I do not know where I live, who lived here before me, the names of the trees in my yard or the types of plants and animals inhabiting the surrounding hills. I do not know the names, or even the faces, of my neighbors. I don’t know where my food was grown, where my waste ends up, or where the water streaming out of my kitchen faucet flowed before it entered the pipes in my house. I do not know where my electricity comes from or where the trees that produced the paper these words are printed on grew.
I am a recently settled member of an invasive species. I come from a place where I was also an invader. I was born to invaders. My species, and especially my culture, have drastically altered global ecosystems on an unprecedented level. I am a consumer of luxury goods and luxury ideals. My footprint is bigger than it needs to be.
The only time I get close to living with the land is when I am on vacation and I am wrapped in a cocoon of Gore-Tex, synthetic fleece and Rip-Stop nylon. I interact with my fellow humans through metal and fiber-optic cables and electro-magnetic waves that carry binary signals to and fro between interface devices consisting of liquid crystal screens, magnetic speakers and microchips. I move rapidly over the land, from no-place to no-where, using mechanisms driven by repeated explosions caused by the rapid release of long stored solar energy from long dead plant and animal matter that has been extracted from deep within the earth’s crust in a faraway country. These explosions release elements and compounds that alter the atmosphere on which life-as-we-know-it depends. I live in a body I do not understand, which is supplied with energy from biogeochemical cycles that are so complex that I can not fathom the network of interrelationships integral to their function. This physical-energetic body supports a consciousness that, while caught up in its own set of addictions, screams out for a more intimate relationship with my immediate environment. There is a dark empty hole in my identity which cries out to be filled with a sense of Place. But I do not know where I live.
The deep disconnect between the majority of us and our socio-ecological environment lies at the root of the Problem. The Problem we face includes issues of ecosystem degradation, social injustice, physical and mental health, political upheaval, war, famine, crime, displacement, disenchantment and detachment. While these seem to be many distinct problems with distinct causes and thus distinct solutions, I propose that they are merely synergistic offshoots of a core Problem, with a single cause, and a single solution. That solution is finding out where we are and actively living there, in Place, with the land and with those that share it, human, non-human, living and non-living. We must stop addressing the individual offshoots of this core Problem as independent entities, and begin to work on the root cause. We must examine what it means to live in Place and become curious and active citizens in our local social-ecological communities as well as the global network of such communities, for we are all part of one grand, complex and beautiful system of interrelationships.
Living in Place doesn’t mean a return to hunter-gatherer tribal society. It doesn’t mean throwing out technology, or doing away with science. On the contrary, these tools are among our best hopes for a modern socio-ecological revolution. Science can teach us about the intricate interdependence integral to socio-ecological systems. Technology can provide the means for sustainable living in symbiosis with our non-human environment. Technology can also link together a global movement that, while cosmopolitan in breadth is essentially focused on, and born out of, locality and decentralization.
What, then, does it mean to Live in Place? How can I begin to apply this idea to my own life and begin to become more a part of the Solution than a part of the Problem? How can we, entrenched in the addictions and habits of modern life, move as a society towards a more intimate relationship with the Land upon which we all depend?
I believe that a revolution begins at home. I must change the things I can, and that means, first and foremost, educating myself. Education, however, is not an easy road. It requires a commitment, time, and passion. It requires a driving curiosity. I must discover this curiosity within myself and try to foster it in those around me. I must fuel its fire with an ethic of caring and respect, for only out of some deeper ethic can we drive ourselves out of the pit of easy ignorance. I must let this curiosity lead me to learn and discover the details and complexities of the vast array of interrelationships which make up my immediate environment and connect me to the global ecosphere. I can start with my own back yard, or with the materials I put into my body for sustenance. I can start by finding out where “away” is when I throw something away. I can start by introducing myself to my neighbors, learning their names and hearing their stories. I can start by sharing my story.
