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Restoration of preservation: reflections on a clash of environmental philosophies.

The nub of the restorationist critique of preservation is the claim that it rests on an unhealthy dualism that conceives nature and humankind as radically distinct and opposed to each other. The writings of William Jordan and Frederick Turner offer little evidence to support this indictment, but others have, sometimes pointing to the Wilderness Act of 1964 as especially telling. According to this act, a wilderness is an area where in contrast to those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape... the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain .... [It is] an area... remaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement of human habitation, which is protected and managed to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable ....

Dissatisfaction with dualism has for some time figured prominently in the unhappiness of environmentalists with mainstream industrial society, as in the writings of Carolyn Merchant and Theodore Roszak. Jordan and Turner turn the critique of dualism against preservation,oriented environmentalists themselves. In their view, preservationists are imbued with the same basic mind,set as the industrial mainstream, the only difference being that the latter exalts humans over nature while the former elevate nature over humans. According to the restorationists, neither position is healthy. One underwrites exploitation, with devastating environmental consequences; the other effectively takes human beings out of nature altogether and makes wilderness of it.

In the judgment of the restorationists, the exclusion of humans from nature deforms both. Set off against nature, humans can only work harm in the world. Any possibility of constructive stewardship is denied them, and the best they can do for nature is depart it and leave it alone. But nature suffers as well in this separation from human beings, because it is deprived of the services that humans render as rightful citizens of the biotic community. Dramatic testimony to this is seen in Turner's statement, in the August 1985 issue of Harper's magazine, that wilderness areas from which humans are systematically excluded are "the most astonishingly unnatural places on earth."

What are we to make of this criticism of environmental preservation? In answering this question, we need to distinguish the issue of the merits of dualism as a philosophical outlook from the question of whether preservationists are really dualists. I am persuaded that many of the faults found with dualism by its detractors not only are real but have been fateful. But is the preservation program really committed to these errors? There is good reason, I believe, for thinking not. We can see this if we look in two places: first, at the complete environmental program supported by most preservationists; and second, at the logic of preservation itself.

It might make sense to ascribe the nature-humanity dualism to preservationists if wilderness preservation were the whole of their environmental program. It would make even more sense if in addition their principal reason for seeking wilderness preservation were the conviction that nature can be fully itself and thus have full value only when left undisturbed by human be, ings. Though there are exceptions, preservationists typically do more than just sponsor wilderness preservation. They also work actively on a broad array of environmental issues, such as air and water pollution, toxic waste, soil erosion, global warming, and so on. To think that such preservationists are fundamentally inspired by the nature-humanity dualism and a misanthropic view of human beings is not at all a necessary, or even a very reasonable, inference. To be sure, they are worried about the impact that humans are now having on natural systems, and they do think that human activity at the present time is alarmingly destructive of nature. But so do many others, including restorationists, who would not think of solving the problem through a policy of apartheld for humans and nature. It makes more sense to think that these preservationists are driven, not by the notion that human contact and commerce with nature should be kept to a minimum, but by the desire that humans avoid the kind and the magnitude of interaction with nature that destroys the health of the world and the beings--human and nonhuman-to which it is home.

The definition of wilderness in the Wilderness Act, as land kept free from the influence of human beings, might seem to count against this conclusion. This is a definition of wilderness, however, not of nature in general; that a person support the protection of wilderness and still recognize a legitimate need for other types of land devoted to other purposes is wholly consistent with this definition. It is hard to see how someone willing to accept multiple land uses in this way is a victim of nature-humanity dualism.

In any event, there is no logic that requires dualism as a philosophical underpinning for preservation. Dualism might support preservation, but it is not the only outlook that would do so. Preservation could be grounded just as securely on the much more innocuous premise that there are limits to the freedom of human beings to use nature solely for their own purposes.

