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Tag: "environment"

Road Building

[ 5 ] March 21, 2015 |

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If you want to destroy an ecosystem, build a road through it.

The reality is that most of the natural world deals better with the landmines and toxicity of militarized landscapes or the nuclear pollution of Chernobyl than the basic activities of human beings.

Ecooptimism

[ 120 ] March 14, 2015 |

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Should I be ecooptimistic?

Yet expressions of optimism have been popping up in various green quarters. In June Al Gore published an article in Rolling Stone titled “The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate,” hailing “surprising—even shocking—good news” about a shift toward a solar-powered future. “[I]t is now clear that we will ultimately prevail,” he declared. September’s climate march in New York exceeded expectations, attracting some 400,000 people and spurring pronouncements that a mass movement had finally arrived. Longtime New York Times environmental reporter (now blogger) Andy Revkin has also attracted attention for his relatively upbeat outlook. “We are going to do OK,” he told an audience of environmental science researchers last summer.

Of course, different optimisms have different sources and different implications. Gore’s is relatively narrow: it’s based on diffusion of a particular technology, and the triumph he predicts (while somewhat ambiguous) is presumably that human civilization will survive. A more expansive vision, coming from the left wing of the climate movement, is found in Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything. Her professed optimism derives, in a sense, from horror at the status quo, which she feels is becoming so intolerable for so many that we might actually do something about it. Klein proposes that the devastation of climate change can serve as a catalyst for a broader social justice movement that will deliver us to a world better than the one we now inhabit—less exploitative of the vulnerable of all species, human and otherwise.

But perhaps most provocative are the worldviews that ground their optimism in a reconsideration of our relationship to the natural world. A couple of emerging sub-movements share certain familiar green principles but challenge others. They highlight the value and the pitfalls of optimism for social movements generally, but also the unique challenges for environmentalism. And they raise questions about what it means to be an environmentalist when the environment is rapidly changing.

I have trouble buying into this. I do support redefining environmentalism into the world around us and not just the wilderness way out there. That’s an important transition in environmentalism that needs to take place. For as much as I respect Bill McKibben, I don’t accept his definition of the environment as “its separation from human society” since a) our own permeable bodies are all too interactive with the environment and thus get sick and die from our actions and b) we live in a materialistic society that brings processed, or second, nature into our homes through what we buy. However, a new environmentalism centering these issues is also different from simply redefining human behavior and impact on the environment to create a narrative that we are acting OK and we can go on more or less business as usual.

Of course, people always say that apocalyptic narratives of environmentalism don’t lead to people changing their behavior. Perhaps true. But pollyanna narratives of environmentalism also don’t lead to people changing their behavior. Reality is that nothing is going to change human behavior and we are going to go right to sending half the world’s species into extinction.

We are also now trying to date the anthropocene. Is the date when we start seeing meaningful human-caused and permanent environmental change 1610? 1775? 1945? 1964? None of these dates make sense to me. A far more meaningful date is 1492, for the European exploitation of the Americas will launch modern capitalism and the global free-for-all that defines modern society.

….Couple of points from comments.

1. There is a seeming misunderstanding of the pessimism of environmentalism. That pessimism, including on climate change, is not “there’s nothing that can be done.” It’s “we can do something, but it will have to be radical and right now we are doing nothing and there’s no reason to think that will change.” Those are very different things. There are tons of possible solutions. They may include the end of auto and plane travel. Even with the most classic case of environmental pessimism, that of Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb, the argument was not that we were necessarily destined to outgrow the planet’s carrying capacity but that we likely would since we wouldn’t make the necessary changes.

2. The whole idea of “environmental pessimism causes people to not do anything” is such conventional wisdom, yet I haven’t seen a single bit of scholarly or even really anecdotal evidence that it is true. I’d like to be enlightened if such evidence exists.

Selma and Environmental Justice

[ 2 ] March 8, 2015 |

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Fifty years after Selma, it’s worth remembering that the continued exploitation of poor blacks by whites also includes their environmental exploitation, as (largely) white-owned companies use their neighborhoods for toxic dumping grounds and to site the most hazardous and polluting factories.

