Sunday, November 25, 2012

Conservation, environmentalism, ecology

    A review of a new biography of Rachel Carson, one of the pioneers of modern environmentalism, affords an opportunity to compare and contrast three keywords in my work on music and sustainability—all of which are very much involved in contemporary sustainability discourse here and elsewhere. Those keywords are conservation, environmentalism, and ecology.
    Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), with its warnings about agricultural pesticides' effects on bird and other animal life, ushered in the modern era of environmentalism in North America. Carson wrote it while living on a remote island in Maine where she witnessed DDT's impact on bald eagles. Tim Flannery, who reviewed the biography in the New York Review of Books for November 22, 2012, writes that the biography's author, William Souder, argues that Silent Spring “‘marks the birth of the "bitterly divisive" concept of environmentalistm. Before it, environmental politics was characterized, he says, by the ‘gentle, optimistic proposition called “conservation,” which concerns the wise use of resources and has broad appeal across the political spectrum. Environmentalism, in contrast, can be politically polarizing because it involves a clash with vested interests'” (1). Of course, Carson was not the first environmentalist; Thoreau was one in the 19th century, and arguably so was the Englishman Gilbert White in the 18th. One might even make a case for John Bartram, a botanist (in the American Colonies) who lived a generation before White.
    But although we can point to earlier 20th-century North American, science-grounded environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold, Carson was the first to change public consciousness. Indeed, Carson’s work was polarizing: while President Kennedy and the general public took her side, the chemical companies who manufactured pesticides tried to discredit Carson, influence the public debate her book ushered in, and lobby Congress to prevent the eventual ban on DDT. Carson prevailed. Since then, of course, many global corporations have done their best to fight environmentalists in similar ways, adding greenwashing and large campaign contributions to their arsenal.
    At issue here is the distinction between conservation and environmentalism. Among early conservationists in the US, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, and again in the 1930s with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the guiding principle was so-called wise use, which included public recreation and managed extraction of natural resources; the National Parks are examples. But even in the early period, and especially during the CCC era, more radical voices argued for setting wilderness areas aside: not wise use, but either light use or no use at all. The keyword "conservation" still implies a compromise between strict environmentalists who would severely limit or prohibit use, and “wise use” conservationists. In contemporary sustainability discourse, the wise use faction is represented by those who advocate “sustainable development” which, to use the words Flannery quotes from Souder, is a “gentle, optimistic proposition” and one under which certain developers and environmentalists find common ground.
    Besides wise use, conservation also bears another cross as a movement supported by the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The National Parks (Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain) that were built in the southern Appalachians, for example, were established by eminent domain; that is, the federal government dispossessed the inhabitants (chiefly subsistence farmers) against their will and resettled them elsewhere “for the good of the Nation.” Such dispossession by the law of eminent domain is not exactly a new thing in the US, and there is a shameful history behind it (consider, for example, the treatment of Native Americans).
Local forest path Creative Commons License
     And if one looks around today at the various conservation heritage trusts, the ones that receive charitable contributions from the wealthy to buy up land and turn it into preserves for nature trails, ocean access, farmland preservation, and the like, the question arises as to who uses these preserves. In my part of the US, as in many others, they're for those with money, leisure and an aesthetic interest in nature--in short, for environmentalists. The heritage trusts do not set aside land for trailer parks and RV campgrounds or for ATV and snowmobile use. Local naturalists in my part of Maine host a series of “walks and talks” through these forest and coastal preserves during the warmer months, for tourists and interested residents; subjects include local bird and animal life, geological formations, and other aspects of natural history. These rural preserves do not host visits from inner city residents who are below the poverty line; not only do the urban poor have no means of getting to them, but nature walks aren't high on their list of priorities.
    When conservation was first coupled with the word “cultural” beginning in the 1970s, the historic preservation model was applied to culture. Managed and wise use was the watchword, as federal and state agencies, historical societies, and NGOs got into the act. Cultural conservationists tried to manage cultural flow so that traditional expressive culture was not crowded out by what were felt to be the fads and fashions of modern, media-driven, popular culture. (I’ve written recently that those of us involved in cultural conservation and cultural sustainability need to be aware not only of cultural threats but also economic and environmental ones; I needn’t repeat that here.) Yet there was, in the early decades of cultural conservation, a kind of top-down, wise-use mentality in operation, one which has gradually and unevenly been giving way to cultural partnerships, participatory action research, and bottom-up management.
