The Land Ethic
to the Uncharted Territory of Global Humanity
Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values
Dec. 15, 1999
the past three years, I've traveled a great deal and given speeches
to a wide variety of audiences around the world about Our Stolen
Future, a book which explores the pervasive, global contamination
of natural systems and its impact on wildlife and human health.
In an earlier talk in this seminar series, the eminent ecologist
George Woodwell ranked such contamination as one of the four ominous
global trends that darken the human prospect on the brink of the
millenium--a major symptom of the dilemma we call the environmental
me, the most interesting part of these speaking gigs is invariably
the question and answer period, because it gives insight about how
people were thinking and reacting to this difficult and frightening
information. Within a short time, I noticed that a couple of questions
kept cropping up with some regularity. To be more precise, these
weren't really questions but rather assertions or statements masquerading
first type of assertion always begins this way: "but isn't the real
problem..... " Fill in the blank: overpopulation, corporate greed,
technology, human hubris, capitalism, the modern addiction to consumption,
the exalted opinion of humans in the Judaeo-Christian tradition,
the fact that we no longer have a personal relationship with nature.
second question/assertion always begins with "how can you expect...
" As in: "How can you expect that anyone is going to act on behalf
of future generations when humans are by nature selfish and greedy?"
thought a lot about these assertions, because they reflect what
reasonably informed people in countries like the U.S., Spain, Hungary,
Germany, Japan, and China make of humanity's current dilemma. I've
seen three things as I've watched the faces and listened to the
emotion in the voices. First, a fair number of us have an intuitive
understanding that the human project is in profound jeopardy. Second,
although at least a part of humanity recognizes that we're in a
crisis and knows humans are somehow to blame, we have only a foggy
and partial understanding of the complex, many-faceted challenge
that now confronts us. In short, the environmental debate has been
in muddle for some time now and I think there are historical and
philosophical reasons for this as well as the obvious economic and
political ones, which I'll explore in my talk today. Third, I've
encountered widespread despair, especially in environmental circles,
about human possibility. Some of us suffer from deep doubts that
our kind has the inherent capacity to rise to the challenges that
now confront us.
presentation today is based on a work in progress, an enterprise
I've called "Rethinking the Environmental Crisis". My career reporting
on environmental problems began on Earth Day 1970, so I have spent
three decades on the front lines of this escalating crisis. For
at least half that time, I've been wrestling not only with the immediate
question of what is happening to the ozone layer, the Gulf Stream,
the forests of Borneo and the White Mountains, but with the larger
question of what it all means. How do we understand this unprecedented
moment in human history? And of course, as things have gone from
bad to worse, another question has become unavoidable. Do humans
have a future or are we destined to self-destruct?
Carson once explained her reason for writing Silent Spring. by saying
the book chooses the writer. Sometimes an idea or insight or question
simply moves in. It takes up residence in your head like a demanding,
uninvited guest--nagging, insistent, and impossible to ignore.
book chose me when I was covering the story of the ozone hole that
had been discovered over Antarctica in 1985. I have no doubt that
the dramatic destruction of ozone layer is one of the two most important
and frightening events of the century--an event equal in gravity
to the Cuban missile crisis. In the early 1970s Sherry Rowland and
Mario Molina had theorized that CFCs would migrate the the stratosphere
and eventually erode the protective ozone layer perhaps in the 21st
century. But the ozone hole came as a total surprise. It far exceeded
anyone's worst case scenario. The destruction didn't happen where
expected and it proceeded at a hair-raising speed through an unanticipated
catalytic chemical process. Although NASA satellites recorded the
precipitous destruction of ozone over Antarctica, the loss went
unrecognized for some time because the computer reviewing the satellite
data rejected the readings as instrument error. Like the Cuban missile
crisis, the ozone hole was a journey to the brink, where we catch
a glimpse of the unthinkable and confront urgent questions about
who we are and how we got to this juncture.
the New Year approaches we're been inundated with reviews of key
moments in the 20th century. While some of these reviews have highlighted
Rachel Carson andSilent Spring., I've heard no mention whatsoever
of the ozone hole or of the milestone it signaled--the arrival of
humans in the second half of this century as a global scale force.
Our power now rivals asteroids and Ice Ages.
is a momentous event not just in the context of the departing century,
but in the entire sweep of human history. In my time reporting for
the Globe, I covered international the negotiations responding to
immediate threats like ozone depletion and global warming. But our
now global culture has hardly begun to fathom the implications of
this unprecedented situation. In fact, if these news reviews of
the century reflect our level of awareness, it seems we don't even
know what the questions are, much less the answers.
