Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Being nature

We (my wife Ann-Helen and I) just finished (well almost), the manuscript of a book on man and nature titled The hippos of Pablo Escobar. It is of course an almost impossible topic to write about. Despite being the foundation of ”natural science” there is no definition or common agreement about what nature is. It is ironical that one of the most prestigious scientific journals is named Nature.

Nevertheless we cover a lot of ground in the book and address issues and questions such as:

What is wilderness, and is it a meaningful category?

Why do we make so many categories of animals, wild, tame, invasive, feral and why are Pablo Escobar’s hippos causing conflict?

Can we even talk about human individuals in a meaningful way when we are totally dependent on other organisms (the concept of holobionts) as well as, human society (the superorganism)?

Is there virtue in de-extinction and rewilding?

A forest harvester, photo Gunnar Rundgren

We apply an ecological lens to the role of humans in the Earth system and show how the energy metabolism of the average human now equals a 10 ton King Kong. Meanwhile we also apply an economic lens in our narrative of the development of forestry and agriculture. The combination of ecological conditions and economic conditions have huge explanatory power.

In the last part of the book we discuss the various tools and policies that are used or proposed for management of our role in nature/our use of nature, such as:

The rights of nature (legal concepts)

Is nature protection, such as protected areas and species protection, working well, and what are the criteria for assessment of that? (conservation concepts)

Local nature stewardship (governance concepts)

Paying for ecosystem services, climate compensation and Polluter Pay Principle (market concepts)

A deeper relationship in/with nature (philosophical concepts)

Working in nature (being nature)

Bossa and Bosse in restored grasslands on our farm, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

In a few coming posts I will raise some of the topics of the book. First out: Should we withdraw from nature or live in it?

These days many people seem to have the opinion that Man is a plague on earth and that the only chance nature (or humans or both?) has is to withdraw from nature, leave it alone, possibly after we first restored it. This is echoed in demands for rewilding and half earth (i.e. that half of the planet should be set aside for nature). Another versions of this perspective is a call for further urbanization or even space colonization. The pursuit of lab grown food is also an expression of this perspective. The ultimate withdrawal is of course transhumanism, where we also leave our bodies behind. The same people may not necessarily embrace all of these.

While there are merits (and also a number of pitfalls) in rewilding and protected areas we believe we should pay more attention to the used landscape and how to integrate other species and ecosystem functions in the farmscape, managed forests as well as urban and peri-urban green areas. Space colonization, lab foods and continued urbanization are just delusions and diversions as the ecological foot print of cities, labs and space travel is enormous. No matter how green the city is it draws on the resources of the countryside and large cities are ecological sewage pools where all sorts of resources are concentrated and wasted. Because they are constructed by the logic of a globalized capitalism they can’t be integrated in local ecosystems, they can just draw on its resources.

While many people seem to believe that withdrawal from nature is a method to save nature, it just amplifies the separation which is at the core of the current environmental disaster.  Just because you are not fishing, logging or farming yourself, it doesn’t mean that fish, land or forests are saved. The main result of withdrawal is an even deeper ecological illiteracy.

Instead of seeking, in vain, to separate humans and their society even more from nature, we believe that humans should re-embed its society in the natural world. Instead of seeking independence and individual “freedom” we should embrace our dependency of other organisms and ecosystems. The best way to do that is that many more people are actively participating in the management of the anthropogenic biomes which already dominate the planet.

Even though our record in many regards is abysmal, humans are not ecological villains by definition. Even farming, which today is the scapegoat for all ills and called  the worst mistake humans ever made, is not necessarily harmful for the environment.  We tend to look at the failure of many civilizations caused by erosion or other bad farming practices. But most civilizations for which we have records were authoritarian and centralized where peasants had to overexploit their lands to pay taxes, tithes or rents as well as supplying the cities with charcoal or timber. Farms were also short in labor because the state or lords conscripted men to the army, to build temples or pyramids and women to be servants. The current industrial farming system shaped by capitalist markets is another example how harmful agriculture can be.

Instead of only looking to those failures we should be inspired human settlements and cultures which have been sustainably for centuries, even millennia. Many indigenous people practiced sustainable farming or livestock husbandry in immense variation adapted to local conditions. But also traditional farming systems have in many places of the world been surprisingly stable and able to adjust to changes in climate, embrace new crops and methods, for example the Asian production systems described by King in Farmers of forty centuries, or the forest gardens of many tropical countries. Semi-natural grasslands have been sustainably managed for thousands of years in Scandinavia and elsewhere and are in addition incredibly bio-diverse landscapes.

Modern farmers, foresters and fishermen are often criticized by conservationists and environmentalists, for many good reasons. But how they farm, log or fish is a product of our society, and it is not fair to blame them for doing what was expected by them and encouraged by the government, food industries and supermarket (don’t tell me consumers asked for it though!). One can’t expect them to do a lot better as long as they are producing commodities for a market which just appreciate the lowest price. Meanwhile they are the ecological engineers, the environmental managers, of the anthropogenic biomes and it is essential that they are motivated to change, not primarily through increasingly tougher environmental regulations, but by re-defining their role and rewarding nature stewardship.

Other local people than the land owners should also to a much larger extent have a say in how “their” nature is being managed. One of the best ways is to engage more people in those activities that link us to nature. From logging to cooking. When Robin Wall Kimmerer is asked what one thing she would recommend to restore relationship between land and people, her answer is almost always, “plant a garden”.

“Something essential happens in a vegetable garden. It’s a place where if you can’t say ‘I love you’ out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans” (from Braiding Sweetgrass)

The abstract scientific knowledge of nature and ecology obviously have merits, but real understanding of nature will also always need direct relationships between humans and nature. The sustainable and gainful interaction between humans and the rest of the living world will not be created on a drawing board but rather be developed by people being grounded, being terrestrial, being nature. To get your hands dirty is even good for your health.  

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