Monday, May 11, 2009

Why I am not a conservationist

The 'redemption' of people and material life in general is not a matter of resigning from the business of labour and of transformation – as if we could – but the search for a form of action that will preserve and nourish an interconnected development of humanity and its environment. In some contexts, this will be the deliberate protection of the environment from harm: in a world where exploitative and aggressive behaviour is commonplace, one of the 'providential' tasks of human beings must be to limit damage and to secure space for the natural order to exist unharmed. In others, the question is rather how to use the natural order for the sake of human nourishment and security without pillaging its resources and so damaging its inner mechanisms for self-healing or self-correction. In both, the fundamental requirement is to discern enough of what the processes of nature truly are to be able to engage intelligently with them.

- Rowan Williams, "Renewing the Face of the Earth:
Human Responsibility and the Environment"

This quote is an important corrective to romantic notions of conservationism that imply that humanity per se is the problem and that we ought to absent ourselves as much as possible from "the environment" because we only cause harm. Such an approach is disastrous for two reasons. First, it closes the possibility of positive action through which careful human attention and understanding enables us to participate in and focus the flourishing of the created order. Second, it ends up justifying the exploitation of the created order outside of certain "protected areas", or if not, then it implies that human self-destruction is necessary for the good of the planet.
Image by Brennan Jacoby.

11 comments:

Megan said...

this links up as well to our attitude towards animal protection - I'm a vegetarian, but do not take the position that the consumption of meat is never justified, or that animals cannot be used by humans for our benefit at all. I recently did a survey on environmental attitudes and though I was getting heading towards the bright lime side of things, I just couldn't agree with any statements that did not recognise the unique value of human beings.

byron smith said...

Personally, I am quite pessimistic about the likelihood of things getting better before they get very much worse (and so think my shade of green might not be too bright), but I agree with you on both vegetarianism and on the uniqueness of humans.

cyberpastor said...

It is something of a tragic irony that both extremes end up with the same result. If we simply exploit the resources of creation for our own well being then we are denying our mutually constitutive participation in it. If we cordon off "no-go" zones we end up doing the same thing - denying the mutually constitutive relationship we have within the environment.

Megan said...

yeah, I think things are going to get worse environment wise too...but as you can probably tell from my vegetarianism, I have a tendency to chase the ideal...

byron smith said...

Cyberpastor: yep, totally agreed. I have a friend here in Edinburgh who did her masters thesis making the point that I make here in much more detail. And so she has quite a swing at the wilderness movement for this very denial.

Megan: yes, my own thoughts are here. Though I am under no illusions as to the largely symbolic nature of these actions.

Michael Canaris said...

While I remain rather blind concerning my side of the political spectrum, a couple of aspects which strike me about 'reserves' include various equity concerns (particularly in Southern Africa over the past century) and the question of whether decision-makers treat them as a panacea whereby thanks to arbitrarily designating certain areas as 'pristine', they perceive their consciences as cleared to exploit non-designated areas ever more rapaciously.

byron smith said...

Michael - yes, I think that is often precisely right. The creation of "wilderness" areas can serve implicitly to justify treating everywhere else as we please.

Mike W said...

It seems these efforts are also blind to the ways the human world outside the boundaries impact the 'pristine' area too. There is quite a strong movement in the blue mountains to minimise human interference in national parks. It stops rangers and others from removing weeds from creeks and from managing the potential for extremely destructive fires.
However, as someone who has lived in the benefits of the work of conservationists from the early 20th Century, I'd probably want to cut them some slack. The first guys in Australia raised their own money to buy big plots of land to leave as wilderness because they saw spending time there and enjoying it as part of humanity's enjoyment of creation. While it may have made some governments feel a little better about exploitation, most modern western societies seem to have felt quite fine about that anyway.

byron smith said...

Mike - yes, you are right. And notice that Williams has room for conserving actions within the broad scope of human interactions with the rest of the created order ("In some contexts, this will be the deliberate protection of the environment from harm"). This is why I said that I am not a conservationist, rather than not being into conservation. In some contexts, this is an appropriate form of human wisdom. But it is too simplistic to make it the primary goal of ecological concern.

ericdarylmeyer said...

Well said... and thanks for the quote from Williams.

I've been puzzling on this one for a while from a slightly different angle: In both our language and thought (using "our" advisedly) we draw a line between the "natural" world and the world we inhabit---making the human world.... "unnatural?"

This pattern of thinking and speaking seems to exempt human actions from being ecosystemic events--- which, of course, they are. It seems that thinking about the human world as unnatural serves as a conceptual license to manipulate things however we'd like without paying attention to all the implications and consequences elsewhere in the network.

Of course, there are some really pernicious ways of "naturalizing" human power structures, so I'm not entirely uncomfortable with the gap between the "human" and the "natural"---but it is fascinating to see how the concepts function.

byron smith said...

The alternative to natural is not always "unnatural", but could simply be "cultural". But you are right about the complexities of the term and its frequent implication.