What is the goal of conservation biology or environmental activism? (Or to put it more generally, what is our obligation toward nature?) If the goal is to preserve nature in as pristine a state as possible, untouched by humans, how does this account for the fact that humans are not separate from nature but rather a part of it? This afternoon I heard a lecture by J. Baird Callicott, a noted environmenta philosopher, about this question. (The talk was organized by Indiana University’s Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions.)
Callicott outlined some of the attitudes toward humans and nature over time; most relied on some kind of metaphysical essential attribute of man that separated him from nature. Man was created in the image of God, for example, or man was the rational animal. Darwin turned this kind of thing upside down when he said that our supposedly unique capabilities (e.g., for speech or intelligence or ethics) evolved over time from proto-capabilities in other species. This idea that there is no boundary between us and other species is central to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, which “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” (Quote from A Sand County Alamanc)
But, as Callicott stated the resulting paradox: “If Homo sapiens is a part of nature, then human actions, no less than the actions of other species, are natural–just another intriguing chapter in the biography of the earth, no more subject to ethical praise or condemnation than the actions of other species.” And of course many of us would take vigorous exception to that idea, which has consequences for how we treat the land and the creatures we share it with. (In his book Conversations with the Archdruid, John McPhee quotes Floyd Dominy (former Commissioner of Reclamation, and big on dams) as saying: “Nature changes the environment every day of our lives–why shouldn’t we change it? We’re part of nature.”)
Callicott found a resolution to the paradox by considering the various time scales operating in nature, from the organismic (operating at the level of the individual organism, and including processes of metabolism and photosynthesis), to the ecological (processes of succession and disturbance), climatic, evolutionary, and geomorphological. The processes of the organismic scale range in duration from one day to about a thousand years, of the ecological scale from one year to thousands of years, and so on, with each scale having a longer timespan. Geomorphological cycles are the longest of all, some of them stretching into the billions of years.
Humans speciated on the evolutionary time scale, and evolved the capacity for culture on the same scale, which places humans and human culture both within the time scales of nature. But human culture, once launched, is Lamarckian (relying on the inheritance or transmission of acquired or learned characteristics) rather than Darwinian, and thus operates on a much shorter time scale (and Callicott presented a brief summary of weapon technology to illustrate that it’s not only faster, it’s speeding up these days).
And this is where the resolution of the paradox arrives: we cross the boundary between human and nature when we begin to “transform ecosystems faster than other biota can adapt.” So we are a part of nature, not set apart by God or by our special abilities or by something in our essence like our rationality; but at the same time we are not free to do whatever we want and claim that all our actions are natural and thus value-neutral and not subject to moral judgment. We need to act appropriately with respect to the spatio-temporal scales of nature.
Well, there it is in a nutshell; the talk lasted an hour, with half an hour of question-and-answer afterward, so this is just a sketch, but it should give you the gist of it. I found it a reasonably coherent way to resolve something that I have puzzled over. I need to think about it some more, but this certainly gave me some ideas to chew over (and some more ideas for books to read). Some interesting questions came up afterward, including one about practical recommendations arising from all this. He gave several examples of ways to make our footprint smaller, e.g., vegetarianism (not for the sake of livestock, who might not be alive at all if we weren’t raising them for food, but for efficiency of land use–since we get relatively little food out of animals for each pound of grain we put in, it would be more efficient to eat lower on the food chain–which frees land up to go back to an uncultivated state). He mentioned an initiative he’s involved in in Denton, Texas, where he lives, to concentrate development so as to leave room for green space. (If it can happen in Texas, he said, it can happen anywere.)
I’d be very interested in hearing anyone else’s thoughts on this subject. Like I said, I’m still chewing it over myself.