I stared into the ozone hole and became haunted by the conundrum
of the human future, I've been on a far-ranging intellectual odyssey.
In this era of experts and specialities, journalists are among the
last of the intrepid generalists. We are synthesizers who gather
the scattered pieces of the puzzle and try to tease out the broad
picture lurking amidst the fragments.
quest has led me to a number of unexpected conclusions. We call
our dilemma the "environmental" crisis, but it is not ultimately
about what we call nature or the Earth. The name we choose to frame
our concern reflects the depth of our misunderstanding about the
challenges now confronting humans. One of the most remarkable thing
about the past 30 years of debate about the environmental crisis
is how little we understand the meaning of this unique historical
profound confusion persists about the ultimate stakes and abut exactly
what we are "saving." The heart of the crisis that is upon us is
not about pandas or tropical rainforests or about saving the Earth.
This is a crisis first and foremost about humans and our ability
to adapt our now global culture to the radically changed world we
now inhabit. Humans now dominate the planet and we are everywhere
encountering its limits--its inescapable finitude. We have crossed
a fateful threshold into a new era and a radically altered world
with new rules and challenges unlike anything humans have faced
before. The next two or three centuries that stretch ahead will
be a critical test for our kind, Humans are poised on the brink
of a dangerous passage. Perhaps we would begin to understand the
meaning of this crisis if we called it a "humanity crisis" rather
than an environmental crisis and gave Earth Day a new name--the
Festival of Human Continuity.
think there are good reasons for this confusion. As we've entered
this new era, our current ways of understanding and explaining ourselves
and the world have become suddenly obsolete. They no longer illuminate
and, in fact, often make it difficult to understand our true situation.
this crisis has many dimensions (See Vitousek
et al., Cohen, Wackernagel
and Rees, McMichael, Gelbspan,
and others on resource list), at its deepest level it is a cultural
and metaphysical crisis (see Havel) that cuts to the most basic
questions of human self-understanding--who are we and how do we
fit into the world we inhabit.
I first started thinking about these questions, I assumed that the
environmental tradition would provide a departure point for grappling
with these fundamental questions. In the past thirty years, environmental
thinkers have written and talked a great deal about the wrong-headed
notions in the Western tradition that have propelled us into this
crisis--its Promenthan humanism, its arrogance, its materialism
(See Merchant, McKibben,
Zimmerman). Over time, however, I came
to realize that the philosophical foundations of the contemporary
environmental movement are deeply problematic as well. I believe
the environmental thought has contributed to our confusion about
the ultimate stakes in this crisis, about the nature of Nature,
and the nature of humans. The environmental tradition springs from
the same 18th-century soil as the rest of modern culture and shares
some of its deepest impulses and assumptions (See Cronon,
, Glendon). For the past three hundred
years, environmental thought rooted in the Romantic tradition has
been a partner in the minuet of dualism that has dominated Western
thought---a dualism that has bifurcated the world into sacred nature
and the profane lands of human habitation.
the human presence on Earth has become pervasive and inescapable,
this dualism has become impossible to sustain.
chose the title "From the Land Ethic to the Uncharted Territory
of Global Humanity" because I want to examine Leopold's essay "The
Land Ethic" and Carson's book Silent Spring
within the context of the Romantic tradition and this dualism.
start with a quick look at the roots of Western culture's double
bedrock assumptions that dominate our present civilization come
from the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, which replaced
older visions of nature with materialism-a nature desanctified into
natural resources, or dead stuff. The leading prophet for this camp
is the 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon who was utterly forthright
about his imperial designs: "The world is made for man, not man
for the world," he declared. (See Bacon, Bowler,
Romantic tradition-which inspired artists and poets and later gave
rise to nature writing and the conservation movement-arose as a
protest against the materialism and rationalism of the Scientific
Revolution and the Enlightenment. This minority tradition, which
valued nature for its spiritual meaning and redemptive power, functioned
by and large as a parallel or alternative vision to the dominant
worldview represented by Bacon. It turned its eyes to sacred nature
and its back to the Industrial Revolution that was transforming
profane nature at a breathtaking rate. This camp did not engage
in political combat in a bid to replace the Baconian assumptions
that governed life in the larger world. (See Cronon.)
