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Unbalanced Nature
Save The Planet, Kill Yourself?
by WILL SARVIS

The arrival of tsunami debris along the west coast this summer has triggered the latest frenzy to stop invasive species. How ironic that one invasive species, us, presumes to control others. But never underestimate the power of a major myth in modern American environmentalism: the Balance of Nature.

There is no balance in nature, at least not in the sense people commonly use the term. There are all sorts of fluctuating, temporary, relative equilibriums of varying dynamism in ecological systems, but “balance in nature” reflects humanity’s wishful thinking for order in the world. This wishful thinking is manifested quite strongly in the environmental religion of Green Calvinists.

Green Calvinists are self-described environmentalists who themselves might be horrified to be associated with that oddly misanthropic Protestant of the 16th century, John Calvin. Calvin’s take on humanity was really a re-manifestation of the Original Sin notion of 2nd century CE nascent Catholicism, albeit in more harsh form. Radical environmentalists, pseudo-anarchists, and various trust-funders carry the legacy in the environmental religion of today’s America. Green Calvinists insist there is a natural balance that humans are disrupting. Consistent with Edenic ideology and threats of fire and brimstone, humans are the culprit who will bring ecological catastrophe upon themselves because of their environmental sins.

What Green Calvinists never fully accept is the necessity and inescapability of human agency in all environmental matters. After all, according to them, our species is the “fallen” one. And yet, though they hate to admit it, their fervent advocacy to “save the planet” really means saving the habitat that is conducive for human existence. Thus Green Calvinism shows up in all the major environmental debates, from “managing wilderness” (an ironic oxymoron) to anthropogenic climate change to invasive species. Let’s examine the latter in more detail.

Without question, the sudden introduction of kudzu, hydrilla, scotch broom, zebra mussels – and literally hundreds of other organisms – have devastated pre-European contact North American ecosystems. But, as environmental history scholar Alfred Crosby showed us decades ago, the array of Old World biotic introductions to the Americas is already mind boggling. Just think of the impact of Kentucky bluegrass, dandelions, and European honey bees alone. Now consider the enormous impact of domestic livestock, all introduced. So if we’re going to arrest invasive species, what calendar setting is our ideal? Are we trying to recreate the ecological systems of 1950? 1800? No doubt the Indians would prefer 1491.

So ultimately, the fight against invasive species is really an effort to manage change, and to create or maintain an ecosystem whose components reflect the value judgments of humans. There is nothing wrong with this, except that the role of human stewardship is inescapable.

Save the Planet: Kill Yourself. So runs the humorous bumper sticker. Contrary to the Green Calvinists’ dogma, we must accept that homo sapiens is as much a part of the “natural environment” as all other planetary entities. At the risk of mixing mythologies, Pandora’s Box will not recapture the demons it has released, and the Green Calvinists’ fantasy of a return to an Edenic primitivism (easily romanticized when your father is an investment banker) ranks among the most ludicrous of non-solutions.

There are no silver bullets for our environmental problems, including progressive technologies. But what else can we do except pursue them? Ocean wave energy looks promising. Carbon sequestration technology has been around for decades, but is barely utilized, partly because it is too expensive (as all technologies tend to be, at their outset). Green chemistry is practically the only solution for cleaning up the chemical messes we have made in the past. The basic way to pursue progressive technologies is to look for ways to marry capitalism with them. The failure to emphasize this explains, to some degree, Al Gore’s ineffectiveness as a green candidate.

Think about curbside recycling. I remember the 1970s when only idealists promoted this. But as a wise environmental engineer told me then, idealism would never be the reason behind curbside recycling. Instead, he accurately predicted that curbside recycling would become the norm when burying garbage became more expensive than recycling it. Remember the Mobro 4000 garbage barge of 1987 looking for a place to land its cargo? At a risk of stating the obvious, there is no denying the power of the market force.

Greed and money as “the root of all evil” precedes capitalism by millennia, so we are all familiar with capitalism’s dark side. Its bright side of the profit motive combined with green sciences and technology is our only viable approach for solving environmental problems. Where the problems are ambiguous, we might as well err on the side of caution, but that will not happen through idealism alone.

We are stewards of the earth, whether we like it or not, whether we asked for the role or not. As any gardener will tell you, it can be a tremendously joyful privilege to care for a piece of land. It can also be a daunting and confusing responsibility. Let this and future generations embrace our stewardship role, abandon the misanthropic “fallen species” ideology, and utilize our natural talents humbly and intelligently in our best efforts to protect our only home.

Will Sarvis has published numerous articles about land and the environment. He is the recent author of Jefferson National Forest: An Appalachian Environmental History (University of Tennessee Press, 2011).

 

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