The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   69

Nature's Keepers

The New Science of Nature Management

by Stephen Budiansky

New York: Free Press, 1995

Heaven and Earth Are Not Benevolent

"We are as gods, and might as well get good at it." Thus Stewart Brand, in the opening to the original Whole Earth Catalog. Thirty years on, the words are still startling, jarring, and, to many, offensive; perhaps even more shocking now than they were in Apollonian America. Nonetheless, the first part is still true and the second is still a good idea. The fate of life on Earth --- including whether it gets off Earth --- is, pretty much, what we decide to make it.

To some degree this isn't even a very new state of affairs, at least not as we're accustomed to reckoning things. Essentially ever since we mastered the art of hunting big game, say 80,000 years ago, we have been, as Darwin put it, the most dominant species ever to arise on this planet. Since the end of the last glaciation, societies consisting only of small bands of hunter-gatherers have hunted to extinction dozens if not hundreds of species of large animals (the giant kangaroos of Australia, for instance, and the original wild horses of North America) and, through deliberately setting fires, created continent-sized grasslands to support their game-animals and thus themselves. (The most spectacular instances of this were, again, in Australia and North America --- though one wonders about the Eurasian steppes...) Naturally (or unnaturally) enough, this habit of reshaping ecosystems to our self-supposed convenience intensified considerably with the invention of agriculture, and even led to plants and animals adapting to exploit, sometimes to completely depend upon, such human-modified ecosystems. Outside Antarctica, there is almost literally no such thing as land which has not been changed by human ecological engineering, either directly or at some very slight remove.

Such was the picture of the human ecological impact throughout pre-history, and most of history. In the last few centuries three new figures have been introduced into the picture, altering its aspect profoundly and irreversibly. The first figure is Vulcan: the havoc which could be wreaked by Paleolithic hunters with flint and kindling, or Neolithic farmers with stone axes, while impressive given what they had to work with, is piddling compared to what we can do now that we have effective machines and the talent to organize both them and ourselves. The second figure is Minerva: we have (to switch mythologies) eaten from the tree of knowledge, not of good and evil, but of causes and consequences. When my Etruscan ancestors set about turning a rather fearsome forest into the countryside of Tuscany, they had only the most vague, intuitive, rule-of-thumb understanding of what they were doing, and no idea that, for instance, olive groves would become mainstays for birds migrating from south of the Sahara. While our understanding of ecology and, in particular, of the environmental effects of our actions is still far from complete, far even from what it should be, even realizing that there are such effects is a profound step forward.

The third intruding figure has no good representation in classical myth or in any other mythology I know: for the idea that Nature --- unspoiled, undisturbed, untouched by human hands --- has a profound non-utilitarian value, aesthetic or moral or even religious, that it is harmonious, balanced, inspiring and benign, is a wholly modern one. (Not even the Taoists thought nature was benign: "Heaven and Earth are not benevolent," as the Tao Te Ching says.) It is a notion which is certainly incomprehensible to those without a clear conception of an artificially modified landscape, and probably not especially attractive to those still working "at the coal-face of nature" (Gellner), leading lives unbuffered by industrialism. We might, with much license and many reservations and a few expiatory sacrifices, call this figure Diana.

The joint appearance of these three --- Vulcan, Minerva, Diana --- leads to the following situation. Collectively, we make profound and rapid changes in the natural world; we realize that we are responsible for these changes; and an increasingly large number of us don't like them at all. Clearly, this is not a happy state of affairs, and from a mere consideration of human desires and preferences alone, something has to give. Merely eliminating Minerva --- retreating to pre-scientific ignorance --- doesn't seem terribly helpful, if it were even possible. A pretty small number of already rich people want to get rid of Vulcan: but the rest of the world, having realized there is an alternative to a life of poverty, ignorance and servitude, a life under the constant shadow of plague and famine, is in no mood to do so, or let some tree-huggers stand in their way. On the other hand, as soon as people begin to enjoy the benefits of Vulcan's labors, they tend (a few libertarian ideologues apart) to become quite besotted devotes of Diana....

So much by way of lead-in. Stephen Budiansky's book enters here, essentially as an act of iconoclasm against Diana. The goddess we worship, he says, is a false one, bearing next to no relation to Nature as She actually exists; such, he says, is the burden of two separate but related recent developments in ecology. One, in mathematical ecological theory (and, of course, related experiment and observation) essentially says that nature in the wild is not balanced, harmonious and self-regulating, but rather is pandemonium, constantly shifting, fluctuating, out of equilibrium, directionless. Attempts to maintain a steady state in some ecosystem are artificial and even injurious to the many organisms which have adapted to exploit fluctuations. All the old notions of stability and harmony --- climax succession, coherent plant communities, the lot --- are falsified and discarded.

The other scholarly development, in ecological history, is that, being stochastic, uncoordinated, and highly sensitive to small fluctuations, ecosystems have histories, are products of history. (The sound you hear is S. J. Gould giving voice to "the song of them that triumph, the shout of them that feast.") Among the forces shaping that history, somewhere below the Milankovitch cycle which drives the glaciers but considerably above the atmospheric turbulence which says whether or not this species of beetle will wind up colonizing that island, are our own humble selves and our ancestors. Even before human beings appeared, there wasn't any state of nature to desecrate or revere; consequently reverence is misplaced, even pathetic.

