Those who argue we can manage the planet's ecosystems are flirting with danger. The underlying science doesn't lie.
In June of this year, a massive rainstorm hammered the vast limestone basins of the Front Ranges of the Canadian Rockies. The dynamic combination of warm rainfall and last winter’s lingering snowpack unleashed a torrent of water that coursed through the Bow River watershed, wiping out bridges in its path before smashing and drowning a portion of the mountain resort town of Canmore. The Trans-Canada Highway was overwhelmed. The lower Cascade River tributary to the Bow, which had been blocked from its natural flow by the Lake Minnewanka Dam for 70 years, became so swollen that the dam’s spillway had to be opened. The river reclaimed its natural course, threatening to wipe out an even more significant section of the Trans-Canada and the Canadian Pacific Railway main line, both of which had been built along its old bed.
The water then surged downstream toward Calgary. Two of the Bow’s tributaries, the Elbow and Highwood Rivers, also swelled and raced toward the human settlements lying on the Great Plains below. Luxury homes along the Elbow River were abandoned and the vast Calgary Stampede Grounds were submerged under five metres of water. The town of High River was swamped and had to be evacuated. In all, up to 100,000 people were displaced and hundreds of millions of dollars of property was damaged. In just a few hours, nature reminded man of an old but often-forgotten lesson: humans are not in control of the planet.
The devastating floods along the Bow, Elbow and Highwood rivers were not “unprecedented,” as was frequently asserted in media reports. Similar flooding occurred in 1932, and there were three major floods in Calgary between 1875 and 1902, including a big one in 1897. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Montreal Engineering Company carried out a study of Calgary’s vulnerability to flood damage should the 1897 flood recur. The engineers predicted heavy flooding in exactly the areas that were devastated this June. Their recommendation: pull human development back from the flood plain.
The reaction to their study was predictable. The messengers were shouted down and the study rejected. There was a litany of justifications for spiking the scientific findings, from claims of insufficiencies in the data to criticism that the affected communities were not consulted during the study. Some argued that the flood hazard was overstated since there had not been a major flood since 1932, and that dams had since been built upstream to reduce the hazard. There were also concerns expressed about unfairly depressing property values because of “flood scares.” In other words, since the scientific report did not take into account the feelings of local people and would impose costs on them, it had to be rejected.
I know about this study because as a first-year arts student at the University of Calgary in 1976, I was forced to take a science course and enrolled in “Rocks for Jocks,” an introduction to geology. Professor Gerald Osborn, like any good professor, required us to buy a book he edited and lectured from: Homeowner’s Guide to Geologic and Hydrologic Hazards of Calgary. It reviewed the Montreal Engineering saga, noting that “social/economic considerations must be taken into account in flood mitigation planning. Nevertheless, a floodplain is called a floodplain for good reason, and people living on the floodplain have been and continue to be subject to periodic flooding.” High River is called High River for a reason.
A lot of students from Calgary took this course. But we forgot its lessons — me included. Even a flood of some significance in 2005 was not enough of a reminder. We came to believe we were in charge of the Bow River, that it was a human construct that we could bend to our will. Let me quote from Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden and H.V. Nelles’ book The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow:
Following the lead of recent work in the field of environmental history, we would like to blur the boundaries between nature and culture…The Bow River has a history that is very much bound up with human imagining, engineering, design, and profit. It must be one of the most engineered and regulated rivers on the continent…Its flow is monitored and managed like an assembly line…The Bow is about as “human-made” as it is possible to be…The Bow is a joint project of nature and human culture.
That was written in 2009. The consequence of that kind of hubris is the flood of 2013’s profound impact on humans. The high financial and emotional costs we will pay for this predictable reminder from nature about who is in charge tell us something. But are we listening?
We do not control the world; we are part of it. As E.O. Wilson put it in The Social Conquest of Earth:
Humanity is a biological species in a biological world…Our lives are restrained by the two laws of biology: all of life’s entities and processes are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and all of life’s entities and processes have arisen through evolution by natural selection.
The predictability of the Alberta floods and the reasons given for disregarding the professional warnings are a microcosm of what is happening with the natural world everywhere. Think of the climate change debate, where it is common to denounce the messengers, diss the science, refuse to take precautionary action, and assert that we will have a technological solution some day. Yet we humans simply do not know how to create a natural environment let alone manage the unimaginably complex interaction of the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and cryosphere that supports life. We are like the Bedouin conquerors of Damascus in Lawrence of Arabia who found that after conquest they did not know how to run the city’s electrical plant, no matter how brave and vocal they were.
