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Regimes of nature.

I. Over the last several decades, interest in the fate of the natural environment has exploded in a proliferation of associations, journals, magazines, television programs, and books. People around the world have been galvanized by concerns about pollution and resource depletion. Scholars in nearly every field have turned their attention to the problems of the environment. And ecology has come of age as an academic discipline attempting to synthesize knowledge from many more specialized disciplines.

Intellectual positions have proliferated, too. From Bill McKibben's widely published announcement of The End of Nature (1989), according to which nature has already been irretrievably lost, to James Lovelock's earlier "Gaia hypothesis" (1979), according to which the terrestrial biosphere is a living creature capable of compensating for the excesses of its members, myriad new ways of conceptualizing our ecological dilemmas have emerged. These ideas range from suggestions that humans should withdraw from nature entirely, through various models for sustainable agriculture and development, to reclamation and restoration projects for damaged ecosystems and even studies of how we might transplant terrestrial nature to other planets. We only agree that something must be done.

The profusion of ecological proposals reveals more than theoretical disagreement. Our faith in scientific and technological progress has been challenged. Our paradigm of progress is being discredited, without our finding a new frame of reference for relating human activities to the rest of planetary life. We live in a transitional moment when the most varied hypotheses compete for our attention, without fully capturing either our vision or our commitment.

One source of our intellectual and cognitive predicament is our increasing awareness of the ecological havoc that our species has been wreaking on nature. Since the industrial revolution, we have witnessed an increasingly rapid alteration of nature. Furthermore, we are gradually becoming aware of the profound effects of human actions in the more distant past: ecological historians like Alfred Crosby have revealed drastic changes in global ecology going back 500 years, to the time of the first European voyages across the oceans and the ensuing colonization movement, adding a dimension of "ecological imperialism" to that migration. Drastic transformations of biota in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and other non,European areas lying in the temperate zones resulted from the bacteria, plants, and animals that the European colonists brought along with them. This was a completely unintended consequence of the European expansion. Other studies, like William Cronon's Changes in the Land (1983), have shown that even native Americans-traditionally thought to have had a harmonious relationship with nature-had profound impacts.

Our growing awareness of the impact of humans upon nature may be producing more than cognitive confusion; guilt threatens to inhibit our ability to deal with the environmental problems facing us now. If humans have always shaped the natural world to suit themselves, and if we have always been upsetting the ecological balance and are only doing so much more decisively at present, perhaps the end of nature was inevitable and necessarily our fault. For some, this new version of original sin is seductive. For others, the knowledge of how implicated we are in environmental degradation leads simply to despair.

In this time of heightened ecological awareness and anxiety about nature, the conservationist pieties of the generations who created the National Park System in the United States no longer suffice. Some writers have even begun to question the ideology of preservation. Their logic is obvious: we can see how current development has transformed so much of nature in our lifetimes. We are learning how much nature has already been reshaped by our species in the past. We are gradually realizing that there is not much left to preserve in its pristine state anyway. And we are less and less clear about what it would mean to preserve nature.

Preservation still seems like a good idea, where it is both feasible and meaningful. But as a comprehensive solution to our worldwide ecological problems, it is inadequate. In the best of circumstances, preservation is applicable only to the very limited portion of the earth that has not already been tampered with. And even those areas are menaced by people and states that sense an immediate need to use the land far more acutely than they do the need to preserve it. As a result, such traditionally preservationist organizations as the Nature Conservancy have had to extend their mission beyond the once-hallowed goal of wilderness preservation. Reclamation and restoration of damaged lands are now common projects.

Beyond the practical economic and political difficulties, and the plain scarcity of wilderness areas available for preservation, there is a nagging philosophical problem with the idea of preservation. The definition of nature includes evolution by natural selection, which obviously entails change. Preservation is problematic because nature is a volatile, dynamic system that does not lend itself to preservation in the sense that we preserve works of art. So even as we attempt to prevent ourselves from ruining what is left of pristine nature, we are afflicted by doubts about whether what we do makes sense.

