Friday, May 29, 2009

In defense of artifice -- Part 3

Last Saturday, my daughter Maureen and I walked the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills Reservation just south of Boston (and well within the metropolitan area). What a magnificent ammenity for the city -- 7000 forested acres, with rocky summits, stunning views, and crisscrossing trails. The reservation was established in 1893 by Charles Eliot, son of Charles William Eliot, the President of Harvard, and a protege of the great American landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted. Eliot and his associates were instrumental in procuring for Boston many other semi-wild places that adorn the city.

Semi-wild. The Blue Hills Reservation is a work of human artifice, farms and pastures returned to fen and forest just in time to keep them from being gobbled up by urban expansion. Not pastoral, not technopolis, but what I have elsewhere called Arcadian -- after that mythical time and place in ancient Greece where urban sophistication mingled with pastoral simplicity -- artifice in the service of humanity and nature.

To propose the pastoral as an alternative to environmental devastation, as does Jay Griffith in the essay referenced over the past two day, is to surrender our future to the forces of unchecked development. Why? Because the pastoral is kaput, a useless ideal, except for the very small number of us who are affluent and mobile enough to carve out our own little gardens with squeaky gates in yet unblemished corners of the planet, leaving the other 7 billion of our fellow humans to urban slums, strip malls, impoverished villages, fouled water and air, and dim memories of the sort of natural beauty Maureen and I found along the Skyline Trail (and that a few weeks earlier sons Dan, Tom and I found in the English countryside).

Did you ever consider what a remarkable thing is Central Park in New York City? Artifice. Can we look forward to a world largely powered by cheap photovoltaics or clean fusion power? Artifice. Can we choose to adopt planning restrictions such as those that preserved the undeveloped -- but thoroughly humanized -- landscapes I walked through with my sons along the Ridgeway in England? Artifice.

The Arcadian ideal seeks to combine the Baconian Enlightenment, with its confidence in the human mind to make sense of the world, and Wordsworthean romanticism, with its belief that all life is sacred. Whether an Arcadian balance is possible in a world of unchecked population growth remains to be seen.

The chemist Paul Crutzen has proposed the term Anthropocene to represent the present age of Earth history, in which human artifice is the dominant geological force. This age can be said to have started in the later part of the 18th century, when analysis of air trapped in arctic ice shows the beginning of global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. The paleoclimatologist Bill Ruddiman might set the beginning of the Anthropocene much earlier, with the rise of agriculture. In The Path, I wrote:
The technological products of human ingenuity represent an inevitable stage in planetary evolution, yet our Arcadian yearnings are dictated by millions of years of pretechnological human evolution. It is a conundrum of human life that our intellects have outraced our instincts; cultural evolution has overtaken organic evolution. Biologically, we are hunter-gatherers who suddenly find ourselves in command of almost unimaginable powers for planetary transformation. We struggle to bring together our genes and our aspirations. Wilderness and Technopolis. the romantic and the visionary, spirit and economics. Scientists and engineers are responsible for ensuring that the Anthropocene Era will be good for the human race and good for the planet, with its diversity of creatures and habitats. Architects and planners are implicated too, and the managers and stockholders of multinational corporations, politicians, philosophers, poets, and religious leaders. Most of us, however, will make our contribution for good or ill on the local scale, along paths that begins at our own front door.