Sunday, September 2, 2018

the pristine, the natural, & the anthropogenic, pt. 1

Frederic Edwin Church, El Rio de Luz (1877)

There's a certain cast of person I've met—he tends to be a somewhat overweight grad student or adjunct humanities professor with a stubbly neck—whose lip curls slightly when I tell him about my interest in conservation and wilderness preservation. I give him credit for listening, at least: usually when I grouse to a stranger about land-use policy and diminishing biodiversity or share my frustration with our inadequate conceptions of "nature," a visible frost accrues on their corneas. But after hearing me out for a minute, this sanguine fellow raises a finger to remind me that "pristine" spaces in the world are a cultural fiction, adducing theorists like Baudrillard and scientific studies. He's eager to cite a 2017 piece in The Atlantic which summarizes the findings (published in the journal Science) of an exhaustive, cross-disciplinary inquiry into the natural history of the Amazon rainforest:
For more than a quarter-century, scientists and the general public have updated their view of the Americas before European contact. The plains and the Eastern forests were not a wilderness, but a patchwork of gardens, they’ve found. The continents were not vast uninhabited expanses but a bustling network of towns and cities. Indigenous people, we’ve learned, altered the ecology of the Americas as surely as the European invaders did. 
For more than 8,000 years, people lived in the Amazon and farmed it to make it more productive. They favored certain trees over others, effectively creating crops that we now call the cocoa bean and the brazil nut, and they eventually domesticated them. And while many of the communities who managed these plants died in the Amerindian genocide 500 years ago, the effects of their work can still be observed in today’s Amazon rainforest.... 
[C]ultivation eventually altered entire regions of the Amazon, the study argues. Levis and her colleagues found that some of these species domesticated by indigenous people—including the brazil nut, the rubber tree, the maripa palm, and the cocoa treestill dominate vast swaths of the forest, especially in the southwest section of the Amazon basin....
Some geographers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have all rejected the idea that the Americas were an untouched wildernessthe pristine myth,” as they call this tale—since the early 1990s. (Fifteen years ago, it was the topic of 1491, Charles C. Mann’s article in The Atlantic, later a best-selling book.) But this paper further belies that myth in one of the most biodiverse places in the continent, suggesting that humans did not just farm in the Amazon but helped determine some of its major ecological communities.
To my mind, there are two ways of absorbing this. The first—the favored by the subsidized intellectual with a penchant for ecopoststructuralism and who cleaves to a strange, protective fidelity to the Western social machinery he's dedicated his career to analyzing and finding fault with—is to squander no time insinuating a false equivalence. 

"This proves it: 'wildness' is an ingrained perceptual illusion based on a false binary. If you examine the histories of these 'open spaces' you blithely romanticize, you'll see they have humanity's footprints all over them. The deep forest and the deserts are ecosystems, just like the city is an ecosystem, another kind of ecosystem. None are truly and totally natural. Why don't you sort out your ontologies before harping on any more about wild and/or open spaces?"

It's fatuous to qualify human intervention within an ecosystem as a simple yes/no binary condition and leave it there. But as our scholar with the neck-o'-clock shadow demonstrates, this is apparently standard procedure for a particular branch of the cognoscenti. Even our erudite author from The Atlantic slips into the habit:
Indigenous people, we’ve learned, altered the ecology of the Americas as surely as the European invaders did.
The presence of pre-Columbian natives definitely altered the Amazonian ecosystem. The presence of European settlers definitely altered North American ecosystem. Hard stop. Moving on. What more needs to be said?

I can't help reading this framing of the matter as the expression of a desire—probably an unconscious one—to defend the West's lousy record of land management through a specious whataboutism.

The reader must reach the article's final paragraphs and read between the lines for a hint that this might not be all there is to it. But well before then the avowed Western humanist (and undeclared ecopostructuralist) has already gleaned his talking points.

Let's review why it's in the interest of truth to quantify the extent of anthropogenic impact upon an ecosystem instead of just checking a box affirming that intervention has indeed taken place.

Suppose we have a square-shaped tract of woodland somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, ten miles long and ten miles wide. Before we go any further, we should acknowledge the accuracy of something our friend told us: this is not a pristine forest. Prior to the twentieth century, and at one point or another, virtually every acre of woods on the East Coast was cleared by European-Americans, usually to establish (short-lived) croplands and pastures. Let's imagine the trees here have growing without human interference for the last 100 years, which makes them a fairly healthy juvenile forest. Now we'll move in on it in one of four ways.