This may seem sophistical. After all, if we were to preserve a large enough tract of pristine nature and strictly prevent human intervention, perhaps evolution would proceed unimpeded there. But that raises what is perhaps the most basic philosophical question about preservation, conservation, or any alternative philosophy of ecology-namely, are humans members of nature or not? For if we understand ourselves to be other and entirely different from nature, it makes sense to protect nature from human impact, to preserve portions of nature from human incursion. This is the premise upon which the theory of preservation, in its strictest sense, is ultimately founded. It is a premise of the "death of nature" thesis and the basis of that sense of guilt which might prevent us from acting creatively on nature's behalf.

If we understand ourselves to be one among many creatures in a grand community of species (perhaps a privileged one), the prospect is altogether different. Entangled with the rest of nature and products of evolution like other species, we could hardly avoid having an impact on nature. This is the premise of both Frederick Turner and William R. Jordan III, whose views are represented elsewhere in this issue. Jordan, a botanist by training, is outreach officer of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, rounding editor of Restoration and Management Notes, and a founder of the Society for Ecological Restoration. Turner is a poet and essayist fascinated with the invention of new landscapes, including even terraforming Mars in his purview. While their projects differ somewhat, they agree not only that humans are members of nature but that our unavoidable impact upon the community of species gives us a large degree of responsibility. They locate our responsibility in discovering how to restore and propagate what we have been destroying. They also share the belief that removing ourselves from nature is not an option.

Turner and Jordan urge us to go beyond preservation, to take an active role in restoring and actually constructing our landscape. Of course, many thoughtful environmentalists bridle at such proposals. To some preservationists, landscape restoration and ecological invention appear dangerous; in their view, such strategies undermine our ability to save nature by suggesting that there is an alternative to preservation. Nonetheless, the writings of Turner and Jordan appeal to a broad constituency. They touch upon an extraordinarily wide range of ecological issues, from the philosophical to the practical. They are neither mystically optimistic nor righteously despairing, nor do they ask us to return to an earlier way of life. Rather, Turner and Jordan urge us to make maximum use of everything we can know about nature to ensure the continuing evolution of life here on this planet, and even to propagate it elsewhere.

Landscape reconstruction and ecological invention both involve their practitioners in actively reshaping the natural world and creating (or re-creating) communities of species that can live together in an ongoing, self, sustained way. Restoration ecologists advocate not only researching an ecosystem but cultivating, manipulating, and using it. Prairie restoration is the best-known example. In Wisconsin in the 1940s, Aldo Leopold and his colleagues searched the roadsides and railway rights-of-way throughout the Midwest for native grasses that had escaped the plows and cultivators of the farms. They gathered what they found and attempted to re-create the prairie on exhausted and eroding farmland. While they had some success at first, it was not until they realized that fire was an important ingredient of the prairie, and started to burn it periodically, that they got something approaching the original. It was a hands,on project that involved much trial and error. But it yielded remarkable results-not only in the form of a gorgeous restored prairie that is now part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum but in scientific understanding of both prairies and the restoration process.

By now, prairie restoration is so successful that prairie projects are springing up all across the Midwest. State highway departments from Ohio to Nebraska are experimenting with prairie grasses along roadways. Other efforts at restoring savannahs, wetlands, tropical forests, and other ecological systems are emerging as well. William Jordan and the Society for Ecological Restoration are pioneering in all these areas, and the practical future of this approach to the environment seems grand.

Genesis, Frederick Turner's fantasy of creating an earthlike landscape on Mars, is more grandiose and obviously farther from implementation, but it is not just one poet's fantasy. Many scientists are skeptical, but others are enthusiastic, including several at NASA. Although the obstacles are immense, and the time required simply to create a more earthlike atmosphere on Mars may be vast, it seems foolish to say it is impossible. Rather than speculating on the limits of science, perhaps we should consider that restoring earthly landscapes and terraforming another planet are or would be logical extensions of gardening.

