Wednesday, November 3, 2010

‘Restoring’ Nature Dilemmas

"Nowadays a forest needs human inhabitants who devote some of their time to its management. Thus in the long run human beings can be of use in improving the conditions of life on earth." (Arne Naess, Life's Philosophy: Reason & Feeling In A Deeper World, p. 110.)

"Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, pp. xvii-xix.)

I am conflicted about my attitude towards the “restoration” of ecosystems and forests, and wildlife reintroductions, within industrial capitalism. My personal orientation is “Nature knows best”, which is reinforced, I believe, by the main revolutionary thrust within deep ecology. Is there any “restoration” role for humans who are sensitized about being Earthlings, in their personal consciousness? I have an awareness of my own ecological ignorance, despite my sentiment for the wonders of the natural world and having lived, for about twenty six years now, on an old hill farm, which was once partly clear-cut but now has returned to being a forest and a wildlife habitat.

Having read John Livingston, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Stan Rowe – all naturalists who I much admire – has been a humbling experience for me. I think that it is an expression of human arrogance to believe that we have the knowledge to replace, restore, or build up ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, and forests that have been levelled. It seems absurd to hear developers (habitat annihilators) sometimes sentenced to replace a wetland they have destroyed, if somehow their particular environmental atrocity ended up in court. It also seems dead wrong (and lazy) to put tracking devices on birds, marine mammals like whales or seals, or wolves, or grizzly, or polar bears, in the name of some conservation objective. To me, tracking devices deny the “species being” of wildlife. We are ignorant of what impact devices like neck collars for bears, plus the stress of tranquilization, can mean for the survival of the targeted wildlife. It helps awareness to imagine oneself in the place of the animal being “researched”. This would be an application of the teachings stemming from the Councils of All Beings, used to convey all-species consciousness by deep ecology supporters.

Apart from this, how is a newly released wolf (or any other animal) truly wild, if movements and positions can be monitored by telemetry? The use of such high-tech devices means humans are continuing to assert their control, often using the ideological cover of conservation biology, as opposed to non-intrusive data gathering. High tech devices stop us confronting the basic problem that we need to come into a new spiritual relationship with the Earth – an ancestry that goes back thousands of years.

Arne Naess, in his eco-philosophy, back in the early 1970s made a fundamental distinction between what he called “shallow” and “deep” ecology. “Shallow” ecology was human-centered and reformist, in that it did not threaten or call into question the continuation of the industrial capitalist system and the growth of human populations. “Deep” ecology was non-human centered and essentially undermined or subverted this system, as shown for example in the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform. (It is important to note that shallow and deep were used as “argumentation patterns” by Naess and not meant to be applied to people.) Naess, while a brilliant and original thinker, is often difficult to read and can sometimes seem contradictory in his thinking – or it is that the reader does not see the full consequences of the ideas being put forth?

Unfortunately, I think the first quote by Naess in this blog can be read as an endorsement of shallow ecology, and the last sentence of this particular quote for me even invokes the hubris thinking of Murray Bookchin, that humans can guide or improve evolution, i.e. humans are “nature rendered self-conscious.” But there is another “deeper” reading of the Naess quote. Humans can have a necessary role as eco-caretakers if their communities are to sustain relatively wild places and uphold the ecological integrity of their neighbourhoods. This is my personal experience from Nova Scotia, but also, more importantly, the experience of Billy MacDonald, founder of Redtail Nature Awareness. (For an account of MacDonald’s work, see the September 2010 public meeting presentation “ Community Lands Need to Combine Deep Ecology Awareness and Social Justice”)

The overwhelming thrust of the deep ecology philosophy, and of the writings of Naess, is not reformist. Naess expressed it this way: “The direction is revolutionary, the steps are reformatory.” Yet Bill Devall, who played a prominent role with George Sessions in making the ideas of Arne Naess known in the United States, went so far as to counter this spirit of Naess and speak of the environmental movement as a “loyal opposition.” Devall asserted that “Political revolution is not part of the vocabulary of supporters of the deep, long-range ecology movement.” (Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, p. 386.) The Academy, where many deep ecology-influenced academics are to be found, has tended to politically neutralize this philosophy.

