Renaturalizing Ecological Politics

This post's title is the literal reverse of Andrew Biro's "Denaturalizing Ecological Politics" but I believe it's written at least partly in the same spirit as his work (though I'm just starting his book), namely the effort to make ecological politics accessible to as wide a swath of the world as possible and to reframe society's alienation from nature.

The inspiration for this post comes from having just read Henry David Thoreau's "Walden; Or Life in the Woods" (you were allowed to have two titles back then..something we should bring back), one of the seminal texts of the environmental movement, and when combined with Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," forms a body of work that has inspired the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a beautiful, beautiful, book that I plan to return to over the course of my life. Thoreau writes so beautifully and he channels the same unadulterated passion for nature that has marked my own relationship with it (one that is very much a construct, but that works for me). His social observations writing in the mid 1800's are just as relevant today as they were back then.

New England and Western Environmentalism

The spark for this post comes from an insight produced by the pairing of the two books that has implications for modern environmental communication, particularly with respect to communicating climate change, my currently chosen field of study. In reading "Walden" I was constantly struck by the minute observation with which Thoreau surveyed the world of Walden pond (from the way winter ice mirrored the geological formations of the shore, to the exact depth of the pond, to the precise moment when he heard the Spring's first sparrow) and his consistent drive and willingness to develop hypotheses about local natural phenomena that might have universal application. Indeed, throughout the book Thoreau is comparing and contrasting the ecology of Walden Pond across years and against neighbouring ponds in time with what he perceived to be the very predictable natural rhythm of the New England environment.

Indeed, it is this "stable" New England environment (specifically the temperate Western environments of Britain and New England) which Mike Davis traces as playing a key role in the formation of some modern political sensibilities and not just with respect to nature:

"For Davis, the view of the earth as a 'conservative, steady state system without historical directionality' itself does a certain amount of ideological work, in that it finds confirmation in nature of a moderate, reformist view of history and thereby universalizes the conditions found in Britain and New England: 'In these temperate and forested lands, energy flows through the environment in a seasonal pattern that varies little from year to year. Geology is generally quiescent, and it's easy to perceive natural powers as orderly and incremental, rarely catastrophic.'" (Biro, 2005, pp.19).

Nature vs. Nurture in Political Evolution

I find this fascinating. How does the ecology of a society's local environment affect the ecology of its political beliefs? Are people more progressive or at least open to change when they live on the edge of a volcano as opposed to the rolling hills of geologically benign New England? What consideration does local ecology and climactic history deserve when Western-derived institutional definitions of climate change come knocking on the doors of India or other nations accustomed to historically more dramatic and less predictable weather? As western environmentalists we need to trace our political thought, assumptions and blindspots back to the historical and current ecologies that have (and are) informed (informing) it, and to be mindful of those influences when communicating with other cultures and nations.

Walden Pond on LSD

In Biro's first chapter, titled "Ecocentrism and the Defence of Nature," he contests the claims of Devall and Sessions who contend that in contrast to its contemporary, over-populated condition, California was, 'preserved in its natural state for 15,000 years' by Native Californians. And while I don't agree with some of Biro's critique here (I don't think there's any denying that Native Californians, if only by shear scale alone, lived with a lighter ecological footprint than today's current population), his use of Davis' following description of California is illustrative of the ecological diversity that could inform the cultural and political beliefs of a people: David describes California as 'Walden Pond on LSD' complete with "...major wildfires, two-hundred year droughts, and severe earthquakes" punctuating "periods of relative stability, with each of these equilibrial periods having very different 'norms' in terms of climatology and biotic diversity."

Some political junkies take vacations to observe the political processes (elections etc.) of other nations. I'm thinking some trips to diverse global environments to trace the evolution of various societies' respective relationships with their local ecology might be a new hobby.