Our human history is inseparable from the natural world. Homo sapiens evolved through the stone ages to invent farming, civilization and wondrous tools.
As I’ve bounced back and forth between Munich and Santa Barbara over the last 20 years, my reverence for our uniquely American “wilderness” has deepened.
Lately, this allegiance to that American romantic ideal of nature with its pristine wildernesses took a beating as I read Irus Braverman’s searing analysis of 21st-century conservation: Wild Life — The Institution of Nature (2015).
She writes about Americans admitting to themselves that we now have to manage our remaining natural lands. In fact, that’s already been happening in haphazard ways.
Locally, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary manages the area by demarcating underwater zones as “marine reserves” (no fishing) interspersed with fishing zones.
Today we see “the shift of conservation practices from wilderness (preservation) to wildness,” according to Braverman.
She contends that our 20th-century ideal of preserving portions of “nature” completely “untrammeled by man” — landmark 1964 Wilderness Act language — is not only impossible and outdated, but in the Anthropocene Age, the preservationist ideal may even harmful to our planet’s health.
We must work harder to save some relative wildness in a post-natural Anthropocene world. How do we re-conceive a “nature” that is highly dependent on human manipulation?
For 21st-century humans to revere the Earth and reduce human impacts, we have to accept that the new human-controlled Anthropocene Age began around 1950 (as some argue), or more likely around 1750/1800 with the Industrial Revolution in the West.
Nation-states and capitalism forged terrific growth in the machine-based “means of production,” and consequently human population soared to our current unsustainable number today (more than 7 billion).
Teaching adolescents since 1980, I imagine I hear young people asking: Why should I seek “adulthood” when our species can neither manage nature nor stop the endless and destructive human war cycles?
During the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution for humans, especially the time between ca. 70,000 and 40,000 BP, we adapted and transformed in response to what physical nature threw at us.
These men wished to shield nature from “the hand of man,” and set aside increasingly vast tracts as national parks and national forests (hunting preserves in TR’s thinking).
With the passage of the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act (1973), millions of acres have now become federal wildernesses, like our local San Rafael Wilderness (200,000 acres). Ecological prophets like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson would approve.
We are at a crucial crossroads in the symbiotic relationship between the human species and the earth we tread, including all the myriad species with whom we co-exist.
Braverman’s research shows we’re already far past the dream of actually “saving” so much pure wilderness — our romanticized American view of wild “nature” is misleading and outdated.
Take the San Rafael Wilderness, which I’ve been hiking since 1971 and fiercely love: the humans have killed all the grizzly bears, many other species are endangered, and the “trophy” condor buzzards remain only through vigorous ex situ developments, and honestly exist in a zooland (also another Braverman book).
The climate change we experience nowadays, and the polluted planetary atmosphere above and throughout the San Rafael, wreak havoc upon a multitude of species beyond the condor, grizzly and native trout species.
The May 19 Refugio oil spill’s 100,000 gallons and the pollution of seven miles of once-immaculate beach is an example that hits home.
Susan Neiman’s controversial book, Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, highlights Western societal pressures that induce supposedly mature adults to choose to remain in a permanently “adolescent” thinking mode.
Adolescents experience an inner collision between their earlier, childlike feelings of boundless trust and the boundless mistrust and cynical negativity we associate with “coming of age.” The spiritual “ought” runs into the painful “is” of postmodern civilization and puberty.
Materialistic capitalism’s greatest demerit has been to bribe populations into a constant “freedom of choice” frenzy to buy and to consume. Meanwhile, via technology, the “means of production” really do deliver more cars and sometimes better products (Apple Watch anyone?).
Neiman, a philosophy professor in Berlin, interprets Immanuel Kant on government power and its desire for over-control (think of National Security Agency spying): “The state’s desire for control and our own desire for comfort combine to create societies with fewer conflicts, but they are (also) not societies of grown-ups.”
If so many of the young are soma-sedated by watching screens and online shopping, how can they become genuine, self-actualizing adults? When the majority imitate Huxley’s world of sex-sedated acquisitive human zombies, then psychological “maturity” becomes impossible; it’s not even a goal.
Aggressive Socratic questioning, analytical reasoning and uncomfortable discussions about “what IS the good life for me?” — who teaches this skeptical attitude today?
Neiman sarcastically asks, “Why not just skip Kant and listen to the Rolling Stones?” You can’t always get what you need, but in our Western plenitude, you’ll likely get what you want.
Some youth today would agree, asking, “Why get a low-pay job delivering pizza or at Taco Bell? Let’s get high, play video games and pound some margaritas.”
In the new Anthropocene Age wherein we humans have no choice BUT to manage nature and save the wild life we can, what if a rising number of Western humans have sedated themselves with endless toys and tech candy, beer and oxycontin without end?
But how can humans act as planetary stewards, ecological managers, if we refuse to educate the young about diminishing resources? Schooling becomes tech training, and deliberately keeps many Americans politically neutered and sated with “things.”
Some of the young, e.g. in the fervent animal rights group, go the opposite direction and assert that Homo sapiens are the problem. We face the problem, and it is us.
After all, WE created the Anthropocene Age through our industrial expansion period and nasty pollution and crazed fecundity.
Some people believe humans have begun to wipe their own species out in order to save the larger planetary organism (Gaia) and the myriad life forms living on and in her.
The Anthropocene therefore belies the traditional American romanticization of pure wilderness — in fact, these pretensions may be allowing us to have an adolescent dream that wild nature is doing fine.
Braverman’s Wild Life — The Institution of Nature (Stanford University Press, 2015) and Susan Neiman’s Why Grow Up?: — Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014) are both available at Chaucer’s, 3321 State St. in Santa Barbara, and other fine bookstores.
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.