Whether or not terraforming Mars is desirable at all, and whether it is a good way to spend our limited resources, are important questions. Some argue that the idea of restoring earthly landscapes and creating Martian ones will only give succor to those who want to continue corrupting the earth. It will be harder to police pollution if it becomes common to think that we can easily restore what gets eroded and degraded, or escape to Mars if we manage to corrupt this planet entirely. But whatever the pitfalls, and whatever our reservations about landscape restoration and invention, these ideas go far beyond preserving what is left of nature. They hold out the prospect of actually doing something about the ecological crisis, and that may be their most powerful appeal.

The projects that Turner and Jordan depict for inventing and reconstructing ecosystems tax the human imagination. They demand refined techniques and hard work. And they provide opportunities to measure progress-all unlike preservation. Unless we are to renounce further progress in science and technology and reverse secular trends in economic development, population growth, progress toward more equal standards of living, and so on, it seems likely that the techniques of landscape restoration will become more, rather than less, important to us. For it is far more likely that the pressure of events will force us to do something, than it is to motivate us collectively to refrain from doing the things we have done for centuries. Interfering in the new way that we term restoration may be far more consistent with the character of our species than preservation. To refrain from intervening in nature may be the one impossible thing.

II. This combination of ideas, including human membership in nature and the imperative to restore and invent landscapes, makes a strong claim on our attention. It is one candidate for a new ecological paradigm, but it is not limited to biology. In fact, one way to evaluate these ideas is to place them in the tradition of political theory.

Strict adherence to a policy of preserving nature represents an assertion of nature's independence of human domination. But landscape restoration seems to entail the extension of human sovereignty over nature. Stating it in these terms raises an obvious question: what is the relationship between theories of government and the human reign in nature?

Before the modern era of popular sovereignty, European kings had a right and apparently even a responsibility to preserve nature in a particular way. Kings enjoyed a royal hunting privilege that included a forest preserve where no one but the king could hunt. In his excellent book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), Robert Pogue Harrison argues that such preserves were the first natural sanctuaries and kings "the first public or institutional conservationists in history." He cites the Elizabethan jurist John Manwood to suggest that the sacredness of the king's body extended to the forest hunting preserve. Manwood's Treatise (1592) indicates that the very term forest referred not so much to the trees of the woods as to the whole area and community of species protected by the king's privilege. And the royal forest was not the private domain of the king so much as a sacred space preserved by the (sacred) king from human encroachment. This medieval view is remarkably similar to certain modern arguments for ecological preservation. But it is systematically different from ecological practices derived from popular sovereignty.

Popular sovereignty is one of the great ideas of the modern era, now an unquestioned axiom of political and social life. It was not always so. Until the seventeenth century, God was the ultimate source of authority and kings ruled by "divine right." A king's authority and responsibility-over his subjects as well as his hunting preserves-was understood to be absolute and delegated from God. As improbable as divine right and sacred kingship may seem now, these ideas made it plausible and even logical for European kings to be the first institutional conservationists. But the king's role as preserver of nature would not survive the erosion of divine-right monarchy.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century introduced diverse interpretations of who should hold the divine mandate and led to religious warfare between Catholics and Protestants. God's role as guarantor of the political order became progressively more problematic. Of course, the human relationship with nature paled into insignificance in this crisis of authority. Religious war wracked England from 1640 until 1660, and conflict broke out again in 1688 between the Catholic James II and his Protestant subjects. When James fled England, the leaders of the rebellion invited William of Orange to assume the throne. The new king was thus delegated by parliament, not God; from the solution to this crisis of authority emerged a new theory of sovereignty.