Those who study how nature works warn us, over and over, that we are pushing it too hard. Yet instead of heeding those alarms, we risk falling under a new spell woven by postmodern intellectual vandals, who argue for an approach to conservation that privileges human needs above all things. They would have us disregard the big picture of what is happening to life on earth and instead try to turn the earth into a garden, tended by the habits and preferences of people. These “green postmodernists” suggest that nature itself is a human construct, and that our survival requires learning how to manage the earth for the benefit of people. This theory is now being gleefully embraced by those who think all the environmental warnings are hype and hogwash, and its promotion will be a most dangerous trip down the garden path unless it is nipped in the bud.
The device the green postmodernists have seized on to justify this people-focused approach to nature conservation is the still-informal concept of the Anthropocene, the Age of Man. Its proponents argue that we are in a new geological era defined by the impact of human activities on the earth’s natural processes, in which humanity has become the dominant influence in remaking the planet. It is an interesting idea worthy of serious consideration and sobering in its implications. No other species in the history of the world has had an impact at a geological scale.
For people like me, the advent of the Anthropocene is a red alert, a warning to change course as a species or face a dark future. But for the green postmodernists, the Anthropocene has become a springboard to a fantasy world of a new approach to conservation. It is somehow proof that human-developed landscapes sustain biological webs as long as they are managed by and benefit local people. This is supported by a conveniently comforting half-logic: we are in charge of the planet and we must know what we are doing, because we have been in charge for quite a while.
In this human-dominated world, the green postmodernists consider traditional conservation to be passé and oppressive. Instead, they argue for adopting a human-centred approach that asks how we can develop economies by protecting the parts of nature that serve the interests of local people and urban dwellers. Among its proponents is Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, one of the most powerful conservation organizations in the world. Kareiva has turned his back on the conservation movement as previously constituted, contending that its methods and campaigns, with its alarmist shouts and doomsday language, have failed to achieve its goals and ignore the moral case for accommodating human needs. Here is Kareiva, writing with Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz in “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility”:
Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden — not a carefully manicured and rigid one, but a tangle of species and wildness amidst lands used for food production, mineral extraction, and urban life.
Passages like this are raw meat to conservative opinion writers. Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail extolled Kareiva and his coauthors for pointing out that “purists have been terrible for environmentalism because they’ve alienated the public with their misanthropic, anti-growth, anti-technology, dogmatic, zealous, romantic, backward-looking message.” Her April 22, 2013 (Earth Day) column, continues:
Peter Kareiva and his fellow enviro-optimists are the key to saving environmentalism from terminal irrelevance. Global warming is the biggest case in point. The challenge is far too great to solve with carbon treaties (which are, in any case, politically impossible) or restraint. Just look at projections for energy use in the developing world, or consult any expert on how long it would take to wean the world off oil even if we found the perfect fuel tomorrow. The fixes for global warming will require dramatically different new technologies, and will only be available in the long term. Meantime, the planet may indeed be more resilient than we thought…And cheer up — the Anthropocene Age might be better than you think.
The Anthropocene Age cannot be pretty, because we don’t know how to create or run the earth’s natural systems. Yet in a culture increasingly dominated by postmodern thinking, skeptical of any hint of universal truths, scientific facts don’t matter. To the postmodernist, there are no facts, only perspectives in which everything is a human construct designed to serve one group of humans at the expense of another.
This postmodern perspective is becoming pervasive in Canada. In Walking since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, historian Modris Eksteins writes that “Canada has been defined as the premier postmodern nation because of its inability to define itself.” He says,
If the twentieth century has had one principal theme, it is the collapse of authority, or at least the ‘de-centering’ of authority. We have fled to the borders, of our cities, of our values, of our minds. All previous forms of representation, be they in art, politics or law have becomes suspect.
Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn wrote in 2005 that a federal election doesn’t carry the significance it once did because politics is more local now, noting that “for some time it has become standard to describe Canada as a ‘post-modern country.’”
A society where there is no agreed- upon foundation of facts is a society where climate change deniers can claim a right to equal time on the basis that denial is another perspective. It also leads to the folly of asserting that nature is a human construct.
We see this at work in the way the wilderness landscapes painted by the Group of Seven have been reinterpreted by some scholars, who argue that these beautiful paintings of wild nature so beloved in our culture reflect “a predatory desire for wilderness” that serve a Nordic power elite. In an essay included in John O’Brien and Peter White’s revisionist Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art, curator Peter White dismisses the Group of Seven’s painting of wild natural landscapes as “an ideological construction.” By “implying human sovereignty over nature,” he writes, “landscape in this form is a sign of possession of social standing, and of power.” For White, love for the wilderness (which I share deeply) is oppressive, and is wielded “in blatant contempt of the country’s contemporary character.”
In another essay in Beyond Wilderness, American writer Michael Pollan is quoted for his declaration that “today the force of our presence is everywhere. It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off and nature begins.” And American writer Emma Marris blends these postmodern ideas in her new book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, declaring that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not.” In an interview with the American Society of Landscape Architects she asserted that “abandoned, marginal lands chock-a-block with exotic species, weed species and — occasionally — broken cars and appliances are some of the only truly unmanaged landscapes left” and are wilder than Yellowstone National Park.
