Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Natural and artificial

I was out again the other day with Professor Mooney's environmental ethics class. We sat on the plank bridge over Queset Brook and I expounded on the environmental philosophy of Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect who designed the landscape we were sitting in (a former private estate, now in the care of the Easton Natural Resources Trust), as well as major parks in an astonishing number of cities in the U. S. and Canada.

Not a wilderness, untouched by human hands. Not a synthetic techno-utopia. But, yes, some measure of artifice. Landscape as a work of art, on a natural canvas, using (as much as possible) natural materials. Landscape that fulfills some human yearning for spiritual nourishment, in the same way that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, say, or the soaring stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle, evokes what is best within the human soul.


For example, Olmsted created the miracle that is Central Park in New York City, the living, breathing heart and lung of that almost totally synthetic metropolis. To the students on the bridge I proposed that it will be incumbent upon future generations to apply the Olmstedian ethic to the entire surface of the planet. Yes, the planet as a canvas for human art.

Needless to say, there was some push-back. Reverence for wilderness is lodged deep in the American psyche. The students are deeply distrustful, and rightly so, of human willingness to put art before greed. They see a natural environment going to hell in a handbasket and imagine the day when the entire surface of the planet is a polluted wasteland. Get out of the way, they say, and let nature be.

Ah, if it were only possible.

There are 7 billion of us and the population will continue to grow for at least another 50 years. Only ten thousand years ago, humans, their livestock, and their pets accounted for less that one percent of animal biomass by weight; today they account for 98 percent. It is too late to get out of the way. For better or worse, the planet will be a human artifact. And if it is to be an artifact, let it at least be artful. Let it be a work of art that integrates human and non-human nature in a way that respects our species' evolutionary oneness with earth, air, water, flora and fauna.

Possible? Who knows? But it is the best we can hope for. Olmsted believed it was possible, and left us with a legacy of the artful integration of natural and artificial that can be our inspiration for the future.