As explained by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government (1689-1690), the theory of popular sovereignty served to legitimate the settlement of 1688 and constitutional monarchy more generally. Historians have interpreted Locke's theory and the events of 1688 as the beginning of the political peace that characterized English history thereafter and made England a model for other nations. The theory of popular sovereignty was later used to justify democratic revolutions in America, France, and elsewhere. It became so widely accepted that people now assume that governments should serve the interests of the governed, and that human communities and not gods are responsible for their regimes. Political practice varies absurdly, but the constitutions of virtually every modern state and most of the world's citizens subscribe to this dogma.

Popular sovereignty has also evolved to become an ever more inclusive theory. Originally a strictly political proposition, since the French Revolution especially the idea of popular sovereignty has expanded to include the people's right to define a particular order of society, incorporating legal equality and protecting many more "natural rights" than Locke foresaw. After initial efforts by the sans culottes during the French Revolution, workers and socialist theorists throughout Europe in the nineteenth century succeeded in extending the idea of popular sovereignty to include the expectation of economic well being. And since World War I, virtually all governments have acknowledged a responsibility to maintain the political, social, and economic welfare of the people they represent. Popular sovereignty has thus come to cover almost every aspect of human culture. But so far the theory of popular sovereignty-which might also be called human sovereignty-has not been applied to our relationship with nature, at least not explicitly.

The human species has, of course, long exercised de facto sovereignty over nature. This has been especially true since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century so enhanced our understanding of nature and thus also our capacity to exploit it. Locke's contemporary, Isaac Newton, might even be said to have sealed our entry into the era of practical human sovereignty over nature with his synthesis of the laws of motion in the Principia Mathematica (1686-1687). But in spite of all the practical authority that modern science and technology have given humans over nature, a millennial convention in theory has exempted nature from the gradually expanding domain of human sovereignty. Consequently, human beings have lacked a theoretical, cultural, or normative basis upon which to develop a sense of responsibility to husband nature and the earth. They have felt free to use nature without much regard for the consequences.

Locke and other advocates of popular sovereignty assumed that nature existed for human convenience. While they rejected the divine right of monarchs, they clung to (sometimes secularized versions of) the biblical idea that nature had been created for human benefit. Locke's own Second Treatise, for example, finds the origins of government in a pre-social "state of nature," in which humans appropriate nature ever more extensively until their population grows so dense, and their competition for resources so intense, that they cannot avoid conflict. This conflict over land, which Locke calls the state of war, is the natural outgrowth of the natural reproductive tendency of humankind. It causes humans to unite voluntarily and contract to form "civil society," devising government to restrain their conflict. But the social contract is designed only to restrain the conflicts that arise among humans in their competition for land. Nowhere does Locke envision society or government restraining human exploitation of the land (or nature more generally). And in fact, wherever modern governments have proposed to serve the interests of the governed, they have accelerated the exploitation of nature and natural resources.

The idea that nature is there for human convenience, fostered by popular sovereignty, is ultimately based upon a belief that humans are radically different from nature. The distinction between nature and culture is one of the most ancient and fundamental oppositions in Western civilization. Felix yon Heinimann's book Nomos und Physis (1945) explores the origins and significance of this resilient distinction. And Clarence L. Glacken's monumental compilation, Traces on the Rhodian Shore (1967), shows how the original Greek dichotomy of nature and culture survived both Roman and Christian influences. In the modern era, even Dar, winism, which so obviously relocates humans in nature rather than outside and opposed to it, has been unable to reform popular thinking on this subject. So as humans have continually enhanced their practical ability to dominate nature, the nature/ culture distinction has perpetuated a belief in the intrinsic independence of nature.

Nevertheless, we have begun to plan the future of nature. Studies of environmental degradation and resource depletion, the growing preoccupation with "sustainability," as well as practical projects in restoring prairies, savannahs, and tropical forests are all signs of this. Fantasies of transplanting our nature to other planets and improving upon nature here on earth by genetic engineering are even more dramatic indications. The audacious titles to Turner's essays are revealing examples: "cultivating" nature as our "garden" and creating a "synthetic landscape." The point is that, as we plan for the future of nature as a whole rather than merely using the parts that come to hand, we begin finally to assert a theoretical human sovereignty over nature. And as we abandon the idea that nature is independent, we must begin to assume responsibility.

