, whatever the truth about climate change, i'm only taking responsibility for my own emissions, which are infinitesimal. but then again, is it even possible for me to take responsibility for my own emissions? like with offsets or something?) probably i am not even paying the costs of my own emissions, and then how could we, or could we, hold individuals responsible in cases like this at all? but what if everyone thought like that?
in some ways the thought-experiement makes everyone responsible for what we do to the world, which sounds good. be the change you want to see etc. but on the other hand, living generally like this might be a way of evading the real effects of what you actually do: what if everyone tried to require everyone else to live as they thought everyone ought to live? possibly a war of each against each.
one thing to note: utilitarianism famously faces the problem that it insists that you judge the moral quality of an action by its effects, but the effects of any given action are very difficult or indeed impossible to foresee. now bloat up this standard to a possible (?) world in which 7 billion people act or believe like you do and try calculating the effects.
but ask yourself this: what would the world be like if everyone lived the same way, had the same values, anticipated the same effects, and so on? maybe we'd merge ecstatically into a very big single thing. we'd be boring until we went extinct, though, which would not take long. so in application to itself, the principle is wacky, or self-consuming. strange, though, but the question also seems unavoidable and important. obviously, i am hostile a bit, because the thing would mess up my indivisualism etc. i started out tio slam but ended up worried.
as you may recall, i am not particularly impressed by the threat of invasive species, though some nasty asian grass is indeed overwhelming my garden. the concrete dock from japan with hundreds of species aboard washing up in oregon is called 'destructive' and 'appalling' by environmental scientists. no, it's amazing. let it teach you something. it makes you realize that like human beings, other species are always traveling, probing, roving in watercraft across the seas. it should make you see that species have been travelling the globe on logs or boulders or breezes since there was life. i don't know: do you really want to conceive of 'eco-systems' as little insulated zones of perfect stability? that is an ideology or a religion, not a science, because it doesn't come from the world that's actually there. now we may interpret the arrival of some species as destructive, and it might indeed fuck up our crops or fisheries or forests. of course, from the point of view of the brown marmorated stink bugs or brown asian algae, that's neither here nor there. and maybe even from our homosapienscentric view we ought to get on to the opportunities and improvements that such invasions might also represent. anyway, if there were no invasive species, there'd be no life.
Highjacking Crispin's site again with JJ Cale and Chuck Prophet, Thomas More and Thomas Hobbes, the Navajo, the Army, Paul Ryan and Tora Bora...it just doesn't get better than this. I think at times there's a better class of reader here than at the other places I babble...certainly the comments I get over at Veteran's Today give me a lot of pause. Anyway, this has been a complex piece to get my teeth into...for a variety of reasons. So, here we go...
The number of broken promises and bad judgments made over the last 30 years is incredible. Each bad judgment ends up causing more broken promises. However, the majority of the problems I see – crumbling infrastructure, lousy schools, increased long-term unemployment, mounting debt, lagging modernization, lack of a coherent energy plan and so on and on and on as well as what has happened to Native Americans, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsman, Civil Servants, Labor Unions, and on and on comes from the idea that we don’t have the wherewithal to pay for what we need to do. That is bullshit.
To be educated, a person doesn't have to know much or be informed, but he or she does have to have been exposed vulnerably to the transformative events of an engaged human life.
Can you say AN/PDR-27R? ALPHA-NOVEMBER-PAPA-DELTA-ROMEO-TWO-SEVEN-ROMEO?
actually, i think the solyndra scandal is kind of serious, and getting moreso with each revelation. i don't think you can argue that half a billion dollars funneled to one company is not a...substantial expenditure. the technical term might be 'huge-ass.' it kind of takes shape as a beautiful argument that you don't actually want economic decisions made by political people, or as an illustration of one thing that's wrong with a 'planned' or 'socialist' economy, or at any rate with 'public/private partnership': could you please delay your total collapse until the day after the election?
hmmmm! san francisco is trying ban the sale of all animals, including, like, goldfish. what do y'all make of that?
obviously, an anarchist can't really endorse the legislative approach. but it would be interesting to think about more and more creatures and things as stuff that cannot be bought and sold. if a cultural consensus started moving that way, it would be an immensely dramatic change: you'd get to 'post-capitalism.' we're a long long way from treating animals that way, of course, and people have been buying and selling animals since the hebrew bible, or long before. it more or less seems to go with the concept of domestication, i suppose, or comes soon thereafter. it seems pretty central to the practice of having pets. but it could be and perhaps should be re-thought.