So where do I find this seed of curiosity, this deeper ethic that will drive me to learn and give me the courage to make the lifestyle changes dictated by an increased understanding of my role in the socio-ecosystem? How do I avoid the pitfalls of laziness and ignorance that maintain my disconnect with Place? How do I fulfill my own personal desires while honoring this newfound knowledge? How can I contribute to the health of the socio-ecosystem of which I am a part? How do I decide what “health” means in this context? Ultimately, how do I integrate my own ideals and actions with those of my fellow humans?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Each of them involves a gamut of multiple perspectives and seemingly contradictory evidence. In the search for a driving ethic, J. Baird Callicott, in his book Earth’s Insights, provides a moving argument for the evolution of a “[reconstructive] postmodern evolutionary-ecological environmental ethic. This ethic is rooted in a recognition of the interdependence of all living and non-living components of an ecologically integrated community. Callicott proposes that as the science of ecology expands our concept of community, from the self-family-tribe-village-city-nation-species hierarchy, to include the non-human biotic and abiotic components of our socio-ecosystem, our ethics must also be extended to include these portions of a more inclusive community. Just as the precepts of social evolution suggest that a human community can maintain a higher level of “fitness” through ethical limitations on how members within the community treat each other, so too can a human/non-human community, including all the biotic and abiotic components, attain a higher functional state when ethical limitations guide the relationships within that community.
Callicott’s ethic, if we accept it, requires us to take certain actions. It implies that we have a responsibility to learn about how our choices and activities impact the components, relational structure and dynamics of our socio-ecosystem. Callicott suggests that for his environmental ethic to be practicable, it must focus on the treatment of “wholes” such as species, natural processes, genetic and ecosystem diversity and the “…health and integrity of the biosphere…” rather than on individual entities. We must therefore utilize all the tools available to us to first understand the intricate inter-relational systems in which we live and second to limit and modify our actions in such a way as to preserve the “health and integrity” of all the living and non-living relational “wholes” of our community.
Even though Callicott attempts to make his ethic practicable, these concepts are, unfortunately, very difficult to apply in a practical way. Proponents and practitioners of ecosystem management and especially of restoration ecology face the daunting task of turning a general statement such as “health and integrity” into a workable goal. Interpretations of “ecosystem health,” are informed by a diversity of worldviews, and are very different for different people and groups. Nancy Langston, in her essay Human and Ecological Change in the Inland Northwest Forests, illustrates the drastically different approaches to management suggested by different definitions of a “healthy forest” and explores their implications for management success. Traditional forestry science has historically held that a healthy forest is one in which the production of viable timber is maintained at a maximum level. By this definition, single-age, monospecific, heavily managed, industrial forests are healthier than non-industrial forests, and Old-growth forests, in which rates of decay equal those of production, are the unhealthiest forests. This idea of management for maximum sustainable yield has also historically dominated fisheries science, and has been implicated, as it has been in forestry, in mismanagement resulting in the decimation of commercially valuable populations as well as many forms of indirect ecosystem degradation.
On the other side of the coin, many modern environmentalists and preservationists preach a “hands-off” ideal for management of forest ecosystems. They feel that human hubris and political corruption can only lead to a recurrence of the management blunders of the past. Preservationist interests often distrust managers and federal scientists, and believe that they maintain the ultimate goal of commodifying and industrializing natural ecosystems for the benefit of corporations. Unfortunately, many of these systems have been altered beyond their natural resilience and have experienced drastic phase shifts. In such cases, a hands-off approach would not be sufficient to meet the goals of a majority of stakeholders, at least not within a time period viewed as acceptable on a human scale.
Even if we toss out these historical ideas of healthy populations and ecosystems as misinformed and misdirected and if we recognize the limitations of the preservationist’s hands-off approach, we are still left with a conundrum. We need to decide how our environmental ethic can inform our management goals and methods. It is easy to talk about what should be done in general terms, but when we are presented with a wide array of specific situations which all involve high levels of complexity dynamism and interacting forces and which are all ultimately part of the same larger system and interacting together on some level, application of the ethic becomes less clear. I will attempt to illustrate several examples of questions for which our ethic and current understanding of these systems leave us without answers to foundational questions of how to proceed as good citizens of our socio-ecosystem. These questions necessarily arise because every management decision, just like every ethical decision, is a trade-off between one thing of value and another. These types of questions make it difficult to proceed with many management decisions because our ethic and our understanding does not, as yet, provide sufficient evidence for making such trade-off decisions.