And so the Canadian public, with an intellectual class that has declared us to be a postmodern country, is fertile ground for an attack on nature conservation, open to suggestions from the authors of “Conservation in the Anthropocene” that wilderness doesn’t exist at all. “The wilderness so beloved by conservationists — places ‘untrammelled by man’ — never existed, at least not in the last thousand years and arguably even longer,” they write. They want nothing short of a revolution in the way we think about nature, putting humans at the heart of it as some kind of locally appointed management committee. They demand that traditional conservationists “jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness…and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.”
Indeed, they go further, accusing the conservation movement of oppressing people. “For 30 years, the global conservation movement has been racked with controversy arising from its role in expelling indigenous people from their lands in order to create parks and reserves,” they write. “The modern protection of supposed wilderness often involves resettling large numbers of people, too often without fair compensation for their lost homes, hunting grounds, and agricultural lands.” As a result, they contend, “conservation will be controversial as long as it remains so narrowly focused on the creation of parks and protected areas, and insists, often unfairly, that local people cannot be trusted to care for their land.”
Only in a time of grievous cultural amnesia could authors assert with a straight face that there was no wilderness in the world over the last thousand years. In Canada, the Great Plains were home to millions of wild bison and thousands of grizzly bears and wolves in 1850. The waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland were bristling with enormous wild codfish. Vast forests, some with trees too big for the first Europeans to cut down with a hand axe, were common in British Columbia. Southern Ontario was a wilderness in 1750. There are still vast areas of wilderness in northern Canada today.
The people we now call Inuit and First Nations interacted with wild nature on its terms and considered themselves part of it. The Inuit and the Haida were not gardeners but participants in wild nature. Some groups, like the Huron, practised cultivation on a limited scale in a matrix of wild ecosystems. The Blackfoot used fire to create more desirable conditions for favoured wild prey. But these traditional people lived on the land or the edge of the seas and had no illusions that they were controlling nature.
The conservation movement, with its desire to preserve a portion of this disappearing landscape, is not responsible for the egregious way in which Aboriginal peoples were pushed aside by the aggressive expansion of industrialized Europeans. The conquering or forced settlement of Aboriginal people on reserves was often accompanied by economic activity that involved the wholesale conversion of natural systems and slaughter of wildlife. Indeed the original idea of the national park was expressed by American artist George Catlin after a trip to the Missouri River in 1832, during which he witnessed the destructive path of European settlers moving inexorably westward. Asking “Why could not the Indian, the buffalo, and their wild homeland be protected in a magnificent park…A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty” was a reaction to the violence he had seen perpetrated against man and nature.
Since the Constitution Act of 1982, Canada creates national parks only with full First Nations participation. The recent massive expansion of the Nahanni National Park Reserve was done at the request of the DehCho First Nations and is co-managed by them. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haada Heritage Site is another case in point. Tribal groups like the Salish-Kootenay in Montana have created tribal wilderness areas. The World Wilderness Congress was born out of a campfire conversation between a traditional Zulu elder and a game rang-er in South Africa’s Umfolozi reserve, in defiance of apartheid. These are all cases where the local people have combined their relationship with the wild world and the higher ideas of parks and wilderness protection to benefit nature and themselves.
We are not “running the world”. We are messing with it.
The fundamental problem with the approach advocated by the green postmodernists is that it conflates our ability to profoundly affect a system of which we are a part with the ability to create it and keep it healthy. We are not “running the world.” We are messing with it.
To understand this critical difference, it is useful to go back to the case of rivers. A river is a natural phenomenon. Full stop. Humans have the ability to dam, divert, pollute, redirect and even use up the water in rivers. That is not the same as knowing how to create one. We can’t make the water or soil or trees or fish or animal elements of its ecosystem. We don’t produce the gravity that pulls a river along or the gravel that makes up its bed. We don’t create the seasons that change its flow.
And we are just learning how incredibly complex rivers are: the way they shift back and forth across a broad gravel bed, only part of which is the visible channel; the way they cut and fill and flood and roll gravels to create habitat for fish, insects and trees; the way their flows vary through time on an annual cycle that varies in timing and intensity from year to year. Rivers are central to the structure of regional ecosystems and key to the resilience of entire landscapes. They are most definitely not human constructs, while, on the other hand, we know from bitter experience that the idea of a hundred-year flood that we use to guide our “management” of rivers is just a human construct that has no bearing on the actual observed behaviour of rivers.
And rivers do not consult the people living on their banks before they flood.