one would like to think of the national park system, for example, as taking some land out of the possibility of ownership, or moving it into collective ownership. and to some extent these are not mere ideologies, even if in other respects state ownership is anything but collective ownership. but the national park system is actually a reasonably good anti-anti-statist example (something which, in my own head, i've found a little difficult to square with my position), and it comes at least with the notion that some plants (redwoods) or inanimate/animate ecosystems (the grand canyon, say, or the tetons) are beyond ownership. if we could cultivate this attitude, it would change our relation to the world.
demonstrators, including wendell berry, have been occupying the kentucky governor's office to oppose coal extraction by mountaintop removal. i have a deep love of the appalachians, and i leave you to ponder, for example, how a swiss leader would be greeted who proposed to let corporations level the alps, and what such a procedure might do to the people who lived there. i have seen this, as i blogged a couple of years ago; i have never seen a more disturbing sight, except perhaps by brother bob's bullet-ridden corpse. i am not going to try to develop a moral theory on which mountains have rights, for example, though i will say that people are not fully distinct from the places they occupy, and that we are destroying ourselves. but i do intuit that something like a mountain or an ecosystem makes its own instrinsic claim to exist.
ok here is an op-ed-style piece summarizing my misgivings about environmentalism. the ideas will be familiar to anyone who reads eyeofthestorm.
Environmentalists Against Nature
By Crispin Sartwell
The practice of environmentalism has, or at least sometimes has, been wholesome. But the basic concepts underpinning it are, I think, profoundly incoherent.
On any reasonably naturalistic conception of human beings - any conception even vaguely compatible with science, for example - we are natural creatures, one variety of mammal. And on any even slightly empirical account of natural history, ecosystems are volatile. Most environmentalists, surely, would accept these assertions. And yet almost every sentence out of their mouths contradicts them.
The environmental movement, first of all, rests on a picture of human actions as encroachments on the order of nature: according to this picture we are distorting, manipulating, and destroying the earth. We have lost our connection with it. But if you believe that we are part and parcel of nature, that we emerged as an animal species by natural selection, then the picture of us as attacking it is an impossible picture. We are it. Everything we do - from hiking the Appalachian Trail to spewing toxins - is completely natural.
Environmentalists often seem to want to return ecosystems to a pristine condition, a natural balance or harmony that we have disturbed. But ecosystems are not static, not even strictly cyclical, and they are in continuous interaction with one another: no ecosystem, not even the entire earth, is a biosphere sealed off from elsewhere. Species have been appearing and disappearing and traveling the globe since life emerged, colonizing this environment, abandoning that one.
Some ecosystems display some elements of balance or harmony for significant periods of time. But such harmonies are always provisional and always in the process of being compromised, whether we're the ones doing the compromising or not.
I live in rural Pennsylvania, more or less in the woods, though there is a strip mall about three miles away, with a Wal-Mart and a Wendy's (the video store, of course, is defunct, thus destroying the balance of strip mall). People have lived around here for centuries, and their traces are everywhere: in the fields cleared for farming, the old stone walls and ancient structures slowly crumbling into the earth. There are little middens here and there, where folks in the good old country tradition have dumped their broken bottles and kitchen scraps.
I haven't actually done a census, but it's hard not to see that there are "invasive" or human-introduced species everywhere. The English ivy grows luxuriantly along the ground and is ascending the trees. Gangs of starlings waft hither and yon. Chinese chestnuts feed the grey squirrels. Invasive European-Americans appear in abundance, though they are fewer here than in some spots. This year we were invaded by stink bugs.
But the place is deliriously alive. I think of the poison ivy out here as a single entity taking over whole regions with its lustrous green leaves and its nasty toxin, perhaps enhanced by climate change that has made the place just a bit more lush and tropical. There are layers of birds, from the hummers and finches and chickadees, through the doves and pigeons, to the several species of woodpeckers overseen by the big pileateds, to the kestrels, sharp-shinned and red-shouldered hawks, to the turkey buzzards floating at altitude. There are voles, chipmunks, colonies of feral cats, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer (along with tree stands for those who enjoy shooting them).
The other day a raccoon toddled into my house when I let in my cat; I'm not sure which of the three of us freaked out more.
That, I must say, is a good enough eco-system for me, and I think that perhaps we should think of any such system in terms of its vitality and volatility rather than its stability. We should note and we can value its imbalances and inharmonies as well its balances and harmonies.
And I participate, not only by a feeling of oneness or something, but with my chainsaw, the old mops I toss into the old dumps, my herbicide. I grow roses and butterfly bushes and hybridized tomatoes. My house is as much a part of this ecosystem as the boulders, and I as much as the raccoons.