One of the core messages of deep ecology, is that we humans must enter into a new relationship with the natural world, so that our personal identities come to include this world. Nature and non-human life forms have validity in their own right and do not depend upon us for this validity. Presently, when humans make a living, we destroy the natural world. One should expect that Naess and someone like Aldo Leopold – who has sometimes been called, North America’s first pre-deep ecology deep ecologist, will be superficially ‘read’ and trotted out in support of shallow ecology positions and mainstream “resource management” environmentalism. For this is the era of massive, pretend environmental concern. We see this for Leopold in the 2008 book by Jamie Simpson, Restoring the Acadian Forest: A Guide to Forest Stewardship for Woodlot Owners in the Maritimes, which misleadingly invokes the legacy of Leopold in justification of the shallow ideas being put forth by the author. (See my review of his book.)

Naess has told us that within deep ecology “the front is long” – meaning that there are many different areas to work on, for those who are trying to apply deep ecology. While this advocacy of tolerance is admirable, for example compared to the feuding we have often seen in social ecology, what if the different deep ecology paths seem to be in conflict? Richard Sylvan, the Australian original “bad boy” critic within deep ecology and a forest activist – and someone whose thinking I came to admire – stressed to me that this philosophy does have its common “tenets.” What if someone is using “private property” legislation to admirably buy up lands to protect ecosystems and wildlife under the banner of deep ecology, and yet seems to keep quiet about a basic tenet of this philosophy, that humans cannot “own” the Earth? Naess and other thinkers have shown us that “the earth does not belong to humans.” Will such restoration work, when it does not overtly challenge but uses “private property” laws, also assist the overall industrial capitalist social system’s continuity, rather than assist creating cultural conditions for its demise? Is this not a major flaw of wildlands philanthropy, which is so celebrated in Canada, the United States and Latin America?

A similar private property dilemma is faced here in Nova Scotia where I live, by the Friends of Redtail Society, of which I am a member. This Society was formed to purchase 313 acres of forested land, basically to protect the ecological integrity of Redtail Nature Awareness. It has until December 2010 to raise the $250,000 purchase price. When I was asked to publicly endorse this appeal on their web site, this presented a restoration dilemma for me. This is how I resolved it:
“The Friends of Redtail Society is trying to stop, by purchase, the destruction of over 300 acres of Acadian semi-wilderness forest land, located in the vicinity of the Nature-bonding educational center Redtail Nature Awareness, near Scotsburn, Pictou County, Nova Scotia. I support their cause – an inspirational new community-based land use project, rooted in a deep ecology awareness, and in opposition to the current industrial forest model. Industrial forestry not only liquidates the living forest but also liquidates any possibility of rural communities living in some kind of sustainable economic relationship with forests. I also endorse the view of Arne Naess that ‘The earth does not belong to humans.’ Unfortunately, until the ecological and social changes come about that will eliminate private land 'ownership' one is forced to raise money to "purchase" this land so that it can be saved from destruction.”
(See the Friends of Redtail Society web site.)

Another example of conflict surfaces in deep ecology forestry work. I wrote about the two paths in such work in the 1995 Green Web Bulletin #44:
“One is a reformist path, which defines some kind of eco-forestry and its certification, within the existing industrial system. Renegade foresters are active on this path... The other path, less well developed, and in the left biocentric camp, states that a ‘sustainable forestry requires a sustainable society.’ It calls for, and is working toward, the dismantling of existing industrial society as part of a deep ecology forestry strategy.”

People who express concern about the decline of the natural world and say they want to do something about it in their own life’s work – as opposed to those who clearcut forests for personal profit, fish blue fin tuna to extinction, or infill wetlands for housing projects, etc. – seem obvious studies in contrast. Yet it is the assumptions of the (for want of a better term) “do-gooders” – my side – which continue to haunt me. How can a person not feel conflicted about trying to do “good works” on a land base, over which one may have some limited control (but not forgetting that the provincial governments in Canada ‘own’ the subsurface mineral rights and, through taxation policies, also influence land use, regardless of private ownership), while the society in which one lives continues to trash the living world, and there is no real change in sight?
*  *  *  *  *

Has this blog post resolved anything about the various dilemmas around ‘restoration’ work in Nature? I still think that Nature knows best, and that we have limited knowledge about the long-term efficacy of any of our interventions into trying to change the world around us. Deep ecologist Richard Sylvan (with David Bennett) in his 1994 book The Greening of Ethics: From Human Chauvinism to Deep Green Theory was bold enough to state the overall perspective within which our transitional restoration activities need to be placed: “Deep environmental groups should begin to prepare, carefully and thoroughly, for revolutionary action.” (p. 220) In our context, this means that industrial capitalism itself has to be dismantled and restoration work needs to somehow assist this objective and not avoid it. Contrary to Bill Devall, we are not a “loyal opposition” playing within the rules of the industrial capitalist game, which will eventually sink us all unless turned around. The task to change this is indeed a revolutionary one, and any reforms we are engaged with must keep this higher purpose in the forefront of our thinking. There must be some public expression of this, so as to rally others. In the short term, we have to play by the existing rules of industrial society, if we are to preserve parts of ecosystems and the remnant wildlife. But our basic message – that industrial capitalism has to go – must never be hidden, as is often the case with those engaged in restoring the natural world in some way. We are, as another Australian, ecologist Tim Flannery has called us, “The Future Eaters.” There can be no sustainable anything, in the long term, in an unsustainable society.


