Sunday, September 7, 2014

Celebrating--and Questioning--Wilderness

On September 3, the Beloved Spouse and I celebrated (or at least acknowledged) our twenty third anniversary. As it turns out, the Wilderness Act marked its fiftieth anniversary on the same date--unbeknownst to me until I read a message from Orion Magazine, which is my main source of environmental commentary these days.

My mention of the occasion, however, won't rank up there with the joyous celebrations of tree huggers everywhere, because I'm rather skeptical about the whole notion of wilderness in the first place. I'm pretty sure it doesn't really exist in the present day, because there is almost no place on earth that isn't (as Wilhelm Dilthey would put it) human affected (with the possible exception of volcanoes in the remote hinterlands of Iceland).

More true now even than it was in the nineteenth century (Dilthey's Introduction to the Human Sciences was published in 1883), there isn't even a tiny corner of this planet that doesn't bear at least a chemical imprint of human activity. Not only that, it's difficult for many people to even imagine what real wilderness, truly unaffected by so-called homo sapiens sapiens (the wise wise human species), would look like.  In my first-level art history class I ask my students to choose a photograph of an object (animal, vegetable, or mineral) as untouched by humans as possible, and I have to warn them that a picture of an elephant in a zoo, or a trail through a forest, or a field with a fence, or even a single rose is not a good choice. But there's an obvious irony connected with the task, because a photograph in itself is evidence of human interference.

In the midst of my pondering the notion of the wild, this morning I read Rob Nixon's review in the New York Times of Diane Ackerman's new book, The Human Age. The book seems to be both potentially fascinating and terrifying, and I'll probably buy it for the iPad--but I'm not sure I really want to be reminded just how much we're interfering with the future of the world.  Looking up Nixon's recent Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor led me to a June 2011 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Slow Violence: Literary and postcolonial studies have ignored the environmentalism that often only the poor can see" which advocates moving the locally-focused understanding of environmentalism away from Thoreau and other members of our national canon (including those like Wendell Berry who are often invoked in this blog) outward: toward the rest of the world, far less cushioned from the ravages of human power than we are here.

As Nixon points in the article, there are other voices to be heard:
Figures like Wangari Maathai, Indra Sinha, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Abdul Rahman Munif, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Nadine Gordimer, Jamaica Kincaid, Arundhati Roy, and June Jordan have recorded the long-term inhabited impact of corrosive transnational forces, including petro-imperialism, the megadam industry, the practice of shipping rich nations' toxins (like e-waste) to poor nations' dumping grounds, tourism that threatens indigenous peoples, conservation practices that drive people off their historic lands, environmental deregulation for commercial or military demands, and much more.
While some of those enshrined in the American pantheon are now dead, none risked the fate of those like Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian regime of General Sani Abacha for defending his people not against some marauding heard of infidel-purging jihadis (which might have garnered some coverage on CNN), but by us: big oil in America and Europe.

Earlier in the week I'd been reading about the current discussion on GMOs and whether or not they're "safe" and whether or not people have a right to know if they're in our food or not.  As the general controversy involving GMOs has developed, I've frequently thought that we might not be asking the right questions when it comes to allowing their use in the first place.  Just as I think that the question about preferring organically- vs. conventionally-grown food isn't whether or not it's "healthier," but rather if it's culturally better for us (more sustainable, economically more equitable, etc.), I wonder if the real question behind gene-manipulation in our food crops isn't more about whether it's ethically defensible and environmentally sustainable than whether it's going to poison us or cause birth defects or some such.

The question up for debate at the moment is really about labeling. Science seems to be bolstering the notion that modified foods do not pose a danger to our health. One long-time opponent of GMOs, Mark Lynas, has recently switched sides in the argument against their safety (as did Neil deGrasse Tyson), and is now advocating that we embrace them in order to stave off the looming cloud of hunger related to population growth. As both of these guys point out, the science backs the safety claim; not only that, if we're going to blast the climate-change deniers and the creationists for ignoring scientific evidence, we out not to base opposition to GMOs on unfounded skepticism.

For my part, I'm not particularly bothered by crops like Bt cotton--because we don't ingest it (and it's one of the most pesticide-dependent crops human beings grow, so that spraying chemicals significant harm both to the environment and to those who harvest it), but I'm also not so sanguine about our ability to ensure that food crops will never develop consequences down the line.  The people who develop and test the modifications are, after all, human. And we can be utterly blind at times, unable to foresee potential outcomes. Two words: atomic bomb. Or maybe one: thalidomide. Or an acronym: DDT.

Simply labeling products so we can make choices doesn't seem like it should be such a big problem, but "folks" (corporations are people, after all) like Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow are afraid that labeling will imply lack of safety and discourage people from buying their RoundUp-ready products.  Well, I already don't buy them for economic and ethical reasons; I don't like the fact that altered genes are escaping the plants they've been manipulated into the environment and generating unforeseen consequences (see this 2012 Mother Jones article). I don't buy milk with hormones in it because I identify too closely with those poor engorged cows I've seen in feedlot dairies.

In the end, though, it seems a bit luxurious to even be able to question our food sources, and to make choices at all because so many people in the world have to take what they get--some of which may be imposed upon them by the denizens of rich, still-imperialistic countries like our own. And while environmental consciousness seems to have risen here over time (as people become more aware of how what we do to the planet is hurting them), we don't seem to hold the same regard or concern when it comes to developing countries with resources we want to exploit.  So any benefits GMO foods might produce may come with cultural and economic costs in other realms.  And even with science currently able to proclaim the safety of genetic modifications, our track record isn't stellar when it comes to predicting future consequences.

Although humanfolk have been using artificial selection to manipulate crops since the beginning of agriculture (the very word implies manipulation), as Tyson points out, we're now messing with Mother Nature in ways that go far beyond simply mixing pollen from different species to increase the food supply.  And even though some GMO crops (like golden rice) might well help keep some people in Asia from debilitating malnutrition, the encroachment of Big Agriculture, like Big Oil, and the like isn't exactly sustaining human cultural traditions. It sure as hell doesn't bode well for the preservation of the wild.

I'm just not at all sure that we're actually capable, as a species, of making particularly wise decisions about the future. Wilderness as an idea is still with us, but as an actual, existing phenomenon I'm pretty sure there will be little left in another fifty years.

Image credit: The Bardarbunga volcano erupting in Iceland on September 4, 2014. The coincidence of this eruption and the idea that volcanoes are one of the few truly wild, non human-affected natural phenomena in existence was too much to resist. The image originally came from the Wikipedia article on the volcano--where you can also learn how to pronounce it. Blogger didn't like the coding, so I couldn't post a link.