There seems, then, no compelling reason for thinking either that dualism is implicit in preservation or that its practitioners generally think it is. It is perhaps puzzling that Jordan and Turner do not see this, but more puzzling, I think, is the sharpness and relentlessness of their attack on the preservationists, accentuated by the fact that they offer little, if any, criticism of those who have plundered the natural world and left it standing so desperately in need of the healing powers of their own art of restoration. They pay no attention to the obvious point that in our present situation still-untouched lands not accorded legal protection will sooner or later almost certainly suffer the fate that has historically overtaken virtually all untouched lands in the path of industrial progress. The value of preservation as a means of limiting further ecological destruction is not once acknowledged. We see here a curious phenomenon: a movement that desires to restore the earth to a more natural condition singles out, from all the parties active in public life today, a group that wishes to preserve some lands in their natural condition and belabors them for unhealthy attitudes toward nature.

Restorationism on Nature and Humanity

The first principle of restorationism is that nature and humanity are fundamentally united rather than separate. Humans are a natural part of nature. The familiar distinclions of the natural and the artificial, of nature and culture, of ecology and economy, are not oppositions but a series of diverse and interrelated elements within a rich and unified whole. Human life, in all its manifestations, depends on nature and is an outworking of the same forces that are at work throughout the biosphere, indeed throughout the universe. But equally, because humans are an integral part of the natural order, nature also depends on humanity and cannot maintain full health and integrity without the activities of human beings. Nature and humanity are thus interdependent, and as a consequence their proper relation is cooperative, not adversarial. When each carries out its own proper functions, they work together to produce results that are wholesome and beneficial for both.

Compared with the dualism considered earlier, this scheme of understanding allots a much more positive role to humans in their interactions with nature. No longer are we either excluded from the world or condemned to exploit it. Instead, human participation is essential both for our own good and for that of the world. We can now feel at home in the world, full-fledged citizens of the land community, beings who belong where we are, in a place that requires of us the vital work of stewardship-a critical form of which is restoration.

In this outlook, human use of nature is not something to be decried. Humans have a wide range of legitimate needs, all of them bred into us by nature itself. Our instincts and capacities for satisfying these needs, including the astonishing intellectual and technical abilities our species has acquired over the centuries, are also products of nature. Nothing is intrinsically amiss or unnatural when we use these abilities in our dealings with nonhuman nature. To be sure, we often bring about sub, stantial change in the nonhuman world, but that is fully natural and not to be deplored. Nature is a dynamic realm, a domain of incessant change sustained by the actions and reactions of its constituent parts. This does not mean that humans cannot do serious ecological damage or that we should not try to prevent or control such damage, but it does mean that humans need feel no hesitation about manipulating nature solely on the grounds that it leaves its mark on the world.

When it comes to assessing this restorationist outlook, the most serious issue, in my judgment, does not concern the merits of this conception of the relation of nature and humanity. Rightly understood, I believe this conception is markedly superior to that in dualism. The crucial question about the restorationist outlook has to do instead with the degree to which the restorationist program is itself faithful to this, its own vision of the relation of humans to nature. Rejecting the old domination model, which sees humans as over nature-endowed with authority to dominate and control it, restoration theory champions a model of community participation. Yet some of the descriptions that Jordan and Turner give of what restorationists are actually up to in the overall economy of nature do not cohere well with the community-participation model.

For example, Jordan has written that the fate and well, being of the biosphere depend ultimately on us and our relationship with it." These words might mean only that we should discontinue or scale back the activities that threaten the biosphere, but for restorationists they signify considerably more. Turner has explicitly stated that it is time for us to renounce what he calls false ecological modesty, recognize that we are "the lords of creation," and "take responsibility for nature"-a responsibility, he thinks, that extends to creating "man-made nature." Restoration is part of this project. (Some might think that the capacity of human beings to damage the ecosystems of the earth automatically gives them a controlling role in the biosphere. But this is a mistake. That humans can harm the biosphere no more gives them special authority over it than the fact that I can injure or kill my neighbors makes me lord of the neighborhood. Special authority depends on something other than mere ability to destroy.)

It is hard to square the description of humans as the lords of creation with the community model of the relation of humans to nature. Indeed, Turner's comments seem to fit better into the domination model. Lords of the world, exercising responsibility for the fate and well-being of the biosphere, even to the point of creating man,made ecosystems, and thus holding literal life,and,death power over the nonhuman realm, surely occupy a position of dominance, while everything else holds a place of subservience. Fellow members of a community, in contrast, are on more equal footing; they enjoy more independence and autonomy than any of the nonhuman participants in the lords-of, creation scenario. A lord of creation is not just one of many members in a community.

