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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Real Anthropocentrism

Last month, Smithsonian Magazine ran an excellent, thoughtful piece that gave voice to a bunch of individuals rarely heard in the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--specially, the indigenous people who actually live there. The area is dominated by two main tribes: the Gwich'in, whose villages are scattered along the migratory route followed by the caribou which traverse ANWR, and the Inupiat, a coastal people whose homes and lives have been transformed (mostly, if not entirely, for the better) by the flow of North Slope oil and the money it has brought to the region. The author did a fantastic job of capturing telling moments in the lives of both tribes (the Inupiat slightly outnumber the Gwich'in). On the side of the Gwich'in, who oppose any development of ANWR because of its unpredictable consequences on the local caribou herds, you see a mix of proud traditionalism, interest-group savvy and paranoia; on the side of the Inupiat, a contempt for the quasi-spiritual, development-opposing environmentalism that so many Native opponents of drilling have adopted, but also the fear that too much development and pollution could cut into their primary traditional economy--whaling. If you can find a copy of the October Smithsonian, check the article out; it's an example of the best kind of environmental reportage: one that brings people into the equation, in all their complexity.

I was reminded of the article by this essay which appeared in Orion on the grave threat which environmentalists pose to indigenous peoples:

It's no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention. . . . [In 2004,] at a Vancouver, British Columbia, meeting of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that the "activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands" . . . .

"We are enemies of conservation," declared Maasai leader Martin Saning'o, standing before a session of the November 2004 World Conservation Congress sponsored by IUCN in Bangkok, Thailand. The nomadic Maasai, who have over the past thirty years lost most of their grazing range to conservation projects throughout eastern Africa, hadn't always felt that way. In fact, Saning'o reminded his audience, ". . . we were the original conservationists." The room was hushed as he quietly explained how pastoral and nomadic cattlemen have traditionally protected their range: "Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between ecosystems." Then he tried to fathom the strange version of land conservation that has impoverished his people, more than one hundred thousand of whom have been displaced from southern Kenya and the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. Like the Batwa, the Maasai have not been fairly compensated. Their culture is dissolving and they live in poverty. "We don't want to be like you," Saning'o told a room of shocked white faces. "We want you to be like us. We are here to change your minds. You cannot accomplish conservation without us."

The article does a great job documenting the shock, condescension, frustration and arrogance which the complaints of native persons have elicited from many leaders of diverse conservation programs around the world. The fact that local human beings, with their farming and wandering and hunting and industry, might actually need occasionally to be part of any real discussion about how to preserve habitats and species was something that eclipse the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Western, overwhelmingly wealthy patrons who make up the bulk of self-described "environmentalists" the world over. Some groups, thankfully, are coming around to an acknowledgement of the obvious, populist point which Saning'o made above, a point which (as I noted in an earlier post) has even penetrated some levels of the U.S. government: a conservation which does not tend to the local knowledge and needs of the people who actually interact with that environment one wishes to conserve is not only likely to be incoherent on its face, but is also likely to fail.

This is a concern I've had for a long time; it goes back to frustration I felt about the Clinton administration's creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996--a tremendous accomplishment, and a worthy monument to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's vision of federal leadership in land-use planning, but also an act of conservation that antagonized rather than respected the locals, as Babbitt himself now apparently admits. And it's a concern I wrote about a couple of years back, when Nicholas Kristoff took off for ANWR to write for the New York Times about the importance of preserving a land "where humans are interlopers" (he meant "humans" like himself, obviously). This is not a rejection of any and all environmentalist arguments for maintaining the natural world for more than just materialistic reasons: I am hardly immune to or dismissive of the romantic and aesthetic qualities of the earth. But it is a suggestion that the sublime ought not be imagined without some reflection upon who, exactly, experiences that sublime. It is relatively easy for those who--like Kristoff--find something appealing about visiting (but not living in; oh no, of course not that) a place where "bears are king" to condemn all those who have problems with, say, the slow re-introduction of grizzly bears and other potentially dangerous animals to populated areas as unenlightened knaves; the fact that a lot of those locals buy sufficiently into an us-vs.-the-government mentality as to allow them to participate in covering up crimes against endangered animals only makes such condemnations even easier. But the tendency to ignore such factors--to ignore how one's wealth or distance can lead one to see those actual people who want and need to work and live around the vistas you might want to "protect"--needs to be resisted. The story (at ANWR, and elsewhere) is more complicated than that.

In the end, I think the attempt to purge the human, to reduce the everyday productive place of actual human beings from one's picture of the natural world (an attempt that can lead ultimately to rather bizarre conclusions), rests on a perverse kind of anthropocentrism. Isn't anthropocentrism exactly what deep ecologists have long said is the root of our problem--the way in which our economies and societies assume that human beings are the center of creation? Yes. But isn't the belief that human beings are utterly and uniquely destructive of the natural world, that in our ordinary consumptive lives we cannot help but be a "foreign" presence on the earth, equally anthropocentric? In fact, it might be an even worse anthropocentrism: in the real world, farmers and gardeners and all those who care about the earth take seriously their stewardship of it, a stewardship which makes them, in my experience at least, humble and careful, aware of the fragility of their relationship with nature. Whereas radical environmentalism too often allows for no such complexity; there is humanity and there is nature, and the further the two are kept tightly separate from each other (close enough for the former to look at and "commune with" the latter, but nothing more), the better for both. For any who find themselves agreeing with this position, I strongly recommend 1491--a wonderful, provocative new book which argues that "pristine" New World which European explorers "discovered" and invaded in the from 15th to the 17th centuries, and which many today consider today to have been a kind of paradise lost, was to a great extent the creation of prolonged human interaction. The Amazon basin, the buffalo herds--all a result of generations of indigenous "species maintenance" and "land planning" (though tragic accidents played a part as well). Real environmentalists know that human technology and society, for better and for worse, are as much a part of the geography of the planet as the life patterns of any other species. Only a truly anthropocentric thinker would think that you can take humans--like either the Gwich'in or the Inupiat--out of the equation, and call what remains to be conserved truly "natural."

1 comment:

birdchaser said...

Academic geographers and other social scientists have recognized this problem for a long time. Unfortunately, in the big money world of politics--including conservation politics--the little guys and gals (how do you say that without sounding patronizing!) get hosed. If the national debate about ANWR were a human-rights case as much as a conservation case, it'd probably get more sympathy and political traction. Then again, the whole history of the United States has been built on the dead and displaced bodies of the original indigenous inhabitants--who, BTW, also did a pretty good job of killing and displacing each other over thousands of years of Pre-columbian history. There is no pristine past...but hopefully we can construct a more just and beautiful future. 

Posted by Rob