The theory of evolution tells us that species themselves are dynamic and related. Ecology teaches us that a species is really a set of interactions with other biotic and abiotic components of an ecosystem and is in a constant state of flux and reinvention. The scientific definition of a species is itself somewhat ambiguous. Should we apply Callicott’s ethic to species? How can we do so if we don’t really know what a species is? Where does one species end and another begin? Is a species a “whole” or is it a part of a greater ecosystem? Are non-native species less deserving of ethical treatment than native species? Is a species of bacteria as important as a species of mammal? Should we preserve pest species… disease vectors… viruses? What about functional groups of species which fill the same niche in an ecosystem? Should our ethical decisions apply to the more general functional group or to the species which make it up or on some hierarchical pattern between these distinctions? Is a small, apparently insignificant species of rodent more important than 100 jobs for the next ten years in a small timber community? Should we preserve species which would otherwise go “naturally” extinct? What does “naturally” mean?
Should we manage systems for maximum biodiversity… stable biodiversity? Why is biodiversity a good/healthy characteristic… is it? Do introduced species contribute to biodiversity? What about species that were introduced 10, 100 or 1000 years ago? Where does that leave natural systems that are relatively species poor? Are desert ecosystems less valuable or less deserving of ethical treatment than tropical forests or coral reefs? Should we manage for genetic diversity? Should genetic strains that are incapable of surviving in an altered system be preserved when the set of environmental variables they have evolved to exist in is gone?
Should we manage for a return to some “natural” or “pristine” state? How is that possible when we are lacking baseline data and when systems have been irrevocably modified? If the definition of natural and/or pristine is “free from anthropogenic impact,” are there any systems left in the world that could be so categorized? If humans are an integral component of nature, and our impacts on the environment are just as natural as those of any other organism, although incomparably more drastic and widespread in scope, aren’t all systems essentially natural?
Should we manage for maintenance of ecosystem function… ecosystem services? How do we measure functionality of globally integrated biogeochemical cycles? How do we decide which functions or services are important? Should we manage ecosystems to contribute to some “low-level maintenance throughput” of commercial and economic interests?
Should we manage for long-term stability? What is “long-term” on the scale of evolutionary or biogeochemical processes? More and more we are coming to understand that natural processes are dynamic over temporal and spatial scales which are difficult to integrate with human concepts of time and space. Should we attempt to assemble stable urban-agro-gardens replicating some ideal of natural diversity and complexity? Should we manage forests to look and feel and function how we think they should? Who decides?
How do we even begin to answer these questions? We can write essays till the cows come home about ethics and movements and what we have apparently done wrong in the past. We can take classes on natural resources, and physics, and botany, and global-change, and world views and environmental values. We can study Hawaiian Honeycreepers, coral-reef fish, bacteria, ampbibians or Drosophilid flies, but tackling these types of foundational questions represents a level of complexity and difficulty that has yet to be challenged. It is, in fact, rather overwhelming. These are the questions I ask myself.
How can I, as a curious active citizen of this global socio-ecosystem-community, contribute to sorting out these difficult questions? Maybe I need to turn back to the original question. Maybe we all need to look a bit harder at the relationships we are directly involved in and begin to know where we live. I need to learn where my food comes from and ask myself if I want to continue to buy the same foods from the same places. I need to learn where my trash is taken when the truck picks it up at the curb and where my waste goes when I flush the toilet. I need to learn about the quality of the water running through the streams in my neighborhood, and I also need to learn about the living conditions of workers who sew my clothes and assemble my sneakers. I need to think about how my transportation choices affect the foreign-policy of my nation. I need to go to community meetings and learn who is making decisions about how we use the living resources in our forests and in our oceans. I need to take a tour of a local fish market or slaughter house. I need to find out what kinds of industries are operating in my area and what kind of byproducts they are releasing into the environment. I need to meet my neighbors and find out what they do for a living. I need to learn the names of the trees and flowers in my yard and maybe plant a garden. I need to kneel down in the mud and get my hands dirty sewing seeds or turning over my compost pile. I need to ride my bike to work, even when it’s raining. I need to be curious about the direct and indirect effects of the industries I choose to support. I need to listen to the stories of old people and tell my stories to young people. I need to dance. I need to learn from my mistakes, from my accomplishments and from those of others. I need to study the ways of people who are living with the land and who have done so for millennia. I need to ask the hard questions, and I need to start by asking them of myself. I need to learn how to live in Place. I need to learn to know where I live. Maybe that will help to provide the perspective necessary to begin to formulate answers to those foundational questions. Maybe, through learning to live in Place, I will develop a truer understanding of my own environmental ethic that will inform my active participation in the socio-ecosystem of which I am a part.