Another holistic model might be more serviceable to the restorationists-namely, that of nature as an organism. As with the community model, this pictures nature as a system of interconnected parts. A fundamental difference, however, is that in an organism the parts are wholly subservient to the life of the organism, whereas members of a community have lives of their own apart from their functions in the community, thus possessing a measure of independence that parts of organisms do not have. The major parts of an organism are its organs; the members of a community are not organs but are themselves organisms. They stand to the community, therefore, in a relation very different from that of organs to organisms.

If we could think of the biosphere as a single living organism and could identify humans with the brain (or the DNA), or control center, of the biosphere, we would have a model that fits the restorationists' view of the role of humans in nature much more closely than does the community model. But just how plausible is such a model? Is there any credible evidence that humans are indeed the control center of the biosphere, or any compelling reason for thinking that they have the ability to carry out this function well?

The evidence is, to put it mildly, not strong. If we were the biosphere's control center, then the extinction of the human race would mean the death of the biosphere. Mass extinctions of the past have not had such a catastrophic consequence. It is difficult to see why the biosphere could not just as easily withstand similar extinctions now, even if humans were included in the die-off. What makes the human species so much more vital to the living earth than other species? According to one prominent analyst, the biosphere would be able to withstand even nuclear war followed by nuclear winter.

But let us suppose, contrary to the evidence, that humans really are the control center of the biosphere and that we really do have responsibility for directing its progress and ensuring its well-being. How could we expect to acquire the knowledge that would be required? The biosphere is too large and complex, too much the product of a long and intricate history of natural development, and too many of its processes are marked by an intrinsic indeterminacy for us to comprehend it thoroughly enough to control its fate.

Even if we could acquire the necessary knowledge, the record of history inspires little confidence that humans in positions of responsibility will use their power generally to improve the health and well-being of those under their authority. Granted, some of the harm done has been a consequence of ignorance and is thus correctable by advances in knowledge, but much of the damage takes place when people in authority use their positions to further their own interests at the expense of those in their charge. If that state of affairs is not remedied, gains in knowledge and power will only increase the potential for social and ecological disaster; for the more powerful our technologies are, the less tolerant they are of human error or ill intentions.

To consider humans as the control center of the living earth (or as lords of creation) is to ascribe to them a dominating role in nature. Is this significantly different from the old-fashioned domination model? If not, then restoration, notwithstanding its genuine concern for ecological wholeness and well-being, may be unable to make good on its promise to bring healing to nature.

Striking parallels exist between the old domination program and restoration. The most basic is that in both systems humans hold the place of highest authority and power within the world. Also, neither view recognizes any limits to the scope or range of legitimate human manipulation in the world. Everything is fair game for our manipulations if useful to our work. This does not mean that there are no constraints-only beneficial manipulation should be undertaken-but it does mean that nothing is intrinsically off-limits. A further parallel is that, because the fate of the world rests on humans, they must have a clear idea of what needs to be done. They must know what conditions are good (or at least what conditions are better) and then work to bring them about. Their activity, then, requires them to shape the world after ideas in their own minds.

There are also important differences between the two theories. For example, restorationists no longer view the world in the old dominationist way as a passive and inert object; instead, it is a system that is alive, dynamic, creative, and one that has a history. And though both assign to humans a controlling role in the world, dominationists conceive this in terms of conquest while restorationists conceive it in terms of healing. In restorationist doctrine, humans are physicians to the biosphere, who through their special knowledge and skill aid nature as it drives to maintain and develop itself. Also, restorationists insist that the ideas which must serve to guide our work in the world are drawn not solely from a consideration of human needs and purposes but from an understanding of the biosphere-the beings, the systems, and the interconnections that make it up, and the values embedded therein. As a result, they are more conscious than dominationists of our capacity to harm nature.

These differences are significant, but the continuing parallels raise troubling doubts about whether restoration is sufficiently removed from domination. If the community model is best, we are seriously misguided if we act as the lords of creation, believing that if we don't make things happen for the well,being of the biosphere then the job won't get done. Community members hold responsibility jointly for the health and integrity of the community, and community values are not enhanced by one member taking on what others are better suited for. In the community of nature, nonhuman entities have their own stakes in the well-being of the biosphere and their own contributions to make in furthering it. The good of the biosphere requires that they be given the freedom to play their special parts. If they are deprived of opportunity to do this, the community suffers.

