How to Annoy E.O. Wilson

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My friend Emma Marris wrestles with giant Burmese pythons. Well, OK, not literally. But in her book Rambunctious Garden (which you should all read this very minute), she takes on the long-held idea of nature as a pristine, unspoiled, and distant place.

She asks if we can learn to see nature almost everywhere — in highway medians, “trash forests,” even an Everglades infested with exotic, predatory snakes. She argues that while we can and should continue to push for the protection of large, relatively unaltered landscapes, we shouldn’t necessarily try to restore them to pre-Columbian conditions — and we definitely shouldn’t allow the fight for big parks and wildernesses to limit our notion of nature. For if we see nature only as a place apart from us, she says, we’ve already lost it to climate change and any number of other forces. And who wants to join a lost cause?

This summer, Emma had another public wrestling match, not with a Burmese python but with the preeminent biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson.

During a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum in Colorado, as she describes here, Emma piqued Wilson with her talk of making more nature — of expanding our definition of the natural world to include places humans have invaded, altered, and restored. Spending billions trying to return coastal areas like the Everglades to pre-Columbian “purity,” she added, is a lost cause. Better to invest in upslope reserves, and perhaps even learn to admire the tenacity of invasive species.

“Where do you plant the white flag that you’re carrying?” Wilson asked irritably.

Emma, who got the last word, quoted Joseph Mascaro, an ecologist she interviewed for her book. Mascaro studies the ecological attributes of “novel” ecosystems heavily influenced by human activities. “When people accuse him of admitting defeat,” said Emma, “he says, ‘I never took up arms. I’m playing a different game here.’” His message, she says, is “I’m here for nature, not for 1491.”

Me, I had the luxury of watching from the audience. At times, Emma and Wilson seemed to be arguing over a false dichotomy. After all, both spoke passionately about the importance of all types of nature, from macro to micro to humble to grand, and they agreed that all deserve appreciation. What’s so wrong with defending a few pythons, then, especially if it means bringing nature a little closer to our everyday experience?

But from Wilson’s perspective, Emma’s view is heretical. By arguing that the project of conservation should extend from the peaks of national parks into the sloughs of Seattle, protecting different places in different ways for different reasons, Emma risks diluting its urgency. If nature really is found almost everywhere, one might well wonder why we need to work so damn hard to save the best bits.

The deepest divide may be generational. Wilson, now in his 80s, has explored some of the most biodiverse places in the world. He knows, from long firsthand experience, how much effort it’s taken to protect and begin to restore just a handful of them. He may worry that Emma is leading younger conservationists into a kind of moral relativism, asking them to bestow equal value on vegetable gardens and old-growth forests. Emma, in her 30s, doesn’t want to do that — but neither does she want to simply inherit her predecessors’ endgame, and watch the few remaining places that look like they did in 1491 shrink, change, and disappear.

Wilson may sound like the idealist and Emma the realist, but in the end Emma is the true optimist. She hopes that conservationists of her generation and beyond have the energy and money and numbers to work for nature on many fronts: not only by protecting our largest and richest reserves of biodiversity in a variety of ways but also by restoring prairies, transforming urban rivers, and experimenting with old and new technologies to save species, habitats, and the water we drink and air we breathe. To Wilson, that might sound naïve, or impossible, or a lot like giving up. To Emma, it sounds like a lot of hard work — and a hell of a lot of fun.

Annoyed ants photo from iStockphoto.

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16 thoughts on “How to Annoy E.O. Wilson

  1. I find this conversation between veteran biologists and environmentalists and younger conservationists so fascinating, and SO important and relevant. It’s funny that the risk, from the perspective of folks like Wilson, is dilution of urgency, when it seems as if siting Nature “Somewhere Else” makes the threat so much more remote to someone living in, say, suburban Ohio. How much hand wringing can a Midwesterner devote to the plight of polar bears before fruitless worrying devolves to background noise?
    On the other hand, extending the definition of Nature to a person’s front door gives everyone an immediate stake in caring about what happens to it. And there’s still a heck of a lot of local biodiversity to protect.
    (I’m getting this book ASAP. Can’t wait!)

  2. This is the second time I’ve seen this same author and topic mentioned (the other time on a hiking blog) and I have to say I am still on the E.O. Wilson side of things—but I do see Ms. Marris things too.

    I worked in the Everglades for six years for a Tribe that lives in the ‘glades and saw so many problems beyond pythons (which are a huge problem itself) but more importantly is the alteration of the landscape via water control structures and poor water quality. Moreover, the push to save one endangered species (Cape Sable seaside sparrow) often times threatened another endangered species on the north side of the roadway (snail kites).

    Beyond that there is a loss of culture tied to this, the culture of the natives who have lived in the area for time immemorial.

    I agree with what Erin said, about having locals being involved in what is out their back door, but what about everything else that doesn’t have a local population cheering on its resident endangered specie? Or something living in the far reaches of the planet but yet its fate is intrinsically linked to humans thousands of miles away? Do we just say they are somewhere else and give up on them?