Plants and animals, as I say, have been moving around and expunging one another since they existed at all. We are one way they do that, and we are animals who do that ourselves. The globe has been cooling and warming since there was a globe, and we are one way it does that too.
The picture of us as disturbing or destroying nature is exactly as supernatural as the religious orientations according to which it was all put here by God for us to do with whatever we please. The environmental movement is still locked into a picture of us as immaterial souls - or at any rate things well beyond nature - who are invaders or visitors on this earthly plane.
And it is just as devoted to controlling or altering this order as the rankest industrialist. We are still trying to transform the world according to our little conceptions, only now our conceptions are slightly different: we'll control it to return it to a pristine balance that emerges only out of our imaginations and has the status of a deity that prescribes moral standards.
What I'd suggest is that environmentalists need to examine their assumptions, and at a minimum reconcile them with each other. And they also need to re-think their practice in a way that is compatible with a fully naturalistic, reality-based conception of the world and of themselves.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
here's a brief illustration of what i mean on environment: biosphere 2 (earth was supposed to be biosphere 1). the idea was to create a completely enclosed ecosystem, a sort of model for the way they thought about the earth, or perhaps the way they thought about various local ecosystems: as essentially isolated, balanced, stable systems. they tried to simulate the balance and stability supposedly displayed by nature before man's depredations. not to put too fine a point on it, the thing was a miserable failure by that standard: they actually never effectively sealed it: the inside was continually leaking out and the outside in. to the extent the could seal it, it started to die and became non-viable. e.g. all the pollinating insects died, which would have compromised the whole thing if they hadn't started importing stuff. they couldn't achieve a stable oxygen level, even with all their plants. etc. eventually they just gave up, and the thing came to be regarded as a boondoggle. in short, unsustainable.
but the experiment could have been regarded as a success in this sense: it disconfirmed (not decisively of course) the picture of what an ecosystem is and what makes it workable with which they started. the earth itself even as a whole is not an integral self-contained system. start, um, with the source of light (including the sudden blast of solar flares etc), or the role of meteor impacts on species and evolution. but there is certainly no ecosystem on earth that's not in constant interchange with those surrounding it. even island ecosystems do not maintain precisely the same species etc through long periods of time, but which i mean hundreds or thousands, not millions of years. we have this fantasy of nature as a stable underlying reality which we are disturbing; this is false both about those systems and about us.
the environmental movement still has this idea of nature as wise (and it is a wisdom to which we must return). it's like a fantasy mother, lovely and harmonious; we are her straying children, though through "sustainability," for example, we could simulate in ourselves her ideal condition. whatever this may be, it is not an empirical result; actually it's almost bizarre in its detachment from our real experience or natural history. no doubt nature does display various spatially and temporally limited relative balances, or is relatively stable in some places over significant stretches of time. the mutual interdependent adaptation of creatures is astonishing. right. but all of that is in the context of an extremely volatile, radically unstable system constantly subject to change from within and without, and exquisite adaptations lead to sudden mutual extinctions because of weather, or warming or cooling, or microbes suddenly wafting in from south america, or strange ducks crossing the pacific. we are such ducks.
cb's got me thinking environmentalism. so i guess more criticism! i think that much, anyway, of the environmental movement, has a wrong view of ecosystems or what makes an ecosystem a good ecosystem. so it just can't be in terms of balance, equilibrium, sustainability, stability. there are no static ecosystems or ecosystems in equilibrium. so the ecosystem around my house (yes: it's waldenish! but with a wal-mart pretty close): it's filled to overflowing with the alterations of man. centuries of farming, e.g., structures in various stages of collapse and disappearance. obviously another alcoholic lived here before me: there are hundreds of whiskey bottles in piles all around the woods. there are more invasive than non-invasive species, insofar as i can do a census, and english ivy and sparrows are everywhere. but it is incredibly alive. there are myriads of insects of al kinds, vines growing luxuriantly over everything. a meadow surrounded by berry-briars, all kinds of trees from all over the world: chinese chestnuts for example. the poison ivy is extremely impressive, as if one plant had takn over the whole region. there are layers of birds, from hummers to little peepers, to bluejays, and ascending through kestrels, sharp-shinned and red-shouldered hawks, to turkey vultures. i means 'layers' literally. there are feral cats everywhere; i saw a black one just before dark tonight. also coyotes, deer, bobcats, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, voles etc etc. the whole place is just deliriously alive. that is a good enough ecosystem for me, and i contribute to it by mowing, throwing my old mops back into the various middens that have sprouted up here over the decades, chainsawing, burning, gardening. i brought my cats and my axe. at any rate, i think that one might see climate change differently just by a full acknowledgement that ecosystems are dynamic, we participants. this would be my standard: is it vital? is it full of life? then you know it doesn't need us to fantasize a return to some never-real pristine condition.