The South has long been a region where fossil fuel industries have pretty much had their way with mostly poor, black, brown, and Native American communities, mainly due to lax regulations and poor environmental and civil rights law enforcement. Just this week in Alabama, the environmental group Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) filed a civil rights complaint against the Jefferson County Department of Health for allowing Walter Coke, Inc. to continue emitting air pollutants over predominantly black communities (Grist wrote about this last April). A University of Alabama at Birmingham study found a correlation between low birth weight and household proximity to coke plants in Birmingham. It’s the second civil rights complaint GASP has filed on this matter in as many months.

“North Birmingham has historically served as a dumping ground for polluting facilities,” said long-time environmental justice scholar and activist Robert Bullard, who’s helping lead environmental justice activities in Selma. “The neighborhood was an environmental ‘sacrifice zone’ when I did my student teaching at a high school in the area way back in 1968.”

The latest concern, and one of the largest, for environmental justice activists in the South is a gigantic “clean coal” facility under construction in Kemper County, Miss. As Grist writer Sara Bernard recently reported, the operation is already taking an economic toll on the surrounding communities and provides no guarantees that it won’t add to pollution already saturating the state’s land, air, and water.

That plant is owned and operated by Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, which owns numerous dirty coal plants around the South, and has funded the work of recently discredited climate denier Wei-Hock Soon. Just so happens that Southern Co. is also a sponsor of the Selma 50th anniversary event this weekend. (Mississippi Power is not a sponsor, but two of Southern’s other subsidiaries, Georgia Power and Alabama Power, are sponsors.)

One would hope that sponsoring civil rights commemorations wouldn’t get these companies off the hook for hurting black people in the present. Of course, the executives of these companies almost certainly also support politicians who want to roll back black voting rights.

Rising Oceans

[ 48 ] March 1, 2015 |

Welcome to the future:

Sea levels across the Northeast coast of the United States rose nearly 3.9 inches between 2009 and 2010, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Arizona and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The waters near Portland, Maine, saw an even greater rise — 5 inches — over the two-year period.

While scientists have been observing higher sea levels across the globe in recent decades, the study found a much more extreme rise than previous averages. Such an event is “unprecedented” in the history of the tide gauge record, according to the researchers, and represents a 1-in-850 year event.

“Unlike storm surge, this event caused persistent and widespread coastal flooding even without apparent weather processes,” the study’s authors wrote. “In terms of beach erosion, the impact of the 2009-2010 [sea level rise] event is almost as significant as some hurricane events.”

At least we are taking climate change seriously and are ready to do what it takes to save our coastlines…

The Oil Refinery Strike and Green Alliances

[ 11 ] February 20, 2015 |

Trish Kahle has an interesting piece at Jacobin on the potential for alliance between striking United Steelworkers’ refinery workers and environmentalists over safety conditions at the plants. Certainly environmentalists like Bill McKibben are saying all the right things here–greens have indeed learned lessons from the spotted owl debacle of the 1980s and 1990s. What does such alliances lead to? I don’t know. Kahle points out the history of these short-term alliances in the past, using the commonly cited example of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) under the leadership of Tony Mazzocchi in the 1970s as well as the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in the same era, fighting against their own union leadership and the companies for a healthier and more ecologically just workplace. My own book Empire of Timber details how these alliances played out in the timber industry.

Unfortunately, these alliances are very hard to sustain. First, they are almost always top-down, leadership-driven actions. That can work, but the rank and file of *both* movements have to get involved and there’s often been resistance there, often for cultural reasons. I think this is somewhat less of a problem with greens these days because in my experience, young people are often significantly more interested in green issues with an environmental justice angle than pure wilderness and wildlife issues of the past. But as the signs festooning West Virginia and western Pennsylvania lambasting Obama’s “War on Coal” suggest, there can often still be severe cultural suspicion from workers toward environmentalists.

As Kahle points out, the shift in the UMWA away from an ecological agenda had much to do with industry slashing jobs, which is another huge reason for the difficulty of making these alliances last. The corporate-state assault on unions, especially in the private sector, means that workers are extremely nervous about supporting anything that might endanger their jobs and in that fear are easily manipulated by the lies of their employers about environmental protection or even workplace safety. It is when workers have some sort of employment and economic stability that they have been most open to green programs. And that’s very hard in the 21st century American economy with the global race to the bottom and aggressive anti-union tactics undermining good jobs.

