The Problem within Environmentalism

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Laura Watt, author of The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

Earth Day is often celebrated with an iconic image of Earth as seen from space; against the black void, our curved home swimming with blue oceans and swirling with weather systems looks fragile and delicate. The message is unquestionably, don’t mess it up!

Inspirational as it is, this sort of image contributes to core problem within environmentalism—it perpetuates the notion that humans are somehow outside of nature, separate and distinct. It positions the natural world as observed from afar, at a great distance—a piece of gleaming treasure to be nestled in a velvet-lined box for safe keeping.

In contrast, my recent book The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore argues that we must consider natural and cultural elements of protected areas as essential components of whole landscapes, rather than as separate concerns diametrically opposed. Point Reyes is often heralded for its wild coastline, its plentiful bird and marine life, its winding trails through dappled forests and rolling grasslands. Yet much of what is perceived as wild nature is the product of centuries of human use and management. Like elsewhere across the Americas, Point Reyes was inhabited for centuries by native peoples, in this case several bands of coastal Miwok. Recent studies suggest extensive burning and other forms of indigenous vegetation management occurred over thousands of years. Since Mexican rancheros settled this part of California in the 1830s, the peninsula has been used extensively for raising cattle—drawn to the lush grasslands created and maintained by Miwok land management practices. Nearly two centuries of ranching has profoundly impacted the landscape, and kept the land open and relatively undeveloped, making it an attractive location for a national park unit. This natural landscape is full of the work of human hands.

And perhaps even more surprising, even our most urban landscapes are full of thriving nature. For example, Peter Alagona’s book After The Grizzly points out that a stable and growing population of the adorable, and formally endangered, San Joaquin Valley kit fox, for example, can be found in urban Bakersfield, even while the species is struggling in other, more “wild” parts of its range. Yet these city dwellers are invisible to most conservation efforts, except as a source of additional genetic diversity for their cousins living in nature reserves. Similar work documenting the habits of urban wildlife—a colleague recently explained how automatic cameras at Chicago intersections, intended to catch red-light runners, have revealed urban coyotes waiting for the light to change, having learned that it is easier to cross on the green—is forcing us to rethink our categories of natural and cultural as more organisms adapt themselves to “our” world.

John Muir famously described his beloved Sierra wildernesses as distant cathedrals where visitors should experience awe and wonder, which became the guiding vision for U.S. national parks. But have we listened solely to Muir for too long? Another voice deserving more attention is that of Aldo Leopold, whose pioneering advocacy for wilderness also wrote stressed the importance of re-establishing a personal and collaborative relationship with the natural world through working the land. For Leopold, admiring from afar or as an occasional visitor is not enough; we need to recognize our reliance on and co-existence with nature through living and working with it: “Conservation means harmony between men and land.” Point Reyes has long been ideally suited to be managed as a Leopoldian park, a place where the wild and the pastoral are not in competition but are complementary, thriving side by side. It provides an important reminder for Earth Day, that we are all in it together.


Laura Alice Watt is Professor of Environmental History and Policy at Sonoma State University.

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