Protecting and preserving nature: an essay
Environmentalists protect and preserve nature, at least the ones that come from the tradition of conservation. And that's fine. But such a formulation of environmentalism does present a particular dilemma: what parts of nature should be protected and preserved? If we are really to understand which ones we'll want to protect and preserve, and which ones we won't, we'll have to examine, very closely, all of our social phenomena, something the conservationists haven't done.
The main complaint I have about conservationism I have is as such: we can protect and preserve nature, but we're part of nature too. We're people, and people are part of nature. Now, sure, you have a critical tradition that says we're not part of nature. But there's a big flaw in this tradition. It's exposed when we ask this question: when did we stop being part of nature? So, yeah. When? Was it when the genus Homo emerged? Was it in this "cognitive revolution" of which Yuval Noah Harari writes? Was it with the invention of agriculture? The Roman Empire? Capitalism? The steam engine? The large-scale power plant? The atom bomb? (People forget about the atom bomb. Maybe they'll be reminded soon.) So to the adherents of this perspective I would ask: when was it that people stopped being part of nature? Pick a date and a time.
It's easier to say that there was NO time we weren't, and that we are STILL part of nature. If we say that, that means that everything we do is part of nature too. Nature involves construction. Ants create anthills; bees create hives, beavers create dams, and we create vast infrastructures of steel and concrete, and they're all part of nature. That seems consistent, right? Here one remembers Karl Marx, from his masterwork Capital: "A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality." Or Cornelius Castoriadis, much later, and from a different perspective: "Man's distinguishing trait is not logic, but imagination, and, more precisely, unbridled imagination, defunctionalized imagination." So imagination is our contribution to nature, our specialty as animals.
But we still need to figure out about protecting and preserving nature. The easy answer, and easy answers are the first ones we guess, is that what conservationists, and indeed the rest of us, really want to do, is protect and preserve some parts of nature, and not other parts. Conservationists prefer to preserve and protect Yellowstone, for instance, and not so much homeless encampments in Oakland. But the homeless are nice people unless shown otherwise; they just happen to live outdoors in a world in which there are 28 vacant homes for every homeless person and in which they aren't allowed to live in any of those vacant homes.
We might say that what we really want to do is to protect and preserve the nice parts of nature, rather than the not-so-nice ones. But this would be a too-easy answer. We might, for instance, experience blowback from our efforts to eradicate the not-so-nice parts of nature. Rats, for instance, can be a not-so-nice part of nature. But if we were to try to eradicate rats through the use of poisons, the poisons might travel up the food chain to the animals who eat rats, and we would end up with an even bigger plague of rats than we had when we started. So we can't really say we just want nice nature -- because the nice nature might be physically dependent upon the not-so-nice nature for its very existence. So "nice" isn't a consistent principle for the sort of nature we should want to protect and preserve.
We might, then, want to protect and preserve nature according to a well-organized principle. The most well-organized of conservationist principles is the principle of ecosystem integrity. We have a science, ecology, which explains how ecosystems can have integrity -- they do so through consistent relationships between plants and animals and fungi and microorganisms and sun and water. (Oh, and don't forget people -- people are part of nature.) Conservationists want to protect and preserve ecosystems, because their complexity is valued. We like big life-forms of the sort which go extinct everyday; we are told, sadly, that the extinction rate today is 1,000 times that of the extinction rate in pre-human times. There is, moreover, an important type of science, agroecology, which suggests that we might do better growing food in complex ecosystems than we do in simple ones. Agroecological wisdom has not, however, caught on entirely; Statista reports that in 2020 organic food sales represented six percent of total output. Perhaps agroecological wisdom should catch on entirely.
There are, however, chaotic aspects of ecosystem integrity that we don't want to protect and preserve, though this principle too has limits. Plagues are part of ecosystem integrity; we understandably don't want to protect and preserve them. Diseases are natural phenomena that people do not want to preserve and protect. But our distaste for chaos is inconsistent. However much the conservationists might appreciate chaotic life-forms such as the grizzly bear, of the type that would kill a person, none of them is calling for the reintroduction of smallpox, and nobody misses the old extinct variants of COVID-19. Most principally, natural disasters are natural phenomena of ecosystems, even though they might not all be welcomed. Catastrophic weather events can "clean up" ecosystems so that regeneration can occur. Perhaps the most well-known of regenerative catastrophes is the flood -- here's a National Geographic piece on floods. With floods, as the NG explains, you have the good and the bad.
Yet the knock on abrupt climate change, and the subsequent obsession with "carbon emissions," has been that abrupt climate change has increased the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. And that we don't want that increased frequency and severity. The warming of the Earth's surface is not all by itself the problem; indeed Svante Arrhenius, who in 1896 discovered the mathematical relationship between increases in atmospheric CO2 and increases in average global temperature, thought that abrupt climate change would be good because it would open up previously-cold areas of the planet to warm-weather agriculture. The problem, then, is the abruptness of the thing -- abrupt climate change is not as gradual as we would like, and so it has been and will be disastrous mostly in a bad way. This observation reaches its sharpest focus in a scientific paper, Mora et al. (2013), "The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability," published in Nature magazine. It's on Researchgate. This is a paper on the effects of abrupt climate change. From the abstract: "Here we present a new index of the year when the projected mean climate of a given location moves to a state continuously outside the bounds of historical variability under alternative greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. " Climate departure doesn't sound like a good thing. I want my mean climate to stay INSIDE the bounds of historical variability.
Perhaps the one principal natural phenomenon which we should most want to avoid protecting and preserving is capitalism. Now, capitalism is typically viewed as a merely social phenomenon, but since it, like us, is part of nature, we might regard what it does to (the rest of) nature. Under capitalism, the capitalists plunder nature, presumably up to a point at which nature can no longer be plundered. Jason W. Moore calls the perspective upon nature that the capitalists hold a perspective of "cheap nature," and suggests that the process will end when nature is no longer cheap anymore.
Thinking of capitalism as a natural phenomenon reminds me of an interview with Jason W. Moore, Wall Street as a Way of Organizing Nature. The title is really appropriate to the project: Moore is a big proponent of the "people are part of nature" way of looking at things. Perhaps Moore's strategy is the best one: we should take a look at phenomena that we typically view as social, and consider them, deeply, as natural phenomena. This strategy might help us decide what it is within nature we wish to preserve and protect, and what it is which we want neither to preserve nor to protect.
At any rate, the whole interview is really worth going over, though I'm only going to quote one section, as follows: "Capitalism as world-ecology is therefore a dialectic of plunder and productivity – appropriating nature’s free gifts outside the commodity system in order to maximize
labour productivity inside." Productivity might seem good, but plunder is definitely not, and we can easily imagine how the world could be unproductively plundered for the worse.