In the first case, ten miles of trees are razed in a straight line through the middle of the forest, and overhead power lines are erected in that space. For the most part, the area is left alone afterwards, though sometimes the scrub and weeds are trimmed to prevent sapling trees from maturing.

In the second case, ten miles of trees are razed in a straight line, and the cleared land is flattened, paved, and becomes a four-lane thoroughfare connecting two highways.

In the third case, all 100 square miles are bulldozed, all the roots and stones are removed from the earth, the soil is tilled, and the forest is converted to a hundred square miles of corn and soybean fields.

In the fourth case, eighty-one square miles are cleared and given over to town planners and real-estate developers with starry-eyed dreams of suburban neighborhoods, strip malls, and office plazas. The nineteen square miles of land allowed to remain intact are fragmentized into some fifty or sixty noncontiguous "islands."

In each case, humans have altered the landscape and its ecology. But the duration and degree of the  stresses inflicted on the local networks of energy transference (which is what an ecosystem fundamentally is) differ tremendously.

In the first case, we might say we've replaced twenty miles of forest with twenty miles of meadow. Shrubs, ferns, and 'weeds' proliferate and become the basis for a new and stable food web, distinct from that of the surrounding forests, but with permeable borders.

My regular haunts in Jersey contain just such an "artificial" meadow. On occasion I've dallied with an idle ambition of cataloging all the different plant species that can be found there. The corridor hosts foxes, coyotes, chipmunks, garter snakes, copperheads, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, bluebirds, titmice, flycatchers, towhees, green frogs, box turtles, more types of dragonfly than I can identify, and more fluttering, thrumming, and leaping insects than can crowd my thoughts in the time it takes to type this sentence.

In towns and cities, public parks may enact similar conditions, though the public insistence on walkable grass and well-groomed plant beds will ensure less biodiversity and a lower carrying capacity than in a space where the growth and succession of a variety of plants can proceed uninhibited.

It mustn't escape mention that the creation of this meadow (either the real place in north Jersey or our  hypothetical hundred acres) has brought at least one deleterious side effect to some of the woods' denizens: the areas of woodland adjacent to the corridor have been converted from deep forest to a buffer zone between two distinct biological communities. Animals requiring deep forest conditions to prospser—such as my beloved wood thrush—have lost suitable grounds of an area exceeding that of the meadow itself.

Even our most undeveloped, muddled definitions of "nature" and "the wild" suggest transposed fields of activity, spheres of influence. We'd do well to dispense with any attendant meanings which don't directly touch upon these concepts.

In the second case, we've precluded the recovery we saw when we left the ten-mile line of cleared trees alone. We've bisected the woodlands (once again altering the conditions at the margins and forcing a retreat of deep-forest species) and in the divide we've laid down a ten-mile dead zone where nothing can grow. Moreover, crossing from one section of woodland to the other has become hazardous for any animal that can't (or doesn't) routinely fly over it at a height greater than that of, say, an eighteen-wheeler. (Supplementary reading: two stories about roadways presenting a hazard to wildlife. We're past the point, I think, where we can shrug and say it's not like there aren't plenty of toads and bees to spare.)

The only visible non-human beneficiaries to these changes in the landscape will be scavengers (crows and vultures) for which an abundance of flattened animals furnishes a rich food source, and flowering "weeds" (chicory, Queen Anne's lace, and others) that flourish in roadside conditions. Any insects these plants may attract, however, will be imperiled by momentous rush of motor traffic, which the contingencies of several million years' evolution by natural selection have not endowed them to evade. (The annual number of butterflies and moths killed by road traffic in North America has been estimated at something like 9.3 billion.)

In the third case, we might be tempted to believe we've simply swapped one healthy "natural" ecosystem for another. After all, a hundred square miles of plants is a hundred square miles of plants—what does it matter if they're brush, trees, or cornstalks?

We know better than that. A healthily functioning ecosystem is a diverse ecosystem, and it begins with plant life. A heterogeneity of flora must precede a variety of fauna, and a hundred homogeneous square miles of cornstalks or soybeans are a hostile and possibly impassible wasteland to animals that don't feed on these plants or consume prey that do.