Rachel Carson, the activism that flowed from this tradition aimed
to preserve sacred nature by saving pieces of the world. In the
political realm at least, early conservationists implicitly accepted
the schizophrenia that has plagued Western thought since the Enlightenment-a
fractured vision that partitioned various inseparable aspects of
life and existence into discrete compartments. Hence, a world bifurcated
into mind and body, reason and feeling, nature and not-nature, sacred
Leopold seems to be trying to move beyond dualism in "The Land Ethic"
when he advocates that we change our role "from conqueror of the
land community to citizen and plain member of it", I think his overall
posture and implicit understanding of the human situation nevertheless
flows from this dualism. He assumes that humans are in control,
nature is acted upon, and he urges us to extend our ethical horizons
and to act more respectfully and responsibly.
Carson, who had been a bestselling nature writer in the 1950s, was
also a product of this Romantic tradition and this dualism. In fact,
I think she would have been perfectly happy to spend her life writing
poetic books about the sea if the flow of history hadn't intervened
and pushed her toward a new understanding of the human situation
and a global vision.
moved reluctantly into the new role of social critic in the wake
of a spiritual and philosophical crisis that confronted her with
the questions that continue to haunt environmentalism four decades
later. (See Lear and Carson's
letters.) "I suppose my thinking began to be affected soon after
atomic science was firmly established," she wrote to her friend
Dorothy Freeman in 1958. "Some of the thoughts that came were so
unattractive to me that I rejected them completely, for the old
ideas die hard, especially when they are emotionally as well as
intellectually dear to one. It was pleasant to believe, for example,
that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man.
It was comforting to suppose that the stream of life would flow
on through time in whatever course God had appointed for it, without
interference by one of the drops of the stream-man."
with the bomb and the postwar tidal wave of synthetic chemicals,
Carson couldn't sustain the nature writer's double vision. In both
a literal and a philosophical sense, the Baconian project, with
its increasing power and now pervasive contamination, was bleeding
over into sacred nature. "I may not like what I see," she confided
to Dorothy, " but it does no good to ignore it, and it's worse than
useless to go on repeating the old 'eternal verities' that are no
more eternal than the hills of the poets." The world around her
had changed irrevocably. (See Carson's letters.)
the publication of Silent Spring in 1962,
the cold war within the Western mind erupted into open battle over
the direction of this civilization. Carson challenged not only the
technology of modern life, synthetic pesticides, she questioned
some of its central assumptions-such as "the control of Nature"-and
scathingly criticized some of its priestly class, scientists. Carson's
fighting posture and the barely restrained anger that seethes beneath
the prose in Silent Spring signal her understanding that the stakes
in this radically altered postwar reality were now all or nothing.
There is no hope for saving part of the world without redirecting
the whole of modern civilization.
are contradictary currents in Silent Spring as there are in A Sand
County Almanac. Like Leopold, Carson doesn't have all of this neatly
sorted out. But I think it is clear that Carson has come to or been
forced to a different understanding of Nature and the human situation
than Leopold--an insight which she communicates with a far greater
sense of urgency than one finds in the pages ofA Sand County Almanac.
Humans may be waging war on Nature with pesticides, but this nature
isn't passive or necessarily benign. One chapter bears the title
"Nature Fights Back". Nature is potentially dangerous and, Carson
warns, it is capable of striking back in unexpected ways. Nor is
our relationship with this nature voluntary, as it seems to be in
Leopold. This is not simply a matter of expanding our ethical horizon
to embrace the biotic community or entering into a new dimension
of the social contract. Carson knows we are ensnared in life's web.
Our relationship with nature is a given, a condition of our existence
that we ignore at our own peril as we attack "the fabric of life."
"Man, however much he may like to pretend to the contrary, is a
part of nature. Can he escape a pollution that is now so thoroughly
distributed throughout our world? " In Carson's view, the problem
isn't ethics; it is understanding. Human survival may well hinge
on an accurate understanding of our situation.
Silent Spring has been frequently mentioned on lists of the 100
most significant books of the 20th-century, I think we have for
the most part failed to fully appreciate its philosophical importance.
This book begins to take us beyond our dualistic tradition toward
an integrated global vision born out Carson's recognition of humanity's
arrival as a pervasive and dominant planetary force. I also believe
that it bears the seeds of a radical critique, a challenge to this
civilization's prevailing understanding of the human situation.