Budiansky combined the description of these new developments in Minerva's domain, in ecology, with a brief prophylactic history of the cult of Diana, from its approximate origin two centuries ago at the end of the Enlightenment to the middle of this century and its real take-off. It will no doubt come as a shock to many to realize that, until only a few hundred years ago, no one had a good word to say for uncultivated, unimproved nature; but so it was, and (though Budiansky doesn't talk about this) certainly not just in Europe, or even just in those parts of the world afflicted with monotheism. (I expect this material will become a standard part of a good liberal arts education within a decade or so --- and therefore remain almost as recondite as it is now.) It is also amusing to learn about the local variations in what counts as truly Natural: because agricultural expansion occupies a leading place in our national myths, North Americans don't really accept farms as part of Nature, whereas in western Europe, where the expansion essentially ended at the close of the Middle Ages, one can find many quite devout Greens going into raptures over stone age or even medieval farming. (I imagine Australian attitudes fall much closer to the American end of the spectrum.) The real point of this history, however, is to help readers escape from an unfortunate bind placed on their thinking by the Dianic cult, namely the application of the virgin/whore dichotomy to Nature, the assumption that, if a piece of nature is even slightly affected by humanity, one might as well pave it over and put up a stop-n-rob. (Cf. the motto of the satirical Pave the Earth movement: "One world, one people, one piece of asphalt.") That there might be states, even desirable states, between vestal seclusion and being a slag, ought to be obvious but isn't even admitted.

Given all this, the pressing question is how we should go about being good godlings. Partly the answer to this comes, again from ecological theory: given that we want a certain sort of environment, we need to know how to bring it about, what kinds of actions promote it, what sort hinder it. We need to know about breeding populations, the adaptability of predators, the effects of fires and how often they should occur, and so forth. We still know much too little about all of this --- as Budiansky says, one of the more recent triumphs of ecological theory is predicting that the Loch Ness monster couldn't exist --- but we are learning rapidly. At the very least, we now know enough to avoid some disastrous policies into which the idea of Nature-the-harmonious led us. (Budiansky's chapter six is largely a documentation that these policies, as pursued at Yellowstone, were disastrous.) There will be more disasters in the course of our learning; but since there will be more disasters anyway, they might as well be useful ones. And sometimes, of course, we can learn without any disaster at all, from actually positive developments, like the happy stories of "restoration ecology" related in chapter nine.

Of course, no amount of knowledge and good intentions is going to achieve anything if subverted by apathy, political impotence and greed. About the first two Budiansky has little to say; not so the last. "Despair over human greed is understandable enough. But greed is not some faceless, unknowable force. There is in fact an entire science devoted to analyzing and even quantifying and predicting the effects of greed: it's called economics" (p. 197). Perhaps nothing sticks in the craw of traditional environmentalists more than that of markets in pollution rights (the estimable Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote a really wonderful essay mocking them); unfortunately the logic is impeccable, and goes roughly as follows. Pollution is undesirable, but unavoidable. Given this, we'd like, collectively, to maximize the economic benefits we get for the total level of pollution we're willing to tolerate. Left to itself, markets will do no such thing; in fact, they'll lead to much more pollution than anyone wants. (Exercise for Econ. 1: prove this.) Typical regulations --- "`thou shalt not emit more than so many parts per billion" --- can hold down aggregate pollution levels, but do nothing for economic efficiency. If pollution rights can be sold, however, then a firm which only makes (say) a million dollars a year out of a given quantity of emissions will gladly sell them to a firm which could make two million dollars a year. The rights being government-granted instruments, the total level of pollution is still under control, and can be gradually reduced; in any case every individual firm has an incentive to reduce its own emissions, since that frees up a valuable resource. And there should be no reason why environmentalists couldn't buy up pollution rights and sit on them, if they're willing to put up the money. There will still be costs of enforcement, but there are always costs to enforcing property-rights, and there are costs to enforcing regulations now. (Amusingly, since cheaters will lower the value of legal pollution rights, their holders will have a financial incentive to nark on illegal emissions.) Budiansky's chapter on this and similar uses of suitably rigged and regulated markets is probably the most interesting one in the book.

The main problem with Budiansky's book is that he thinks too small, too locally. Like his opponents in the Dianic cult, he's mostly concerned with issues like wilderness preservation, with the fates of individual ecosystems. These are serious and worthy issues, and not just aesthetic ones. But no amount of restoration ecology or clever wildlife-management is going to do much good if fossil-fuel depletion comes with a crunch, if the American mid-west turns into a dust-bowl again, if the greenhouse effect raises polar temperatures enough to significantly melt the ice-caps and raise sea level above the elevation of Tokyo, Bombay and New York; but global warming and the greenhouse effect don't even rate a mention in his index.

In default of anything else, we've been in charge here for a long time; but it didn't matter much, because we didn't know enough and weren't strong enough to really hurt ourselves. Now we are, and our actions have consequences which can't just be shrugged off as the inscrutable ways of providence. We can see disasters of our own making looming before us, disasters which will not be avoided by the richest CEO or the most deliberately back-to-the-Paleolithic artificial primitive. To solve these really global problems, to avoid these catastrophes waiting to happen, will need lots of clear thinking and hard choices and coordinated action. The gods know if we'll come up with these in time; I do not.

310 pp., 32 black and white pictures and diagrams, 16 glossy plates, endnotes, "guide to the sources," bibliography, index of names and subjects.
Ecology / Environmentalism / Modern History / Popular Science
Currently out of print. Hardback ISBN 0-02-904915-6 [Buy from Powell's]
Written 22 October 1998, released 25 January 1999