A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Environmentalism

Environmentalism . . . stewardship . . . going green . . . care taking . . . sustainability . . . these are good words, right? Well, yes and no. They carry a certain beneficence, I suppose. But often the beneficence they carry is illusory.  The thread that links them is their human-centeredness; the word is anthropocentric, roughly translated, regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence. This section of the blog will illuminate and perhaps challenge each of the concepts above as we allow them to emerge from a human-centered or anthropocentric perspective.

When we speak out about environmentalism, for example, we might lull ourselves into thinking that we are talking of the health of ecosystems, or a single planetary ecosystem. Strictly speaking, we are not. To talk about the environment is to talk about that part of the natural world (as though the natural world were somehow other than ourselves) which surrounds, or impacts, or otherwise engages humans.

The Achilles heel of all environmental efforts is that they succeed or fail at the whim, the convenience, the perceived need, desire, or self-interest of the humans undertaking them. A specific example. In May, 2009, grey wolves in the Northern Rockies lost their endangered species protected status for the second time that year. The factors cited: farmers want to protect their livestock, hunters want to be able to shoot wolves; people are scared of wolves and other large predators; and contractors want to be able to build in the northern Rockies.  It was – and remains – all about the humans, and has nothing to do with healthy ecosystems.

I’m including the link from the Los Angeles Times, but this section makes the point.

When we exterminated wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s, we de-watered the land. That’s right; no wolves eventually meant fewer streams, creeks, marshes and springs across western landscapes like Yellowstone where wolves had once thrived.

The chain of effects went roughly like this: No wolves meant that many more elk crowded onto inviting river and stream banks. A growing population of fat elk, in no danger of being turned into prey, gnawed down willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature. As the willows declined, so did beavers, which used the trees for food and building material. white cloud . When beavers build dams and make ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless bugs, amphibians, fish, birds and plants, as well as slowing the flow of water and distributing it over broad areas. The consequences of their decline rippled across the land.

Meanwhile, as the land dried up, Yellowstone’s overgrazed riverbanks eroded. Spawning beds for fish silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade. Yellowstone’s web of life was fraying.

The problem is, environmentalism exists at the whim of humans. In other words, environmentalism, strictly speaking, is anthropocentric. I am not saying that environmentalism has no value; it does. But environmental commitment tends to have value only until the environmental action in question collides with human self-interest.

For Reflection

I am interested in hearing from you as to the ways in which our political battles – over protected lands and species, over Environmental Protection regulations, over environmental law, to name just a few – parallel the self-interests of the decision makers. How is it that our politics, particularly in the U.S., have lost their connection to what I want to call good earth citizenry. Are there times in our history that the call and commitment to responsible citizenry overrode what we see today as destructive and unmanageable polarity; are there moments that we actually considered the health of planet’s ecosystem as the tapestry against which human self-interest might be evaluated?

This is the making of a history lesson as it shapes the intersection of politics and ecology.

1 Comment

  1. Caroline Fairless on May 31, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Help me out here. Could you tell me what PM is? I would love to engage in a conversation about this, and hope you check out the FB page, restoring the waters. Blog posts here flip to there.

    I’m back at my desk after a short road trip, so keep checking in for new posts. Thanks.

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