As for an ecosocialist agenda, well, I obviously support that, even if it remains fairly undefined. But given that Kahle is writing about refinery workers who labor in an industry contributing to climate change, I guess I need more detail on what role refinery workers can play if the goal is to switch to a green economy without fossil fuels. Obviously supporting solar and wind energy jobs as union jobs can be a piece of that but if the ideal is closing the refineries, I’m not sure that’s going to be a great way to keep an alliance with refinery workers going.

Still, you have to try. What else is there? Any alliance between labor and greens over workplace safety is really positive and I hope this leads to more conversations and more common ground between the two movements. If there’s a picket line around you, go to it. If there’s a speaker around these issues, go hear the person.

The Law of Unintended Environmental Consequences, Part Gazillion

[ 7 ] February 18, 2015 |

Who could have guessed the promoting invasive species would have negative impacts?

It startled her. She jumped, let out a yelp, and took off down a hall. Wilde wasn’t running for her life; she was amazed by a discovery. She had uncovered a bacteria, one with a powerful toxin that attacked waterfowl, hiding on the underside of an aquatic leaf that grows nearly everywhere in the United States, including the Chesapeake Bay.

After 20 years of testing determined that the bacteria had never before been recorded, and the brain lesions it cause had never before been found before that night in 1994, Wilde recently gave her discovery a name: Aetokthonos hydrillicola. The Greek word means “eagle killer” for its ability to quickly kill the birds of prey. It’s the latest threat to a raptor that is starting to flourish after being removed from the endangered species list.

Across the South, near reservoirs full of invasive plants from Asia called hydrilla, eagles have been stricken by this bacteria, which goes straight to their brains. Eagles prey on American coots, which dine almost exclusively on hydrilla.

Before now, reservoirs that serve up a buffet of this plant were considered beneficial because they helped fuel the annual migration of coots from Canada to Florida and beyond, while also feeding eagles. But now the reservoirs are “death traps,” said Wilde, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia whose study of the topic was recently published in the journal Phytotaxa. In Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, coots, shorebirds, ducks and eagles are dying by the dozens from the incurable lesions.

“We’re attracting them to places where they’re going to die, and that’s not a good thing,” Wilde said.

I’m sure Republicans will be quite favorably to relisting the bald eagle under the Endangered Species Act so I feel great that this will turn out well.

Environmental Policy History Reading List

[ 28 ] January 22, 2015 |

I received a request for a list of environmental policy/history books. I make no claims to being an authoritative source here and others will have different books, but here are 10 books on the history of environmental policy I find useful. I am thinking of these terms broadly as well. In no order:

1. Samuel Hays, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945.
Pretty self-explanatory, good overview of the issue from the dean of environmental policy history.

2. James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964
An excellent recent overview of wilderness politics after the Wilderness Act.

3. Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History
How did we become a car-centric society and what are its environmental implications?

4. Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-80.
Who has access to clean nature and who does not? Guess what–it’s about race.

5. Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation
What were the politics and actions behind the creation of hunting law and national parks?

6. Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES
A key book about the science and policy behind synthetic chemicals and women’s bodies

7. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West
Water policy, which we must understand to talk about the West.

8. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
How policymakers and industry completely reshaped a river and its ecosystem.

9. Joseph Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis
Fisheries policy and its many mistakes is hugely important for environmental policy

10. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic.
A great piece of journalism rather than a history but it holds up as an indictment of the abject failure of the Reagan Administration during the greatest public health crisis of the second half of the 20th century.

I find this list slightly dated, which surprises me since I keep up on the historiography pretty well. It’s also I should note quite different than what I think the best books of environmental history are, although these are all good. Strictly thinking about policy.

I have no doubt there will be many great recommendations in comments as well, including books I probably just forgot.

Should Nature Receive Legal Standing?

[ 27 ] January 20, 2015 |

Such is the question offered by environmental historian Adam Sowards. Based around a 1972 William O. Douglas dissent saying that nature should have legal standing in environmental cases, as opposed to the interests of the members of environmental organizations (for instance).

And so it seems unlikely, at least for now, that Douglas’ vision of nature as an entity with the right to sue will manifest in our courts. But does that matter? It depends on your criteria. The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Sierra Club v. Morton helped establish standing for environmental organizations, thus facilitating environmental litigation. The court’s opinion did not extend that right to natural objects, but Douglas’ dissent nudged the courts toward recognizing nature’s rights. This perspective pointed the way, according to legal scholar Christopher Stone, toward a new “level of consciousness” for the courts.

