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The Will to Act on the Environment

jacket imageAn essay for International Earth Day by R. Bruce Hull, author of Infinite Nature.
As the saying goes: We live in interesting times. Globalization and fundamentalism seem locked in a death struggle to control world economies and cultures. The biosphere, the thin skin of life that blankets Earth, is now dominated by the products of human creativity. Environmental alarmists look at this domination and see biodiversity loss, a destabilized climate, eroding soils, over-fished oceans, and collapsing ecological systems. Even most skeptical environmentalists—who typically highlight the reliable and abundant supply of food, energy, and other resources—acknowledge serious challenges to meeting exponentially growing demands. Meanwhile, the traditional methods of environmental management are faltering. Rational, centralized environmental planning is an admitted failure in most professional circles, and the science wars have diminished the credibility of all expertise. Environmental issues infrequently find space on the national agenda, and critics say environmentalism’s method and focus must change. These conflicting environmental currents and eddies flow within the larger river of postmodern angst, causing us to rethink answers to our ultimate questions: What does it mean to be human? What is the essence of the natural and supernatural world we live in? How should we relate to that world?
Our success in navigating these currents will depend in large measure on our political will to act. We desperately need an inclusive, deliberative civic dialog about these matters. We need people engaged and mobilized to envision and support sustainable behaviors that create thriving communities. We need to expand the decision space where discussion and political action occurs. Pluralizing nature—celebrating infinite natures—is part of the solution.

Hundreds of billions of future people will look back on us and our time with profound gratitude, visceral disgust, or sad empathy because of the environmental qualities lost or created during our lifetimes. Massive changes are happening on our watch, altering the very form and function of planet earth. Why, then, with so much at stake, do we not unite in action to carefully consider the changes we want? We know change is occurring. We know we are the cause. We often have viable alternatives. Why don’t we act? Recent books on social collapse and environmental catastrophe by Jared Diamond and Richard Posner suggest reasons for inaction—here I target the most debilitating: lack of will.
We just don’t care about the environment. Or enough of us don’t care. Or enough of us don’t care enough. Why should we act differently? The “environment” seems less relevant than pressing concerns about health and security, stable democratic institutions, a thriving economy, and finding dignity and meaning in our lives. The environment appears abstract, remote, and anti-human. It evokes images of birds and beetles living in vast old-growth forests where few people visit or live. It does not resonate with suburban, commuting, Web-surfing Americans; worse, it creates a false dichotomy: us versus it, humanity versus the environment. Nature needs an image makeover. It needs to be understood as something local and relevant to middle-class America. It needs to be appreciated as the ecosystem services that clean water, generate oxygen, and moderate temperature. It needs to be linked to human health and community vitality and seen as an aesthetic force increasing property values, evoking awe and wonder in young and old, serving as a repository of natural history, and providing a connection to the Creator.
Solving any problem—from biodiversity loss to child abuse—requires three things: (1) the problem must be identified, (2) a solution must be devised, and (3) someone must be willing to solve the problem. We realize environmental decline is a problem and solutions have been proposed. What we lack is the will to act.
Our tendency to polarize issues as supporting either humans or nature is partially to blame. It saps our will. The environment gets narrowly defined as an abstract ecological construct standing in opposition to human economy and culture. Discussions within this polarized decision space are limited to zero-sum tradeoffs: human welfare versus biodiversity, economy versus environment, development versus preservation, jobs versus owls. The polarized decision space makes it seem that the environment thrives only when humanity leaves it alone and that humans thrive only at the expense of the environment.
But an alternative framing to our challenges exist, one that celebrates infinite natures and transcends the human-nature dichotomy. Nature is so complex, and our abilities to understand it so imperfect, that our appreciation of it will always be limited. The best we can do is assemble numerous partial glimpses—partial natures. There are infinite such natures, each one appears to us through a different lens of human culture: science, art, religion, and so on. Each nature has people who see, value it, and have the will to enhance it.
Pluralizing nature promotes different ways for people to understand, value and respect nature. By focusing negotiations where these conceptions overlap, we can increase the number of motivated stakeholders and move beyond the paralysis that polarization causes. For example, ecology highlights the interdependencies among ecological functions; changes in one function impact many others. Economics reminds us that many of these interdependencies provide services critical to industry and are expensive if not impossible to replace. Medicine demonstrates not just the pharmaceutical value of many species but the dependency of human life on a narrow range of ecological parameters. Bio-rights concerns help us appreciate that healthy ecological systems protect and respect the lives and rights of creatures. Religion connects environmental quality to creation care. And concerns about fairness connect environmental conditions to environmental justice because environmental degradation often has the harshest effects on people with the least political power.
Nature also evokes profound aesthetic appreciation. Each species, for example, has a story of survival to tell that provides a powerful authentic connection to Earth’s distant past. Our environment also provides a moral mirror reflecting to us our values: we might feel the self-loathing of obesity rather than the pride of fitness when, looking at our landscape, we see extinction and pollution caused by self-absorbed excess. Finally, we can respect the creative potential of evolution. The functioning of organisms and ecological systems represent creative accomplishment likely unparalleled by human inventiveness and provides engineering solutions to questions of survival we have yet to ask. We are better for having nature as a creative partner.
Indeed, there are many reasons to care about nature. Thriving and sustainable communities can thrive on the higher ground where these many natures overlap. We need the political will to navigate the currents and eddies threatening our survival and find that higher ground.