  3. It would be great to focus on biodiversity in terms of self-organizing systems rather than as assemblages of species. The problem here is that, as it has become quite trendy to talk about novel ecosystems, it has also become very reductionist, and some very damaging mis-information is being propagated about the concerns over invasive species being somehow xenophobic. The conservation of biodiversity is NOT simply about drawing boundaries around “pristine” habitats – this mode of thinking has been out of fashion for generations. To think of invasive species in terms of tenacity is to irresponsibly romanticize the phenomenon by assigning it human attributes.

    As a gardener, I’m appreciate that this attitude reflects a predictable reaction to the overreach of the native plants absolutists and the romantic approach to nature in general. I agree that not only will the genie not go back in the bottle, but there never was a bottle. But this should not blind us to the signals of systems seriously out of balance, of which invasive species are an important indicator.

    The rhetorical cleverness of the argument that it’s all good and that it is really just an attitude problem of old goats like Wilson provides good entertainment, but the result of this business as usual approach is that it will be a lot simpler to embrace nature when there is so much less of it.

  4. As an urbanite, I find myself increasingly on Emma’s side. In the city, nature is tamed almost beyond recognition, and yet these strange little urban ecosystems, with coyotes prowling back alleys and woodpeckers hammering away on telephone poles, are really worth paying attention to.

  5. I’ve been leaning more towards the Marris, mostly as we find more and more evidence of how much even “pristine” ares (such as the Amazon Basin) were modified by their pre-Columbian human inhabitants.

  6. The generational difference that was mentioned in the article is important and sad. Every year it is harder and harder to experience relatively pristine nature, such as the ecosystems I study in the Andes of South America. Those who do not personally know this kind of nature will not appreciate its importance, nor the enormous contrast between it and massively human-altered landscapes. They will not fight to protect these special places, nor be willing to make the hard sacrifices it might take to preserve them. I fear that the future belongs to Emma’s generation, and I also fear that what has been lost will not even be noticed by them.

  7. Great point, Lou – we (and I’m part of Emma’s generation) do need to be aware of shifting baselines.

  8. I appreciate the notion of how our understanding of “nature” is influenced by the language of our times. However, the argument that there is little use to restore public lands to “pre-Columbian” is a straw man. The point of conservation is not to restore public lands to pre-Columbian states but to restore them to an ecologically functional state.

  9. On reading excerpts of her book, Emma’s POV seems to confuse “damaging the whole earth” (which we’ve done)
    with “running the whole earth” (as in, a garden – which it isn’t, and which we don’t and can’t).

    Wild nature and preserved tracks of it can and do help all of us remember what we are, what we’ve lost, and from where we’ve come.

    Nature’s infinitely more powerful than we are. So preserving and enabling wilderness is not “romance”; it’s a position of humility and a much-needed check on human hubris.

    Being a westerner, you might appreciate the work of my friend Sean Garrity (http://www.americanprairie.org ), whose efforts have been praised by Nat Geo and called ‘America’s Serengeti’.

  10. E. O. Wilson is one of my favorite scientists ever, and he has a tendency on being right. However, Even though I have yet to read her book, I see Dr. Marris’ point. If I get it correctly, it is a “damage control” approach; am I right?’

  11. Still: “Where do you plant the white flag that you’re carrying?” is a very good question.

  12. I favor of the viewpoints expressed by E. O. Wilson and John Waugh commenting on this matter.

    There is an interesting article in the July-August 2012 edition of the AARP Bulletin titled “A Call to Nature”, by Richard Louv. “A growing body of research links more time in nature – or in home, work, or hospital environments enhanced through nature-based design – with reduction of stress and depression, faster healing time and less need for pain medication.” The incorporation of “nature-based design” to our “non-natural” environments might appeal to those favoring Emma Marris’ argument.

    This getting your dose of “Vitamin N” as argued by Mr. Louv, benefits us with “advanced use of the senses and higher work productivity.” University of Michigan researchers demonstrated that “after just an hour interacting with nature, memory performance and attention spans improve by 20 percent.” University of Kansas researchers likewise reported “a fifty percent boost in creativity for people who were steeped in nature for a few days.”

    Clearly we have been adapted to need nature for our well being, at least psychological well being. But I do not think that admiring the tenacity of invasive species – flora or fauna – will produce the same, or any, psychological benefits for us as would admiring an ecologically-balanced, self-organized, biologically-diverse, healthy system that emerged without any assistance from us.

    Invasive species are, as Mr Waugh asserts, a signaling that the natural systems that sustain the pharmacological benefits of Vitamin N for us are seriously out of balance. These systems don’t need us and will ultimately treat us as an unwanted invasive species if we don’t begin to see ourselves as part of nature instead of something above and outside of it. We should be smarter than that.

    The AARP article ended with a final thought: “Boomers could be the last generation to remember a time when it was considered normal and expected for children to play in the woods and fields. When we leave this earth, will the memory of such experiences leave with us? Reconnecting the young to the natural world (as we reconnect ourselves) could be our greatest most redemptive cause.”

    Thank goodness for Teddy Roosevelt or we would have a cluster of high-prices home circling Old Faithful by now! E. O. Wilson is correct. No white flag.

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