A Time for Rethinking
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”
– Wendell Berry, The Long-legged House
The looming presidential inauguration is not a beginning; it is the culmination of misguided ideas that have plagued human civilization for millennia. The dualistic world view promoted by the president elect – pitting people against each other and pitting humans against nature – is as familiar as it is divisive.
In Trumpish terms, there are “good people” and “bad people.” The latter include those who think or look differently than we do, as well as those who have access to fewer resources and so may be intent upon “ripping us off.”
The president-elect’s reflexive labeling stems from his philosophy that the world comprises winners and losers (or, in the telling words of Trump’s father, “killers” and losers). Life is essentially one long Monopoly game; those who beat out the competition and acquire the most resources win.
Many members of the incoming cabinet are winners by that narrow definition, masters of aggregating wealth with little concern for public service, the greater good or the scientific process. While never before so evident in the Oval Office, this capitalistic impulse does reflect America’s history as a frontier nation, where land was seen as a treasure trove to mine and harvest.
The conquest mindset obviously did not originate in the New World. It traces back centuries to the Enlightenment, when humans came to see themselves as distinct from and superior to other species – opening the path to ongoing exploitation.
This dualistic view made it hard for people to see human well-being as bound to the health of ecosystems. It was not until 1970 in the United States that this latter realization took hold. A Republican president established the Environmental Protection Agency, laying the groundwork for the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act that Maine’s Sen. Muskie helped bring to fruition.
Those laws have helped to heal ecosystems and improve public health, but they have not carried us beyond damaging dualisms. Time and again, the winner-loser schism leads to environmental injustices, abandoning racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged to suffer the worst effects of environmental contamination. The Flint (Michigan) water crisis and Dakota Access pipeline (threatening the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) are recent reminders of how often American society dismisses the needs and rights of marginalized people and natural ecosystems.
Similar tensions are evident around the globe as more and more human and natural communities succumb to debilitating pollution. In many cities of India and China, residents now choke in a toxic haze that smothers any hope for quality of life.
Reversing this widespread damage requires more than technological innovations and regulatory changes. It demands a radical rethinking of our place in the natural world – shifting from a winner-takes-all ethos to what Aldo Leopold, in his classic book A Sand County Almanac, described as a “land ethic” and an “ecological conscience” that situate us in the larger community of nature.
Living in Monopoly mode presupposes a linear path to an ultimate victor, a vision completely at odds with how ecosystems work. In ecological systems, ego-based concepts of winners and losers are meaningless. Predators rely on prey, but prey also need predators to keep populations in check. Even alpha predators – like our own species – ultimately feed the decomposers at the base of the food web.
Ecosystems are inherently cyclical and dynamic, with species rising and falling in response to a complex mix of factors. No single species can achieve lasting dominance (think dinosaurs) because countless forces are beyond its control: weather, disease, food availability, geologic forces and even astronomical events like meteor crashes.
The driver in ecosystems is not the autonomous individual, but the ties that bind species together. Those dynamic relationships evolve through time and can develop into unimaginably complex symbioses.
Even within our own bodies, we enjoy the rewards of these mutually beneficial connections – as with the hundreds of species of microflora that aid digestion. The food, water and air cycling through us should remind us continually that we are bound to larger ecosystems.
Climate research now demonstrates just how far those ecosystems extend. Human impacts on the natural world reach miles into the atmosphere and are reshaping the contours of distant ice sheets and the patterns of deep ocean currents.
To deny this worldwide body of scientific evidence and dismiss our participation in ecosystems is regressive. The president-elect is not inaugurating a new era but is resurrecting 17th-century fantasies of a gilded life that floats above the ecological interdependencies that define the real world.
With greenhouse gas emissions spiraling up and climate disruptions bearing down on us, we can no longer afford the luxury of being – in Thomas Friedman’s words – “as dumb as we wanna be.” Willful ignorance of ecological connections will prove costly to all who live and die by them, which is to say every one of us.
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.