Monday, May 15, 2006

Human Nature

After having spent part of the weekend with my hardcore environmentalist brother, who showed us many digital slides of the hay bale houses he thinks we all should be living in, I've been thinking. About environment, politics, and boys who cry wolf.

He does good work, in "sustainable" living, land preservation, anti-sprawl efforts. He does a lot of teaching on the college level. He's big on educating people on these issues. Again, it's a useful thing to do in the world.

But when you talk to him, he has an earnestness about it that can be kind of scary. You have no trouble seeing him as one of those environmentalists who would say with a straight face the earth would be much better off if three-fourths of the people alive on it were dead. I've never actually asked him that. I sort of don't want to know.

His world-view, the unthinking part of it, seems based on a dichotomy of human = bad, nature = good. As though humans weren't part of nature. Like creationism turned on its head.

I don't know exactly what he studied for his graduate degree in all this, but my impression is of a lot of topic-specific courses, sociology and environmentalism as complete courses of study. Not much pure history. Not any geology that I can see.

We don't inhabit quite the same earth.

We both, for instance, see the vulnerability of the Chesapeake Bay, an hour south of here, where we've both canoed over the years. We've seen the disappearance of the oysters through pollution and overharvesting. We've seen the waters turn murky and algae-choked. We've read about the vulnerability of the bay to sea-level rises.

Hell, you don't even have to read about it; just stand there on the Eastern Shore and look around. There are no elevations. One of my favorite pictures I took down there shows a street sign: "Hilltop Road," on a landscape as flat as a pool table. Either the Watermen have a highly evolved sensitivity to elevation or a highly evolved sense of humor.

But I also see something my brother apparently doesn't see: The Chesapeake also is the corpse of a drowned river valley -- which once was a vulnerable ecosystem of its own. As recently as 6,000 years ago, seawater rushed in and flooded the landscape, erasing what was there before and replacing it with what we now treat as God's gift to oysters.

The same with another place I know well and love: The Florida Keys. When you stand on the Keys, you appreciate the fragility of nature, and the vulnerability of the world we know. The highest land elevation is barely higher than a two-story house. If you don't have mangroves around you, you can stand on any of the Keys and turn left or right and see open water. Hurricane storm surges can sweep them clean. Any rise in sea level would devastate them.

But if you understand the land there, you know you're standing on the fossil of a dead coral reef. Only 20,000 or so years ago, this was a thriving undersea oasis. Then the sea level fell as the climate cooled and the ice advanced, and the delicate ecosystem died a terrible death. Everything in the middle Keys, from the restaurant parking lot gravel to the 1935 Hurricane memorial in Islamodora, is built from the rubble of an ecological catastrophe.

The earth is delicate. Nature is the black sow that eats her farrow. Man is part of nature.

And the key to the boy-who-cried-wolf story is that there really was a wolf. My brother, for all his education and deep concern for these topics, is not going to be the right person to teach the rest of us about them. Nature will survive even the most dire forecasts of global warming. It has in the past.

Human beings would be able to survive it, too. By pulling inland, by abandoning the current coastlines, by shifting food production. But that would be an unimaginable catastrophe for the modern, industrialized world. With our land titles and coastal tourism and oil rigs -- yes, all the things my brother most despises about us and probably wishes we would lose anyhow are the things at risk.

It is the people with the most commitment to the world as it is -- not the idealists who long for a more pure world -- who ought to be most concerned about environmental change, who ought to be most invested in keeping the world in roughly its current shape, in spite of nature, not in worship of her.