Speaking on the topic of "green desert" plantations in the global South, rainforest preservation activist Guadalupe Rodríguez says that when approaching a monoculture forest "you won't hear a single bird, because there is nothing there, just silence...A monoculture forest is almost like a stone quarry." A monoculture crop field in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere is no different.

(If you care for some further reading regarding the vital importance of biodiversity to agriculture, I might suggest this 2017 Politico article. The Anthropocene is going to hurt, and we can expect the bread basket to be the first place it hits us.)

The details of the fourth case recapitulate those of the first, second, and third. We'll be seeing forest fragmentation: nineteen square miles of woodland, divided into scores of separate islands, will support fewer animal species and a lower concentration of biota than nineteen continuous square miles. The open spaces we've nominally preserved will be degraded. We've carved up the landscape with paved roads incapable of supporting any floral life, and which place an unremitting stress on animal populations. A sprawling suburban development with grass lawns—whose residents are obliged to keep trimmed and free of weeds like dandelions, broadleaf plantains, and wild strawberries—is essentially a monoculture landscape. Few animals can do much with a grass lawn. The exceptions that soonest spring to mind are birds: robins, Canada geese, starlings, and cowbirds, and we could really do with fewer of the last three. Residents might plant trees and tend garden beds to provide refuge and sustenance for birds, small mammals, and herbivorous and pollenating insects, but this only slightly attenuates such an egregious squandering of ecological potential.

To all this we add the town's commercial nodes, which we'll imagine are shopping plazas, office buildings, giant discount retailers, etc., all surrounded by many acres of barren asphalt. We'll find ornamental patches of grass on the medians, maybe some mulch beds with deliberately spaced flowers, and rows of trees—probably of a single species chosen for its aesthetic value and diminutive size. The vegetation here owes its presence to the sites' planners, who provide for and arrange it like interior decorators selecting house plants to accentuate furniture. We can expect it will be much more rigorously maintained and kept free of "pests" and clear of "weeds" than a residential lawn.

The animals we find in these places will be those that thrive in heavily anthropized environments: sparrows, crows, gulls, pigeons, mice, rats, cockroaches, flies, and perhaps squirrels and foxes. Animals capable of and disposed to subside on garbage produced by humans. This trophic scheme represents an inversion of a "natural" food web: the "producer" role of photosynthetic plants has been usurped by the local apex species, whose waste products sustain the other animals down the chain. None (or otherwise an insignificant amount) of the which food the humans eat from their plates and the hangers-on scavenge from the curbs, trash cans, or dumpsters has been cultivated and culled from within the local ecosystem. It is supplied by crop harvests yielded through unsustainable and environmentally costly agricultural practices, a transportation infrastructure dependent on nonrenewable resources, and by the tenuous grace of political and economic stability. A healthy ecosystem is a durable ecosystem; anthropized environments in their modern form are inherently precarious.

Photo by one Ken Krause. Note the sickly uniformity of the arborvitae hedge.

If we were to go on to examine the effects of turning part of the forest into a natural resource extraction site (a strip mine, say), constructing a hub of manufacturing complexes and/or distribution centers, digging a landfill, or slashing and burning it for cattle grazing, we'll have about covered the basic varieties of the ways in which the inheritors of the civilization founded by European settlers use the land and alter the ecology of the Americas. None should require much imagination or intellectual labor on anyone's part.

What remains to be added is that when the Europeans first arrived in South America with their rifles and smallpox, the Amazonian natives—despite their millennia-long history in the region, despite their large numbers, despite their "bustling network of towns and cities," despite the changes they wrought on the ecosystem—were still living in a fucking rainforest.

That's the second way of interpreting the study described in The Atlantic and alluded to by our academic friend. We'll be probing that next time.


  1. Found your blog through your reviews over at SMPS (which I've read far too many times) and I just want to pop in and say that I'm reading your blog, with much interest.

    Have you read Derrick Jensen's work? Your opinions/choices of subject matter remind me of him in part, though your writing is I think more diplomatic...

    (I'm too lazy to figure out how to give myself a nickname on gmail so eh.)

    1. Hey, thanks for reading. I've not heard of Derrick Jensen, though a thirty-second skim of his Wikipedia page suggests I probably already agree with at least 90% of his ideas. I'll make a point of reading at least one of his books, though.