Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Olmstedian ethic -- Part 1

I keep my traveling to a minimum these days, but for many years I attended occasional gatherings of "nature writers." I was often the odd-man-out.

Our conversations were usually posed as humans vs. nature. We are the ravisher, nature the ravished victim. To hear my colleagues talk, it was almost as if humans had arrived on an unspoiled planet from outer space, and set about dismantleling it for our exclusive -- and selfish --benefit.

My position was that we are as much a part of nature as condors and cougars, that our technological prowess is as much a product of natural evolution as talons and teeth.

Not that our aspirations for nature were all that different -- we all valued wildness and biodiversity. But it seems to me that the best way of achieving whatever is achievable is to start by recognizing the biological imperative of human dominion.

Dominion does not necessarily mean domination. Let us begin with a few moral principles that are entirely of human invention, validated by collective assent:

1) All creatures share to one degree or another the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Ascertaining the "degree" and doling it out is per force a human responsibility. Presumably, no one would object to the extinction of the smallpox virus or tsetse fly. Condors and cougars, bluebirds and butterflies, have greater claims on our forbearance.

2) Human happiness and spiritual growth is enhanced by the experience of wildness and biological diversity.

Then, of course, there is the central ecological fact that our physical well-being -- the food we eat, the air we breathe, etc. -- depend upon a balance of nature that has evolved over millennia and is disrupted at our peril.

So, what to do?

Recognize that human dominion is inevitable. Draw upon our highest ethical and artistic instincts to make of planet Earth a human artifact that is beautiful, graceful and spiritually fulfilling. Make our cities clean and green. Protect wild rivers and forest preserves, especially those near population centers. Enact environmental regulations that assume the common good sometimes trumps individual freedom.

My writing colleagues generally blanched at the idea of Earth as a human artifact. But in fact it already is. And will continue to be so. The only question is what kind of artifact we want. And the place to begin is by recognizing that we are nature and whatever we make is natural.

As Emerson said in 1844: "Nature, who made the mason, made the house."

(More tomorrow.