philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving


A reply to an article which appeared in the New York Times on November 29, 2015 entitled: Earth Is a Wilder, Warmer Place Since Last Climate Deal Made by Seth Borenstein.

I could not agree more with the Seth Bornetein's position that the Earth is changing, becoming wetter and warmer since Kyoto (1997). The nations of the world must find a way to limit greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere and do so promptly and justly. In fact, I found the article as a whole to be a timely and appropriately poignant summary of where we stand as a world in the face of a changing climate.

I have one simple objection: Bornstein’s use of the term “wild” to describe this new and changing planet.

I take it that he means to invoke the more extreme weather conditions like droughts, heat waves, and typhoons that we are now experiencing with greater regularity and severity due to increased global temperatures. The word does capture something of the unpredictable danger posed by these events. However, wild is a word which I am severely attached to and dearly love, and so I must point out that in fact we are seeing our planet becoming the opposite. Our world is quickly and perhaps irreversibly, at least in the foreseeable future, becoming significantly less wild, with or without successful climate negotiations in Paris. Allow me to attempt a brief definition of the term and briefly summarize my position.

Roderick Nash’s seminal work Wilderness and the American Mind is a wonderful place to start. He traces the etymology of wild back to Old English as meaning self-willed, rather than human-willed; that which is “free from human control, manipulation or limitation.” This would apply to wilderness, wild animals, and is essential to what we mean by another dear term: nature. It is interesting to note then that Bill McKibben, who would go on to found which fights to keep greenhouse gas pollution within the sustainable limits of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, gained renown first by writing a book entitled The End of Nature arguing that our conceptions of nature are increasingly untenable in the face of climate change since every part of the planet not underground, from oceans to atmosphere, increasingly bears the imprints and impacts of human beings.

This is not to say that humans have not long been a part of and had some effect on the planet’s local and global systems, and this influence does not thus negate the existence of a wild planet for most of human history. However, our present impacts are incomparably more severe and widespread. They are no longer influences within the greater background of nature, but instead shatter the context. This is precisely why some geologists have proposed differentiating our present circumstances into a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene – the Human Age. While intended in a specific geological sense and imperfect in certain respects it is telling of the impacts that we are leaving on our planet.

Here are a few brief instances to illustrate the point: according to National Geographic more than 80 percent of the Earth's surface is currently marked by human activities with 38 percent of ice free land converted to agriculture. Widespread deforestation, soil erosion, species loss, current or threatened ecosystem collapse, sprawling overpopulated mega-cities, massive land-altering projects like West Virginia's mountain-top-removal coal mining and Alberta's Tar Sands, radioactive residues leftover from nuclear testing, and the aforementioned changes in atmospheric and ocean composition caused by greenhouse gases are but a few of the more notable examples that differentiate our era from that of the human and pre-human past.

Our current global climate is largely an inadvertent product of humanity, though out of our control at this exact moment. The necessities of climate negotiations will mean that the global atmosphere and its climate will have become in many ways an artifact of our own design, based on scientific standards such as temperature and chemical thresholds. This is the principal indicator of a larger relationship we are forging with the Earth – of design. This is seen in the purposeful marks we have left on the Earth in agriculture and in developments like cities, and in the widespread necessity of restoration which seems to force humans to choose how ecosystems will look and function. We must solve climate change and it must happen here and now in Paris. However, I for one will find the new world that we have created a sadder place for we will have lost something of the awe that only a Nature that is not ourselves can invoke.

Though the environmental movement has largely turned its efforts to other concerns, in this new world we need even more our protected landscapes, especially those that we would describe as wilderness even if they are often just little, flawed pockets drowning in a sea of humanity. Besides their ecological value, they provide tremendous psychological benefit and can teach us invaluable lessons about how to relate to nature.

I hope that someday, however long that may be, our relationship with nature transcends both that of neglected repository of society’s refuse and object of deliberate control, where wild nature has room to follow its own will rather than existing within the fold of human dominion and design, that someday we will in fact live on a wilder planet.

Thoughts by Chris Dunn