Spring also helped spawn a new wave of environmentalism, but, I
believe, this effort has proceeded without truly grappling with
the deeply troubling questions that had attended its birth-questions
Carson herself slid over or never fully answered before her untimely
there be nature on a human-dominated planet? Not the nature of the
Romantic tradition or of Carson's nature writing, it seems. (See
Vitousek). If this is the case,
then the environmental tradition needs some major philosophical
reconstruction. It needs to put hard work into laying a new foundation
that will bear the weight of a changed world and carry it confidently
forward to meet this altered reality. Though there has been much
philosophical debate over such issues as "anthropocentrism" versus
"biocentrism," I don't think it has moved us in the right direction,
for the argument wallows in the dualism that has been obsolete for
half a century now. (See Botkin, Zimmerman,
my essay "Rethinking Environmentalism" (full essay in Conservation
Matters, Autumn 1998, or excerpts in Forbes,
ed.), I argue that this post-Silent Spring environmental movement
has bogged down in an unresolved philosophical crisis that centers
on these questions.
also make the argument that environmental campaigns that have captured
public imagination-such as the worthy battles to save wilderness,
rainforests, and dolphins-have helped foster the impression that
this crisis is primarily about distant places and creatures rather
than about the natural systems that support our communities and
the larger human civilization. This focus on a "nature" remote from
our daily lives has reinforced this persisting dualism within our
culture-which imagines a nature separate from the places where we
live our lives and makes it difficult to perceive our situation
clearly. President Clinton's grand symbolic gesture on the environment
during his 1996 reelection campaign-his trip to Utah to announce
a decision to protect the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument-
speaks volumes in this regard. A news story this week reported the
Clinton adminstration is preparing to serve up this same well-chewed
environmental bone again in this upcoming election year.
this is what his political advisors think will play with voters
and the environmental community, it is a troubling sign indeed.
The nature that we need to save is not a place and the highest stakes,
in my opinion, are not endangered species or stunning pieces of
red rock desert, though these are precious indeed. This double vision
supports the comforting delusion that we can somehow save half the
world while the degradation accelerates elsewhere, and it obscures
the reality that the human civilization we pass on to our children
and grandchildren is also in profound jeopardy.
this new historical epoch that we've entered needs a name, I think
we should christen it "The Era of Global Humanity". The viability
of the human project depends on reimagining ourselves and in redesigning
our global civilization in light of our changed circumstances. We
talk a great deal about globalization these days. The globalization
of human destiny became a reality decades before technology fostered
the globalization of the economy and the communication revolution.
The challenges of this new historical epoch center on somehow managing
our pervasive global presence, of coming to terms with finitude--inescapable
planetary limits-- of understanding ourselves not as individual,
or tribes, or nations, but as a single, global species. We need
a vision that matches the reality of our situation--a now global
humanity linked irrevocably to the rest of our kind.(See Havel.)We
need to recognize that the only viable future will be one built
on an understanding of this inescapable interconnection with each
other and with non-human life and planetary systems. Without such
a vision of ourselves, I doubt we can meet the practical challenge
of limiting cumulative human impact on the systems that support
we move into this uncharted territory of global humanity, many obstacles
stand in the way of this new understanding including the dominant
thrust of the western philosophical tradition. Western thought has
been preoccuppied with themes of emancipation and delusions autonomy
(See Glendon, Bellah,
Midgley, Mill, Taylor,
Prigogine.) How can a civilization
hell bent on unfettered freedom and autonomy suddenly confront the
challenge of limits and mutual obligation within a single global
like to close with a few words about another surprising outcome
of this exploration. I am more hopeful about the human prospect
than I was a decade ago. It would take another seminar to lay out
the argument, but I think there is good evidence that humans have
the inherent capacity to rise to the unprecedented challenges of
this time and make the dangerous passage ahead. How well humans
actually weather this trip and whether our global civilization survives
are, however, open questions. But I don't think we are doomed by
some handicap stemming our essential nature.(See Eldredge,
On the contrary, I think the humans are already prepared in many
ways for this challenge because we are a species that was born in
environmental crisis. Human evolution kicked into high gear during
a period in the Earth's history marked by increasing environmental
instability, so we have unique evolutionary gifts--intelligence,
behavioral flexibility, culture, and technology. The truth of our
origin is that we come from climate hell not from Eden.(See Potts
on human origins and climatic instability). We are not disturbers
of some original harmony or, as many have feared, a ghastly evolutionary
mistake nor are we masters of the universe. In this more complex
understanding of ourselves and the nature that shaped us, I find
the seeds of hope and our future.
the river of history takes us depends both on contingencies beyond
our control such as the response of global systems that support
life and on our own actions. We are neither doomed nor destined
to endure. The next chapter of the human story is fraught with suspense
because there is no guarantee how it will turn out.
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