Thursday, March 13, 2014

Environmentalism Ethnography

The following is the analysis of a pair of interviews conducted on environmentalism and culture.

            Mankind lived in partnership with nature for millennia.  Not until he began to move from small tribes or clans into large gatherings did he start considering nature as something that needed to be dominated.  Cities inherently conquer their surroundings.  Manhattan began as a mere town on a big island, but eventually filled the entire island edge to edge.  It is inevitable that as long as the builders remain blissfully unaware of the consequences they will continue to build.  Though cities do more harm than good: “It is always possible to go from the natural to the civilized state, but it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state.  The reason is that man in a natural state, subsisting by hunting, requires ten times the quantity of land to range over to procure himself sustenance, than would support him in a civilized state, where the earth is cultivated.” (Paine 1797)  When America was discovered by Columbus the area supported less than a million natives; the same area now supports more than 250 million.  Tribes can still be seen today where nature is cared for and in all actions the consequences for nature are first considered.  Although small, these groups of people allow us to see how all of man once behaved.  From the first agrarians to the dawn of the age of cities man existed in relative harmony with his environment.  He was not yet large enough and powerful enough to have much of an affect on it.  The advance of technology by humans has allowed for the natural resources to be exploited more and has eased the risk from natural hazards.  Despite the progress made by man in this field, civilization is still closely connected to change in the environment.  There is a very complicated feedback-loop between the advance of technology and changes to the environment. (Torn 2006)

            What will happen if things continue as they have previously?  “The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and still ought to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.” (Paine 1797)  Should the current state of affairs continue the condition of our children and grand-children will be worse than before.  If things do not change, then there may not even be a world for them to inhabit.
Some see the environment and man as one organism, most notable the Gaia hypothesis in which Lovelock describes it as “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.” (Lovelock 1979)  In his later years Lovelock has begun to picture the Earth as striking back against humanity. “By 2040, parts of the Sahara desert will have moved into middle Europe.  We are talking about Paris – as far north as Berlin.  In Britain we will escape because of our oceanic position.”  He believes that the people of southern Europe and South-East Asia who remain will desperately try to reach countries much further north or south of the equator. (Lovelock 2006)
It is thinking such as the Gaia hypothesis in which the world and mankind are seen as each a part of a bigger picture which allows for man to be a partner with nature.  We take from nature and so we must give back to nature.  For the past four thousand years the civilizations of man have continually raped nature of its resources and directly harmed its livelihood.  It is time that man begins repaying the great debt with which we are burdened.  One must first see the effects of his actions on the environment so that in the future he will be able to use alternative actions therefore preventing the harm of the environment.  We have seen what effect our actions have on nature.  The ozone layer is rapidly disappearing, the ice sheets of the Arctic and Antarctic are melting and from these the average temperature is slowly climbing and the oceans slowly rising.  We currently look back at the Agrarian Revolution as the time when man first learned to tame nature for his benefit and the Industrial Revolution as the time when man began to escape nature for his benefit.  Now, it is time for the Environmental Revolution in which man returns to nature and saves it not only for his benefit, which in the long run it would definitely be a benefit, but for the benefit of nature which has provided for us for so long.  We have already begun the process of the Environmental Revolution: the important aspect of recognizing that there is a problem.  For the Agrarians the problem was that the way of the hunter-gatherer-nomad was not sufficient enough to support the large size their groups had grown to.  For the Industrialist the problem was that the Agrarian lifestyle was no longer sufficient enough for the size that their civilizations had grown to.  For the Environmentalist the problem was that the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, neither one, had considered the impact that their changes would have on the world within which they lived.
A switch to bio-fuels will not be enough to save the planet.  “The problem is that many Americans, and Europeans for that matter, seem to think it is just a matter of flicking a switch: one moment fossil fuel, the next moment, sugar cane-plus-corn. Lifestyle - unaltered.  Sadly, that's not enough. Ethanol may sound like the kind of ‘friendly’ energy the world has been waiting for. But for ethanol production to rise to the levels [George] Bush is hoping for, huge amounts of the world's remaining forests will have to be cut down and turned over to corn or sugar cane.  The existing [land] devoted to agriculture will not be remotely large enough to produce the quantity of fuel needed. In other words, paradoxically, a growing reliance of renewable energy may accelerate the destruction of the rainforests we so desperately need to moderate the planet's temperature. Besides, according to the World Conservation Union, growing corn uses far more energy than the finished fuel produces.  There is another downside to the ethanol boom. As demand rises, the price of the cereals from which it is partly made soars as well. Tortilla prices in Mexico are already surging as a result of ethanol demand in America. This threatens the precarious livelihoods of many of the world's poorest people.  To simply shift from fossil fuel use to ethanol is not going to get us out of our dilemma. It's not going to ‘save the planet’, or not alone. That will require a sharp reduction in fuel consumption, too.”  So a change in our resources is not the solution, at least not that alone.  We actually need to completely change our way of life.  Stop using and start giving.
            My interviewees are for the most part on their way to making a difference.  They have passed over the first big mountain which is the challenge of knowledge.  They have recognized that there is a problem and are making their best attempt at correct the mistakes of civilization.  They attempt to reduce the wastes caused as a byproduct of industry.  Recycling while not greatly effective does make a dent in the problem.  Reduction of dependence on unnatural energy and dependence on natural, bodily energy is another great step.  Couple that with their ability to spread the knowledge of the problem to others and their potential for success is vast.  It is like a modern day pyramid scheme in which they pass their knowledge and know-how down to others and others pass it down further.  The only difference is that instead of money being passed up and up it is change of ways and at the top is nature to pull it all in.
            I want to go out with a quote from an environmental pioneer named Jay Shaffer.  “Since 1997 I have been living in a house smaller than some people’s closets.  I call the first of my little hand built houses Tumbleweed.  My decision to inhabit just 100 square feet arose from some concerns I had about the impact a larger house would have on the environment, and because I do not want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space.  My houses have met all of my domestic needs without demanding much in return.  The simple slower lifestyle my homes have afforded [me] is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.” (2007)

Lovelock, James
1979 Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press.
Lovelock, James
2006  The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity.   Santa Barbera: Basic Books.
Paine, Thomas
1797  Agrarian Justice.
Schaffer, Jay
2007  Tumbleweed Houses.  Electronic document.
Torn, Margaret and Harte, John
2006  Science Daily. Feedback Loops in Global Climate Change Point to a Very Hot 21st   Century
2007  The Independent.  Leading Article: A switch to biofuels will not save the planet.  Electronic document

This article originally written May 4th, 2008 as the final paper for OU IPE 3913 - Environment and Worldview.

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