    As a keyword, environmentalism is usually distinguished from ecology in that the former is a political movement while the latter is a science. The distinction can be made clearer by saying that the science of ecology, like all science, aims to be objective and apolitical, or politically neutral; whereas environmentalism advocates in the political arena with its agenda to protect and preserve the natural environment. In this sense, it is plain that the conservation land trusts, with an ideology of environmentalism, ought to prohibit snowmobiles and ATVs from their nature trails if these tear up the land and bother the nearby animal inhabitants (human and otherwise) with their noise and fill the air with their carbon exhaust. Sometimes, of course, in popular discourse the word "ecology" is used when "environmentalism" is meant; people sometimes refer to “the ecology movement” as if they were referring to the environmental movement and at other times use the two words interchangeably. Indeed, even the word "ecosystem" is becoming common in public parlance.
    Yet in some instances this distinction between ecology and environmentalism is hard to maintain. For example, the science known as conservation biology (sometimes called conservation ecology) can be regarded as an applied ecology: environmentalism based on ecological principles.
    Just which ecological paradigm should rule, though, is a crucial question. Returning to the new book about Carson, Flannery reveals his own ecology-informed environmentalism. Concluding, he writes, “After recently rereading Silent Spring, I discussed Carson with an Indian friend, who put a question to me: ‘What is more orderly, a jungle or a garden?’ After a moment’s thought the answer became obvious. Of course it is the jungle, where the invisible laws of ecology dictate the relative abundance of plants and animals, and where they occur. The very shape and position of every leaf abides by those eternal rules” (p. 23). When Professor Flannery invokes the “invisible laws” and “eternal rules” of ecology he is thinking of the ecosystem paradigm in which nature in relatively pristine areas such as a jungle achieves a “balance” or equilibrium (the “relative abundance,” “shape and position of every leaf”) that it tends toward elsewhere, except when the balance is upset by human intervention (or as Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot”).
    The only problem with a balance of nature is that most ecologists—that is, the scientific ones—no longer believe in it. Beginning around the same time that cultural conservation arose in the public arena—the 1970s—ecologists began seriously to challenge such concepts as stable ecosystems, climax forests, and the balance of nature, arguing that the evidence indicates the opposite: that left undisturbed by humankind, the natural world does not move inevitably toward balance but is, rather, characterized by frequent perturbation, disturbance, and merely temporary equilibria—indeed, many different equilibrium points, one in which the relative abundance of plants and animals is always changing, as is the shape and position of every leaf.
     It is not accidental that ecologists were abandoning the balance of nature theory at about the same time that scientists were advancing chaos theory, a view of an uncertain universe that aligns with the new ecological paradigm of a natural world consisting not of ecosystems but of “patches” moving, in response to disturbing forces beyond their control, from one state toward another. How conservation biologists and environmentalists, let alone cultural conservationists and sustainability advocates, react today to this changed ecological paradigm depends on their awareness of it and how seriously they take it. Like a number of environmentalists, the reviewer for the New York Review of Books appears unaware of this paradigm shift. But to those who are aware, a concept like “resilience” is one way of responding—and I have blogged about resilience in this space before (please see the entry for July 21, 2011: "Sustainable Music: Resilience"). That is, resilience is the ability to resist or recombine in the face of perturbation or disturbance; management for resilience is one way to think about conservation under the new ecological paradigm.
     But there are other “downers” at work against environmentalism and musical and cultural sustainability. These include some of the obvious, such as the ideology of global corporate capitalism and neoliberalism; but it also includes powerful critiques (from critical theory) of science as privileged truth, and of environmentalists’ concepts of nature. It can even be supposed that environmentalism and sustainability efforts are themselves responses to the changed intellectual climate of the past forty years. In order to understand music and sustainability in its contemporary context, it’s important to view it not simply as a response to the changing natural and sociocultural environments, but also as a response to various currents in contemporary Theory which undermine old ideas of nature and culture. Some of the environmentalist response is, predictably, reactionary; but some of it attempts to think along with critical theory. I will be writing from and about this perspective in the coming months as I try to organize my thoughts on this music and sustainability project.

(1) Tim Flannery, review of William Souder, On a Farther Shore, New York Review of Books, Nov. 22, 2012, p. 21.

Photo "Local Forest Path" by Jeff Todd Titon, East Penobscot Bay, Maine, December 2005. 

1 comment:

  1. Professor Titon, have you read the Death of Environmentalism by Nordhaus and Shellenberger?

    Another thing, the concept of wicked problems may serve useful in grasping sustainability.

    One more thing, there's a call for papers, while it's focused more on music and bodily experience, you may find some interesting overlaps. Especially if anyone focuses on "deep listening" and other concepts of chance and aesthetic realism.

    Finally, I'd like to suggest with all due respect that you make active links within your posts so that readers can find them sooner.

    Cheers from the Great Lakes!