And so the debate about nature’s standing then becomes a broader philosophical debate about law and what it can and can’t, or should or shouldn’t, do. Law is not intended to transform levels of consciousness or morality; it is a pragmatic discipline. As a practical matter, extending standing to natural objects may simply be unnecessary.

As a moral matter, however, the failure to acknowledge nature’s rights frustrates legal and environmental activists and surely would have disappointed (though not surprised) Douglas, who retired from the Supreme Court in 1975, after a debilitating stroke, and died five years later.

Today, global climate change, biodiversity losses and habitat fragmentation are creating unprecedented social and ecological problems. Environmental crises require serious changes in governance and legal systems and, arguably, in morality. When organizations such as the Earth Law Center work to “advance legal rights for ecosystems to exist, thrive and evolve,” or when Ecuador declares in its 2008 Constitution that nature “has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes,” they are paying homage to Douglas’ -vision and implementing it in governing structures where law and morality may intersect.

Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much. After all, it’s not all that hard to establish that people have an interest in a sound or untrammeled or (describe how you want) ecosystem. But the lack of nature itself having legal standing does suggest how society prioritizes not only humans over other creatures but also development over the interests of the creatures displaced or destroyed by that development.

Interesting thought piece at least.

Everything in the Oceans Is Dying

[ 13 ] January 16, 2015 |

Today’s installment of this continuing series:

A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them.

“We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

But there is still time to avert catastrophe, Dr. McCauley and his colleagues also found. Compared with the continents, the oceans are mostly intact, still wild enough to bounce back to ecological health.

Yes, it’s climate change and changing those behaviors, well, that ain’t going to happen. But it’s also the industrialization of the oceans:

Fragile ecosystems like mangroves are being replaced by fish farms, which are projected to provide most of the fish we consume within 20 years. Bottom trawlers scraping large nets across the sea floor have already affected 20 million square miles of ocean, turning parts of the continental shelf to rubble. Whales may no longer be widely hunted, the analysis noted, but they are now colliding more often as the number of container ships rises.

Mining operations, too, are poised to transform the ocean. Contracts for seabed mining now cover 460,000 square miles underwater, the researchers found, up from zero in 2000. Seabed mining has the potential to tear up unique ecosystems and introduce pollution into the deep sea.

The oceans are so vast that their ecosystems may seem impervious to change. But Dr. McClenachan warned that the fossil record shows that global disasters have wrecked the seas before. “Marine species are not immune to extinction on a large scale,” she said.

The oceans are the ultimate in out of sight industrial production because the only people who can get down to see them are those with special equipment. Even those who live on the shore can’t see more than a few inches below the surface. But the companies know what’s down there and they will extract it all, leaving the oceans a giant jellyfish desert.

Book Review: H.H. Shugart, Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

[ 5 ] December 28, 2014 |

H.H. Shugart, a systems ecologist at the University of Virginia, has written a book using the Book of Job to frame both environmental change over the long period of human history and how we are transforming the planet’s ecology today. Shugart’s major goal is to bring the insights of religious studies to those of science to create a conversation between scholars of religion and scientists. While I’m not totally convinced there is a particularly useful conversation to have there, Shugart has written a very good book explaining both short and long-term ecological change in plain language while placing it all within a valuable historical context.

The Book of Job is well-known, even among the non-religious, for its story of the plight of a good man who God decides to test by taking everything from him. Shugart points out that this story is actually pre-Biblical, probably adapted from earlier religions to the Jewish context. Some of the Book of Job is God speaking to Job through a whirlwind, asserting his superiority to Job through challenging him on the knowledge of the world. Shugart takes a couple of verses from the whirlwind speech to frame each of his chapters explaining global ecological change over the history of humans.

Take for example Chapter 4, which explores how humans have affected species distribution around the globe, from extinctions to intentional introductions of animals that become pests. Shugart starts the chapter with three verses from Job 39:

Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe for its home, the salt land for its dwelling place It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver.