This is a dramatic moment, philosophically as well as practically. As the one category believed by modern, secular people to be independent of human dominion, nature has been the residual sacred-the ground and guarantee of all that is beautiful, true, and good. Since the eighteenth century, nature has been the ultimate source of most human laws and norms. Whatever has been categorized as "natural" has been understood to be good; whatever considered "unnatural" has been understood to be bad. This view was reinforced by the fact that nature's history was so long by comparison to human history as to seem eternal. Nature is presented to the mind as reassuringly self-regulating-a deep and repeating constant by comparison with the changeable world of human culture. Normativety, therefore, nature was sovereign.

Since we have thought in this way for centuries, and since there is no other source of norms on the horizon, it is terrifying to think that we must learn to think differently. But we may. Learning to husband nature may be an inescapable responsibility of humankind, entailed in our practical ability to alter and destroy nature, as well as in the imperative to perpetuate the human species. But if humans assume this responsibility and place ourselves above nature, or redefine ourselves as the controlling species within nature, whence will we draw the norms and values to guide our husbandry?

This question has never arisen because people have heretofore not understood that humanity threatened nature as a whole. Sensitive observers have, of course, recognized the deleterious influence of humankind upon portions of nature for centuries. In the late eighteenth century, for example, an English country parson, Gilbert White, made a record of what in his village of Selbourne he feared might be lost to industrial civilization. For most of the intervening time, however, it has seemed sufficient only to conserve and protect nature. Nature was resilient enough that merely preventing certain human alterations of nature or, at most, keeping humans out of portions of it seemed enough to guarantee nature's continued existence. Our sense of innocence derived not from a lack of knowledge about the human impact upon portions of nature--that was well known-but from the unquestioned premise that nature as a whole was independent of human culture. Nature itself did not seem threatened; hence, the long delay in acknowledging human sovereignty.

Now a few voices proclaim "the end of nature" and others foretell such a destiny. Now, in an emergency, we admit our role in corrupting nature and begin to plan drastic remedies. Thought-projects for transporting terrestrial nature to Mars belie the sense of urgency that derives from the belated recognition that nature as a whole is threatened. And injunctions to restore nature implicitly acknowledge that nature is not independent, just as Locke's argument that the people had restored the English monarchy by appointing William king introduced the sovereignty of the people. In this situation, we are already in one sense "beyond preservation)."

Having already altered nature immeasurably, having brought about countless extinctions and permanently altered significant portions of the biosphere, humankind has obviously been exercising an anarchic sovereignty over nature for quite some time. To finally accept our responsibility for nature is only appropriate-and none too soon. Simply to guarantee life to future generations of the human species, people must learn to assert some form of hopeful, reasonable, and collective sovereignty over nature. There is no alternative. Even the vague notion of sustainability presupposes human control.

This is nevertheless a paradoxical situation fraught with danger: human beings have been driven by their own destructive capacities to acknowledge their role in nature and begin to accept some responsibility. But our species is yet ill equipped to deal with this responsibility, either theoretically or morally. Finding ourselves beyond that point in history where preservation seemed adequate, we are finding it difficult to discover and settle upon a new ecological paradigm for relating human activity to nature. This is the need that Turner and Jordan are attempting to answer in the most creative ways. More difficult will be inventing a new source of norms for managing nature as well as our relationships among ourselves. For since the death of God in the eighteenth century, nature has been our source of norms. Now, as we assume responsibility for nature and assert our sovereignty over it, we deprive ourselves of our only remaining external source of guidance. This may be a revolution no less daunting than the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. Ecologically, humans may be recognizing their membership in nature; but morally, we are alone. There is no guide but ourselves.