The manipulation of the natural world that we undertake is usually done for human ends. Some of this is compatible with nature and some is not. Meanwhile, we are being warned by the scientists who study the earth that it is time to back off and be more humble in our interventions. There is a growing realization among biologists who study ecosystems and their persistence that if we want to effectively preserve the full range of biodiversity on the planet, we need to set aside a lot more parks and wilderness areas. Their research suggests we need to create an interconnected network of protected areas covering at least half of the world’s land and water, protected from human exploitation and on which natural processes like flooding and fire are allowed to unfold.
Perhaps the most overlooked document of significance to the future of life on earth is the 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” signed by the majority of the living Nobel Prize winners in science at the time. Their stark conclusion:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
That was before anyone had tried to define our age as the Anthropocene. In 2009, leading Swedish environmental scientist Johan Rockström led a group that published in the scientific journal Nature “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” which looked at the impact humans were having on the planet’s resilience in the Anthropocene. They contended that the systems of the natural world have boundaries that cannot be crossed without endangering human civilization.
Rockström and his colleagues considered 10 categories of interacting “Earth-system processes” essential to biophysical functions that support human life. They found that three of them — biodiversity loss, climate change and the nitrogen cycle — already exceeded the threshold for resilience. On biodiversity loss, they concluded:
The rate of extinction of species is 100 to 1000 times more than what could be considered natural. As with climate change, human activities are the main cause of the acceleration. Changes in land use exert the most significant effect. These changes include the conversion of natural ecosystems into agriculture or urban areas; change in frequency, duration or magnitude of wildfires or other similar disturbances; and the introduction of new species into land and freshwater environments.
They noted that farmers use more nitrogen than the planet can reabsorb. “Much of this new reactive nitrogen ends up in the environment, polluting waterways and the coastal zone, accumulating in land systems and adding a number of gasses to the atmosphere.” Yet we continue to merrily overuse nitrogen. Rockströ m and his colleagues join with many other scientists to note that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide above 350 parts per million (ppm) create conditions that could “threaten the ecological life support systems that have developed in the late Quaternary environment, and would severely challenge the viability of contemporary human societies.” We have now skipped above 400 ppm — and the amount of CO2 we release is still climbing.
These unhappy conclusions are based on objective findings. Of course they ran into opposition from those who recognize that these facts imply limits to human economic development. The response was to invoke the rallying cry of social justice. Why should less developed people stop their material development when those who got wealthy by industrializing first caused the problem? This is a favourite hook of the green postmodernists, who complain that nature conservation can be unfair to the people it encounters.
But nature doesn’t care whether it is fair to humans or not. Tigers need forests to live in and will go extinct without habitat. Rivers will flood whether we want them to or not. The ocean will acidify due to excess CO2 in the atmosphere. The estuaries of great rivers will be killed by excess nitrogen. Of course we can and should strive to be fair in the distribution of wealth and costs as we make conscious efforts to get our lives in balance with nature. But we cannot use historical unfairness as an excuse to prevent necessary present action. The greatest unfairness to humanity as whole will be the continuing degradation of the natural conditions that make our lives and civilizations possible.
Humans are now a geological force that is wreaking havoc on the natural systems that produce the water we drink, the air we breathe and the stable climate that allows food to be grown. We are behaving like the Vandals who were able to sack Rome but lacked the conquered Romans’ ability to build a Pantheon, sculpt the Farnese Hercules or engineer aqueducts. Our Anthropocene age will be very dark if we don’t change. Its arrival should be a loud wake-up call for humanity to step back from the brink because we don’t know how to run the world’s life support systems. Only nature understands its own workings.
The Bow River flood has provided us with a recent cautionary tale about the consequences of perceiving nature as a human construct, and satisfying immediate human desires in the face of environmental risk. But the good news is that we know how to have a better relationship with nature. We are good at creating nature reserves and we have the ability to protect the things we value from exploitation by others. We also are capable of sharing wealth in a way that makes protecting the earth’s ability to support life an economic “cost” that is fairly distributed. We could share the cost of relocating our buildings off flood plains and convert them to public parks for human pleasure and ecological resiliency. We could also drastically reduce the amount of CO2 we release to the atmosphere and strictly regulate the use of nitrogen so we have no waste runoff. These are all things we know how to do, and a wise civilization would do them all.
Our relationship with nature has, however, been marked by cleverness, not wisdom. Czech philosopher Karel Capek made the distinction among the uses of intelligence, noting in Apocryphal Tales that cleverness “is usually cruel, malicious, and selfish; it seeks a weakness in its neighbor and exploits it for its own gain; it leads to success,” whereas wisdom cannot be cruel, “for it is pure generosity and good will; it does not seek to profit everyone, for it loves man too much…; it leads to harmony.”
It is time for us to be wise in our relationship with wild nature, not to cleverly try to tame it as a garden. Nature’s wild spirit will not be broken by us — we will be broken in the trying. Our unhealthy relationship with nature is getting worse. It is giving us some pretty clear feedback. We ought to listen.