The ass of the Book of Job was the onager, a now nearly extinct oversized donkey of the Near East. Shugart explores the archaeological evidence on the animals, showing Syrian paintings of onager-drawn chariots from 3000-2800 BCE to demonstrate they were probably domesticated. But the onager exists only in tiny populations today. The horse, an animal originating in modern-day Kazakhstan, replaced it after what seems to have been a genetic mutation leading to its ability to be bred in captivity and its rapid expansion by 2000 BCE. Onagers began to disappear from Sumerian writings around the same time. Today, most of the prehistoric horse-like creatures are either critically endangered, in decline, or already extinct. This was a choice by humans to favor the horse and humans are the ultimate keystone species, controlling the ecosystem in which they live. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, humans have done this for thousands of years. From rabbits in Australia to starlings in the United States, humans have spread species around in order to fulfill their aesthetic desires, creating major transformations in the animal world and ecology at large. If God asked Job “who has set the wild ass free,” Shugart finds similar questions in “who has set the starling free” in New York or “who has set the smallpox free” in Native America after 1492. Whether done by God or humans, rapid ecological change can certainly have such radical and rapid transformation as to make one thing the gods have turned against you. And more broadly, people are transforming a planet they do not understand.

Shugart supplies similar histories and insights to issues including bird migration, winds, climate change, and oceans. Each of these things have long been observed by humans and most if not all civilizations have attempted to understand them. Like people through history, Polynesians attempted to understand the stars, eventually developing navigation systems based around this. They used their ability to read the stars in order to spread across the Pacific. In doing so, they brought new animals to places that created widespread extinction and transforming the plant ecology of the region. Understanding the planet does not just have long-term or deep time implications, but helped shape recent history as well. Both the English and Germans were developing tide prediction machines in the early twentieth century that influenced World War II. Rommel was so certain that he had prevented an Allied invasion in June 1944 because of his understanding of tides that he was in Berlin celebrating his wife’s birthday when it began, dates decided in large part by Eisenhower because Rommel’s tidal defenses meant the Allies needed a low tide with a late rising moon.

In thinking about weather, Shugart notes “It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence.” Peoples throughout history have indeed tried to influence the weather and continue to do so today as we try to figure out ways to deal with climate change. In doing so, he provides succinct descriptions of both historical attempts to control the weather (including Congress actually funding some theory that the battles of the Civil War led to more rain) and the science behind attempting to mitigate climate change today. This is useful stuff, not so much for the specialist or even the religious person interested in environmental issues, but rather its greatest value lies in effectively explaining historical ecological change to a lay audience.

This review has largely focused on some of the scientific and ecological discussion rather than the religious side of proceedings, which often get left behind outside the introduction and conclusion to the chapters. I think it is an open question whether the insights of religion really have that much to say to scientists. Is it useful for scientists to understand that their attempts to understand the world have a long history? Sure. I’m not sure what they then do with that however. Perhaps they could reach out more to religious leaders over issues of wildlife protection and climate change to tap into those theological histories, but then we also know that Christian churches in the United States are going to have a, well, varied perspective on these issues as well. In the Book of Job, God knows that humans don’t understand the world. Humans have acted upon the world without understanding it, despite their attempts to do so. As Shugart says, “We must find better answers than we have. Our future depends on it (255).” This is undoubtedly true. Whether religion can help us answer those questions remains debatable, but Foundations of the Earth is at the very least a good primer to the long history of global ecological change.

The Nicaragua Canal

[ 105 ] December 24, 2014 |

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Nicaragua Canal is not an environmental disaster, not to mention horrible for the people, largely indigenous, who will be displaced because of it. But the combination of China looking to check U.S. power and a Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega, who has every reason to stick a thumb in the eye of the U.S., means this is finally happening after being talked about for more than a century. I confess being a bit skeptical that this is going to succeed in the end and if it does, the consequences on the environment will be pretty significant. But it’s definitely fascinating to watch.

Book Review: Hecht, Morrison, and Padoch, eds. The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence

[ 2 ] December 14, 2014 |

For those interested in environmentalism, the dominant narrative of the state of the forests is one of decline and collapse in the face of industrial development. While wilderness protection was won for some American forests in the second half of the twentieth century, around the world, the decline of the rainforest in the wake of logging, ranching, and slash-and-burn farming makes first world environmentalists fear for the planet’s future. In this narrative, forests are largely seen as the victims of humans, despoiled wildernesses that properly should not be centers of human economic activity.

The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence, edited by Susanna Hecht, Kathleen Morrison, and Christine Padoch,
pushes back against this narrative by focusing on forest economies and forest history to argue for a more complex examination of human interactions with the forests. Largely examining tropical forests, the twenty-eight essays that make up this collection situates forests within communities, stressing the necessity of nuanced understandings of their role in regional economies if we want to have a realistic shot of not letting them all go under the saws of industrial logging.