  1. I agree that the best restoration strategy is the simplest: freeing natural areas from human exploitation.

    The fluid nature of Nature, ever responding to climatic and other changes, causes exercises to "restore" to a past condition, no matter how desirable, to become attempts to force an anachronism that likely will not stand without continued human support. Defeating the point of nature restoration.

    At the same time, temporary interventions, such as preventing a freshly clearcut area from losing all its topsoil by using erosion control measures on the shorn landscape, may give Nature some of Her own tools to regenerate with.

    Similarly, philanthropic purchases of "title" to large land areas with the intention to allow them to recover on their own, with as little human intervention as possible, are at least allowing Nature to again peep out through the plants and animals there.

    Does a slave care whether she was emancipated by her "owner" or by a liberating army?
    Perhaps yes, since the former is gradual for the enslaved community and may even perpetuate it, while the latter accomplishes liberation for all slaves, all of a sudden.

    But I do not think a thorough liberation of Nature is imminent, so "nature emancipations" carried out by the philanthopist "owners" may be the best one can hope for at present for many places. Not the sea, but certainly on land.

  2. 1. Restoration.
    As you know, I do not entirely agree with you on this one. I fully agree that we know only the grossest details about what needs to be done, and that our knowledge of how an ecosystem works in it’s myriad details is deficient by, probably many, orders of magnitude.

    IMO, this in no way negates the requirement for reintroduction of missing species and/or classes of species, if this is possible. Ecosystems, for instance, really miss their top predators, and it is often possible to restore these (wolves to Yellowstone, for example). In some cases species can be easily removed (in Scotland, I saw places where the sheep had been fenced out, and guess what?; forests grew).

    You and I both agree, I think, that the possibility of “restoration” should not be allowed to be used as a mitigation for destruction in the first place.

    2. Alien Species
    There are aliens, and aliens. IMO, it is impossible to remove an alien once it has become established, or even before that. Once a species is here, whether or not it becomes established seems to be independent of what we humans want. And actually, from the ecological viewpoint, often the aliens are not so intrusive or destructive. Ox-eye Daisies, for instance are an alien in North America. But they are well integrated into the landscape. In any case, we can do nothing about established aliens. Think of the aforementioned Daisies, or of Buckthorn, Purple Loosestrife and Zebra Muscles.

    If we really wanted to take action on aliens, we should take action to prevent their arrival. Of course that would interfere with commerce, so it won’t happen. While we are on this subject think of the benefits of international trade that wiped out the Chestnuts in the 1800s, and in our time, the Elms. It has also supplied us with Zebra Muscles which have really changed the ecology of many of our ecosystems. Who but the traders have benefited from these exchanges in the long run?

    3. Radio Collars
    Again, IMO, this issue has many sides. The wolves of Algonquin Park received additional protected landscape amounting in a size equal to the area of the Park because the science which relied on radio collars had shown that they were in decline. So, I think that the position on radio collars should be that it must be reasonably shown that an advantage will accrue to the animals themselves due to the collars and related research. Thus students should not be allowed to repeat the “research” in order to get experience, etc.

    4. Land Ownership
    Like you, I would support the ideas of usufruct (where an occupant of the land has some tenure, but is not allowed any destructive rights). At present we cannot move directly out of our current dreadfully destructive system into some ecological utopia in one giant stride; this must be done through many steps. So, some ownership represents a step, or steps, ahead on our path. Redtail’s land purchase represent one of these steps; more than that, it represents a lot of talk and discussion of the path forward among many who would never have thought of such things before. Similarly, I think that Doug Tompkin’s work must be applauded; moreover he is solidly making the statement that humans, individual ones anyway, should not own the Earth by buying it up and then voluntarily giving it up, through donation, to the commonwealth, in his case the governments of Chile and Argentina. Ditto, I think, for the smaller donations of people like me to The Nature Conservancy (warts and all!) and similar organizations.

    I think that the above discussion could be an example of a new human relationship some humans are building with nature.

    Ian Whyte, Ottawa.