washpost, on the struggles of environmental groups:
Now the groups are wondering how they can keep this loss from becoming a rout as their opponents press their advantage and try to undo the Obama administration's climate efforts. At two events last week in Wisconsin, environmental groups seemed to be trying two strategies: defiance and pleading for sympathy.pleading for sympathy is noble, but i would suggest extreme continual repetition of the message in all media all the time, from cereal boxes to elementary school textbooks to new york times editorials to advertisements for the coal industry. oh wait y'all did that already? well, try jacking up the rhetoric to excruciating levels, making this the greatest crisis our species has ever faced, or suggesting that we are in the middle of an apocalypse caused by our distance from god, oops i mean nature. tried that too? well consider increasing the hyperbole after that: perhaps we are all already dead, having destroyed our planet with carbon dioxide in 2003, and are now living in the afterlife, just as bill mckibben predicted in 1990. well, maybe not. i would suggest that the only possible strategy is to eliminate as far as possible every other message, meaning, idea. there should be exactly one sentence or phrase remaining in the language. you need to plead for sympathy and repress dissent. it's not enough to have the administration, the educational system, cnn, bill gates, etc., yapping continuously or rehearsing our lines infinitely many times until it becomes white noise. somewhere, there is a child doing something other than chanting our slogans in unison with all other children. obviously the powers that be want to repress us. how can we get our message out there?
sorry for slow blogging. i'll try to pick it up! anyway, quote from john terborgh's piece, in the new york review of books, on caroline fraser's book rewilding the world: "The movement to rewild the earth benefits from the virtue of common sense - we should restore the processes that sustained nature before humans disrupted them." now to me this is a pretty crisp expression of a basic point of view that i think is...unsustainable: nature is a stable system that is external to human beings and which we have disrupted or are destroying. though it is filled with self-loathing, this view (obviously) deploys a supernatural vision of human beings; it's, um, cartesian. this sort of thing, i must say, is how we got into this pretty pickle.
that terborgh could refer to this view as 'common sense' is revealing: it is a consensus among, i suppose, environmentalists. but of course it's wrong. nature is an extremely volatile system, not an equilibrium. we are nature in one of its manifestations, and the alterations we impose are natural.
one little spot of this attitude is the idea of "native" and "invasive" species. now of course species have been spreading around the world since there was life, and they use whatever is at hand to do it. invasive species are especially species introduced by human action: like in my woods multi-flora roses and english ivy are everywhere. but human action is just a mechanism that some species can use to reproduce. whatever species you have where you are, few of them originated in that place. but on the other hand i think my woods are a perfectly workable ecosystem: always developing and shifting, of course, but workable. i'm interested in seeing what happens, not in pulling out all the english ivy.
we have got to learn to try to learn to let things be, or love reality or nature as it really is, a little. the environmentalism that views human interaction with the environment in terms of destruction, preservation, restoration, is just more technology. it demands that we transform the world, again and again. i tel you this: we will hate and radically reconsider these alterations fifty years from now. we have got to view the relation in terms of participation.
you know i'll peg a few remarks about the environment, nature, etc on a tom friedman column. i think we really need to reconceive this thing in a profound way. the basic models are: the world as an arena of resources, and a kind of "cult" of nature. the former model ranges from just "so let's strip the planet" to a more circumspect friedman-style economic model of renewable resources or "sustainability." that is, we still think of the environment as something we use or a technological object, but we have been chastened by various difficulties, and we're worried about long-term economic or health implications etc, esp energy. then there's a kind of picture of nature as a benevolent mother (or whatever), conceived in terms of a beautifully balanced system which we're disturbing, the romantic origin of the natural/artificial distinction. i would write about this for hours, but just a few basic principles: we are nature. there is no conceptual distinction between human effects on the environment and those of bees or beavers or volcanoes. probably once you get rid of the artificial you have gotten rid of the idea of nature as well, and that's ok; you cannot conceptualize this in terms of a separation or duality of any kind. second, "nature" or the environment or whatever is, as our activities but also geology or evolutionary biology show, volatile - as deranged as it is arranged, as chaotic as sensible, as destructive as nurturing, as stupid or arbitrary or fatal as benign. it's always subject to change from the excellent (from a species view) to the disastrous. there are provisional equilibria (like say the water cycle or something) and also conflagrations, collisions, mutations. if the earth is heating up, let's say, that is a perfectly natural event, and perfectly typical in the history of worlds.