In situations of ecological breakdown, it is tempting for humans to think that they can save the biosphere by seizing control and restoring order and health. But if the community model is correct, yielding to this temptation is self-defeating. There are constructive possibilities for the use of power, but only within limits. Beyond these limits a member simply has to trust "the system"-those processes and arrangements by which the community lives and on which it depends. (I hope it is clear that I am not saying anything that would encourage submission to repressive political regimes. I am speaking here of community, not political systems inimical to community.)

Trust of this type is, of course, risky. It puts one at the mercy of forces beyond one's control, which may explain the appeal of the domination model. But life is inherently risky. A system in which there are no risks is a system in which there is no life. Beyond a certain point, the effort to control and eliminate risk does more harm than good, and taken too far becomes deadly. Humans are incontrovertibly creatures of forces they do not control. If the forces that brought forth life in the first place cannot be trusted to maintain it-provided they are given the leeway to do so-there is little basis for thinking that anything humans can do will save the situation. If community is the best model for our basic relations in the world, the quality of human life, and of life generally, will ultimately depend more on trust than on control.

From the view of the champions of community, the unwillingness of restorationists to make room for an ethic of trust in our dealings with nature, and their reliance instead on a program of control, is precisely what makes them fellow travelers with the old, fashioned dominationists. Like the dominationists, they give humans a larger role than they are suited for-one for which they have neither the knowledge nor the moral wisdom to carry out well. They do, of course, propose to redirect human control from the final end of the dominationists, that of human empire over nature, to that of the health of the biosphere, but they do nothing to scale back the role of humans in the world and nothing to correct the mismatch between their unlimited task and their limited qualifications. As a consequence, restoration offers the world no realistic protection against continuing social and ecological disasters of our own making.

The restorationist might respond that this criticism underestimates the significance of the shift in ultimate end. The crucial problem with domination, the response might go, is that it had no interest at all in the health of the biosphere. It is not surprising, then, that when Western civilization mobilized national economies to promote human empire, ecological values took a beating. Restorationists, however, recognize the supreme importance of ecological values.

There is some validity in this response, but it does not meet the basic force of the objection. The dispute is whether we can act without mischievous consequences, no matter how unexceptionable the ends we seek, if we do not know very fully what we are doing. To the critic, the limitations of our knowledge are emblematic of our holding a more humble position in the biosphere than that of its lords. If we step out of our proper role and presume to take responsibility for the well-being of the whole biosphere, not really knowing what we are doing, we will as certainly produce havoc under the restorationist regime as we did under the aegis of domination. We could profit from the salutary reminder that the projects of domination spawned by the old model were all boosted with extravagant promises of beneficial results, were motivated by what were considered the noblest intentions, and were backed by the best science of the day-just as the new programs of control are touted now. For these reasons, the restorationist rejection of the old domination model seems not nearly complete enough to restore a healthy relation between humans and nature. From this perspective, the restorationist shift to a new end in view does little more than dress up the old domination program in a currently fashionable green.

None of the foregoing implies that actual efforts of restoration should not be undertaken. This essay is not focused on ground-level projects of restoration but on philosophical principles in terms of which restoration is conceived and justified. If the philosophical principles of Jordan and Turner are defective, that does not entail that particular restoration projects are unsound. Individual projects-just because they are ground-level and do not reach out to encompass the entire biosphere-may have a potential for good that the philosophies used to justify them do not. Indeed, it seems to me that in our own day restoration is an inescapable obligation. Not, however, for the grandiose reason that we have ultimate responsibility for the health and well-being of the biosphere, but on the more homely grounds that when we make a mess we should do what we can to clean it up. This is more pedestrian and less exciting, but much more befitting members of a community that share the same neighborhood with others.

G. Stanley Kane is a professor of philosophy at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Anselm's Doctrine of Freedom and the Will. This article was adapted from an essay in Beyond Preservation: Restoring and Inventing Landscapes (University of Minnesota Press).
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Title Annotation:The Human Challenge of Ecological Restoration
Author:Kane, G. Stanley
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:3863
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