This is not such an astonishing conclusion. Everyone who has seriously read Nietzsche has considered this already. But the apparent nihilism in this conclusion may actually be an opportunity for creative thinking about our relationship with the rest of nature. Perhaps the ecological crisis and this confusion over our authority is the goad that will finally provoke us to accept Nietzsche's challenge. How will we redefine our regime in nature without transforming all our values?

III. Responding creatively to this crisis of responsibility, we have two grand options. We can resacralize nature and reinvent some religiously sanctioned authority, analogous to the medieval king, to protect it. Or we can revise and correct again and again the rational course implied by the project of the Enlightenment, providing a popularly sanctioned regime that will sustain our relationship with the rest of nature. Exactly how either of these options will be realized is a complicated matter that will only be solved with much imagination. Moreover, the need to do something may force us down one or both of these paths before we can foresee all the consequences. I can only suggest that we need more science fiction to answer Turner's Genesis.

A divine nature protected by a sacred king was convenient in the Middle Ages, not only because it enlisted the king as the official conservationist. The medieval world-view also entailed a moral and ethical order that was simply given (by God). While this order may have been discussed by a few custodians of tradition, it did not have to be revised by popular consensus. It was not open to public debate and, by standards to which we have become accustomed, not very equitable, either. Since then, we have arrogated more and more responsibility to ourselves and created a world in which much more is open to discussion. But ours is also a world in which we must make up more and more of the rules-a world where almost nothing is given and most people know it.

In this situation, I believe that a reinstitution of sacred nature protected by religiously sanctioned authority would entail unprecedented political repression obviously inconsistent with popular sovereignty. Of course, conditions may arise in which many people will welcome such authority, as they have done several times in the twentieth century already. New sacrifices and rituals may give rise to an altogether new religion that will cure us of our predilection for popular rule. But I cannot imagine this being a benign development.

I also find it difficult to imagine how we might devise a creative relationship with the rest of nature in a regime of popular sovereignty as we have known it so far. Something like a new social contract will be necessary; having shared ultimate authority and responsibility for our government among ourselves (at least in theory), perhaps we must now learn to extend this participation in sovereignty, somehow, to other species. A number of groups campaign for the rights of trees and animals already. Including them in sovereignty may be the next step.

Aside from the practical difficulties entailed in sharing sovereignty with other species, we must recognize that such a move could only be based upon the self-interest of the human community. Can we all realize that our short,term interest in exploiting nature for our personal or national benefit only makes sense within the frame of our long-term interest in perpetuating our relationship with nature? Or to put it another way, will we realize in time that we must restrain our exploitation of other species and resources in order to ensure the survival of our own species? Only when we can answer these questions affirmatively and devise a new basis for our common thinking will the rationalistic project of the Enlightenment (and modern secular thinking more generally) be employed to correct our currently heedless behavior. A new social contract is difficult to imagine, but it seems necessary.

In retrospect, it seems no accident that the theory of popular sovereignty should have emerged contemporaneously with the science that gave us such devastating practical authority over nature. The tragedy of this coincidence lies in humankind's long delay in recognizing that nature was vulnerable. However, this belated recognition may finally lead to human acceptance of responsibility for nature, along with the responsibility to create the normative world. If as a species we can recognize these responsibilities and act upon them, we will do so in no small part because of our experience with popular sovereignty. For the essence of popular sovereignty resides in humans taking responsibility for governing themselves instead of projecting that responsibility onto God.

This is why we finally must accept responsibility. The only alternatives-both unacceptable-are to continue on our present destructive course or to find a new regime and a new god to protect both us and nature from ourselves.

Carl Pletsch is a professor of European Intellectual History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and coeditor of Beyond Preservation: Restoring and Inventing Landscapes (University of Minnesota Press, 1993). This article was adapted from an essay in that volume.
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Title Annotation:The Human Challenge of Ecological Restoration
Author:Pletsch, Carl
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Perhaps more often than we'd like to admit, human hands have already been at work where now we seem to see only pristine and unspoiled nature.
Next Article:Inventing arcadia: an interview with Frederick Turner.

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