Behind the ways we think about forests is that poor people have an outright negative impact upon them. James Fairhead and Melissa Leach analyze how social scientists have talked about environmental degradation in west African forests to note that scholars see the landscape as degraded. But actually examining the historical advance of vegetation shows this is categorically not true. Using historical photographs and narratives going back to the eighteenth century, they show there is no discernible difference in the level of vegetation for much of the area. Similarly, while the Sahel is often portrayed as encroaching desert because of human activity, Chris Reij argues that Niger especially has actually re-greened the area to a significant extent, with a significant national gain in tree cover over the last twenty years.

Historians have noted how the creation of wilderness has often led to the expulsion of people’s traditional use of that land. That continues today in the developing world. Among many problems with this is that it creates resentment toward those forests and the animals within them. Without a strong government presence, these colonialist parks can’t be properly guarded and thus can actually be counterproductive in the long-term for environmentalist goals. Moreover, while in Europe, as Roderick Neumann states in his essay, has long seen biodiversity woven into history and culture, these very Europeans are conceiving of tropical biodiversity as completely separate from human history and culture.

Several essays discuss the human history and anthropology of tropical forests. Rather than be seen as untrammeled wilderness, it’s important that we understand these forests have long had human involvement. The essay by Heckenberger, et al., shows the “massive forest alterations” people created in the pre-Columbian Amazon, with earthworks, roads, and artificial ponds still observable. David Lentz and Brian Lane explore the long-term effects of an early Mayan site on the forests of Belize today, where trees of economic importance to the Maya are still more common than usual in areas of former population centers than the forest as a whole. Are these forests wilderness today? Does the term even have value? Should the nature/culture divide be broken down? The overarching theme of these essays is yes on the latter question.

When we do think of tropical forests and industrial production, John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfector remind us that most of these forests are fragmented, not fully deforested, which makes a significant difference in how we perceive of environmental problems and solutions. If we see everything through a lost Eden declension narrative, the will to solve problems with the forests that remain become much more difficult. And when people leave the forests to move to cities, they often still rely on the forest for their livelihood, an important issue for crafting forest policy according to Padoch, et al in their essay on the people and forests around Pucallpa, Peru. And in fact, people will need to make a living off the forest and do in creative ways, including minority populations in the uplands of Southeast Asia producing forest tea that they can and do market in a sophisticated manner to discerning rich consumers. Commercialized agricultural is also transforming many forests, including the Laos uplands as Yayoi Fujita Lagerquvist details. This has led to a lot of landscape degradation but understanding the choices farmers have made are important for governments to craft more environmentally and socially responsible policies.

Are there lessons we can learn from these essays for forest management here in the United States? Only one of the twenty-eight chapters discusses the U.S., but I think it’s useful to explore it. Peter Crane, et al write about the “Chicago Wilderness,” or the biodiversity hotspot that surrounds Chicago. Of course, not much of that is in anything close to a pristine state and even the open spaces are often overrun with invasive species. Yet managing those open spaces for both biodiversity and human enjoyment has great potential to bring people and the forest together for a lot of people who can’t make it to the great wilderness areas of the West. That’s what is happening in Chicago by organizations bringing volunteers and children into the wilderness for rehabilitation projects and education efforts. This is also why I like a lot of what The Nature Conservancy does. That organization is I think often unfairly maligned for the compromises it makes with corporations but it goes a long ways to preserve small spots, often near urban areas, that do a lot to promote biodiversity and help urban dwellers engage with the natural world.

To quote Hecht: “As forests become increasingly pivotal in global climate politics, understanding the dynamics of forest transitions, successions, and their social underpinnings—the social lives of forests—is a critical step for whatever resilience we might hope for in the maelstrom of twenty-first century climate change” (113). This sums up the book’s social purpose. If we see forests as “lost” whenever humans work in them, what we lose is the ability to marshal the resources we have to deal with global environmental problems while also giving local people a chance to live.

The Social Lives of Forests
is probably too technical for general readers. The essays range from fairly detailed short histories of forests to heavily data-driven articles. But for those concerned with the long-term sustainability of the global environment, the insights in these essays are very useful.

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