Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers



From The Land Ethic
to the Uncharted Territory of Global Humanity

Dianne Dumanoski
Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values
Dec. 15, 1999

In 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 crisis.

For 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 as questions.

The 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.

The 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?"

I've 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.

My 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?

Rachel 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.

This 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.

As 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.

This 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.

Since 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.

This 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 moment.

A 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.

I 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.

Although 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.

When 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, Vonnegut, Noble, 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, Chase, Taylor, Larmore, Bellah , 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.

As the human presence on Earth has become pervasive and inescapable, this dualism has become impossible to sustain.

I 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.

Let's start with a quick look at the roots of Western culture's double vision.

The 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, Zagorin, Rothenberg).

The 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.)

Until 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 and profane.

Although 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.

Rachel 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.

Carson 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."

Faced 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.)

With 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.

There 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.

Although 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.

Silent 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 death.

Could 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, Cronon, Easterbrook, Prigogine).

In 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.

I 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.

If 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.

If 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 life.

As 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, Ferry, Noble, 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 humanity?

I'd 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, Potts, Stevenson). 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.

Where 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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