Sunday, July 09, 2006

Nature as Hobby

"THESE days, the authentic outdoor sporting experience is fast becoming an endangered species," begins an article in The New York Times about a $32 million dollar commerical park for kayaking and rafting under construction near Charlotte, N.C. The article interviews people who all say the same thing: the wonder of nature is lost when humans manufacture nature-like parks for sporting experiences, and without a sense of wonder, people will never get in the habit of preserving "the real thing."

This is a familiar argument. As Bill McKibben notes in his The End of Nature, "Wendell Berry once argued that without a 'fascination' with the wonder of the natural world 'the energy needed for its preservation will never be developed'—that 'there must be a mystique of the rain if we are ever to restore the purity of the rainfall.'" But as the title of McKibben's book suggests, we live in a world disenchanted with nature. This "fascination" no longer exists. "How can there be a mystique of the rain," asks McKibben, "now that every drop—even the drops that fall as snow on the Arctic, even the drops that fall deep in the remaining forest primeval—bears the permanent stamp of man? Having lost its separateness, it loses its special power. Instead of being a category like God—something beyond our control—it is now a category like the defense budget or the minimum wage, a problem we must work out. This in itself changes its meaning completely, and changes our reaction to it." This view of nature is such a part of our beliefs and actions that we hardly think twice when we hear Al Gore explain the pervasive effects of human-induced Global Warming on the globe, and how humans can conduct themselves in relation to nature so as to reverse this problem. The power of Al Gore's "slide show" to incite efforts to save our global environment presupposes not wonder of the natural world, but the power of man over that world. To be sure, Gore begins and ends his movie with moments of meditation on the splendors of nature, but these moments are subordinate to the emphasis he places on how much we understand about nature and man's influence upon it.

Gore's strategy and the NYT article alike reflect the reality that nature has become with us not a mystical thing encompassing our every action, but something of the nature of a hobby. As McKibben observes, “Nature has become a hobby with us. One person enjoys the outdoors, another likes cooking, a third favors breaking into military computers over his phone line….We have become in rapid order a people whose conscious need for nature is superficial.” This suggests that if real and widespread action is to be taken to counteract Global Warming, a major shift is needed in the way we perceive and conceptualize nature. Otherwise, as the Piedpiper quipped in a pessimistically honest way, the only people Gore will persuade are those who already believed in him and his cause long before they saw the movie. I fear that by presenting his concern with nature as his hobby, Gore only reinforces the very worldview that has lead us into this mess in the first place. But I hope I'm wrong.


A Green Cowboy said...

I'm not sure how concerning this "trend" many people does it actually affect? How many parks like this are actually built, and what kind of crowds do they draw? People who otherwise wouldn't be on a river anyway? People who have been on rivers before and will continue to do so, but every once in a while they can't afford the time it takes to get "out there" so they just hit up the water park for a day instead?

A Green Cowboy said...

On a different note, I agree that major shifts in our conceptualization of nature are needed, but I don't know if I agree with this description.

Perhaps we are only witnessing a moment in time of the evolution of our conceptualization of nature. Compare today to the 1950s; is it fair to say that back then, water/soil/air/natural resources were considered separate from man, endless, impervious to our disturbance, basically able to absorb whatever we threw at them? Maybe there was a paradoxical conceit that we could control certain parts of nature - through vaccinations we could dominate disease, through cloud-seeding we could control rain, through fertilization we could control vegetation - but this conceit didn't include the idea that man could actually impact the earth to the point that the natural resources we rely on would be in jeopardy.

But we can, and now we have begun to fully appreciate that. To appreciate that our actions can impact nature on a global scale, and not in ways that we can manipulate to our ends, but in undesirable ways contrary to our goals.

So, perhaps, our modern conceptualization has gone from ignorance of nature, to conceit about what we can control and ignorance of larger consequences, to reduced conceit and new appreciation of larger consequences.

I don't think it is beneficial to consider nature in a category "like God - something beyond our control." That's simply not true. Nor is the other extreme useful, thinking that we can control it all (scaling up our 1950s faith in vaccinations to belief in being able to control ecosystems). That is also not true.

A slightly more nuanced understanding is needed. Can we control nature? To an extent. Check out the Rio Grande and its reservoirs in the southwest - we sure controlled nature there. But do we have absolute control, can we actually manipulate nature to our ends, and our ends alone? Hardly. As the Rio Grande gets sucked dry for agriculture in its northern reaches, the southern portions of the river suffer calamities perhaps more than equal to the benefits reaped in the northern section.

We have a profound effect on nature, but that is not the same as saying we can profoundly control nature.

I think you are onto something in Gore's movie...but his points are necessary, and I think they are part of this evolution of our conceptualization of nature.

Ilya said...

You are right that a profound affect on nature is not the same as the ability to control it. Indeed, the problem thus far has been not understanding the consequences of our actions in respect to nature. But now we do have a greater understanding of the extent to which "nature" is subject to the corrosive effects of man-made pollution, though we are a long way from controlling this fact, and therein lies the problem that Gore's movie underscores.

How do we interest humans in saving the environment? Against the conventional assumption that only by cultivating an appreciation for the wonders of nature will humans see to its preservation, I argue that we no longer wonder at nature, and that this is not the solution. And I think McKibben is on to something, which is only corroborated by the NYT article, when he says that we relate to nature in the manner of a hobby. To wit, the article's concern with "authentic outdoor sporting experience." Nature has become a sport. That is the problem. It appears to me that the design of outdoor getaways appears is not the cause of this conception of nature, but a natural consequence of it.

PiedPiper said...

...bunch of damn granola munchers...

PiedPiper said...

Sorry for that prior comment, I couldn't help myself. While my interest in this waterpark business is zilch (there's been talk of a similar whitewater rafting park along the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis for some time now), the point about Al Gore's movie required my interjection.

On a scale of 1-5 Mandingo Mustaches (with 5 being terrible, obviously), I rate it at 3.5 Mandingo Mustaches. Why? Because of the point Ilya brings out, and the point that GC made in his first post. Until this problem is no longer perceived as a political issue, but rather as a human or moral issue, it's going to go nowhere. Wo, wo, wo, but that's the exact same thing Gore says in the film, you say? Yes, but it is Al Gore saying it. Forty percent of the movie was an Gore lovefest and ego-stroker. The rest was filled with fantastic statistical presentation, and quips from Gore about what "the scientists" tell him, but NO ACTUAL SCIENTISTS. The message gets lost because its consumed only by those who view Al Gore as credible; and those people already know global warming is a problem and already drive hybrid cars.

Bottom line: There needs to be consensus-building on this problem, not partisanship. Regrettably, neither side wants to go there.