Coming to Terms

Our names for people who respect the environment should be as varied as the ways we see it

Dominique Voynet, 2008
Dominique Voynet, 2008 Wikimedia Commons

Fifty-five years ago, when I was happily tracking mice in the newly fallen snow and pasting wildlife stamps into paper albums, there was no doubt in my mind as to what I was. Clearly I was a conservationist, someone who believed the natural world was endlessly fascinating and beautiful, and that therefore as much of it as possible should be saved. You'd think people who want to conserve would be called conservatives or something of the sort, but that's not how it works. Moreover, few people I know refer to themselves as conservationists anymore. Today anyone who cares about any aspect of the "natural world" is called an environmentalist or, in Euro jargon, an enviro.

In what I understood to be its original definition, a conservationist was a reasonable person, one who understood and agreed with Gifford Pinchot, who was the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Yes, we would save some of nature, but we would also extract some of nature's wealth, whether it be timber, minerals, fish and game, or even salt hay. The passionate few, who wanted nature just plain saved wherever possible, guarded against any and all kinds of human interference, were known as preservationists. That has always been an extreme position, one often resented even by conservationists. (A few years before her death, I suggested to my mother — a lifelong conservationist, not to mention teacher of natural history — that a certain tract of land should be preserved to the extent of prohibiting all human intrusion. "You mean just let it rot?!" she protested.)

When the term "environmentalist" became popular, I understood it to denote people who were concerned about the physical environment, the pollution of our air and water. They could be found in small boats at night, taking samples of what a factory was dumping into a river, or in legislative hallways or courtrooms by day, where they pushed the passage, and then enforcement, of laws that would protect our health. They might never be found in the places conservationists were found, nature preserves and tidal flats, exploring stream valleys or tree lines. And they might not care very much at all about the demise of dusky seaside sparrows or California gnatcatchers.

All of us are environmentalists, in the sense that we would just as soon have clean air and water. A lot of us are conservationists, as witness the millions who belong to one or more of the "Big 10" conservation groups: the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the rest. Not a few of us are out-and-out preservationists, although nowadays we go by different names. (One, unfortunately, is "tree hugger.") Metaphorically speaking, our instinct is to build fences around whatever is left. The smallest loss hurts: the sight of bulldozers tearing out the young trees and all the understory on a last vacant lot in an otherwise completely developed section of a suburb is surprisingly painful.

A hard-eyed realist might argue that nothing "natural" remains anywhere in the world, so there's no use mourning what no longer is. It's certainly true that nature "ain't what she used to be." The most remote parts of the American backcountry teem with organisms from other lands: salt cedar and Russian olive, common reed and purple loosestrife. Rivers that once ran clear are now not all that far from being slurries; some rivers no longer flow at all. When I go walking in rural Virginia, where solid hardwood forest once stood, I have to push through tree of heaven and around the multiflora rose, and carry clippers to chop futilely at the Japanese honeysuckle that is trying to strangle everything in sight. The air itself brings oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, ionizing radiation, a mist of particles too fine to see, unburned jet fuel and all manner of effluvia.

In the long, long view, however, everything is natural. Leave aside the valid argument that human beings are part of nature and therefore everything we do is natural. The changes wrought by the ice ages, coming and going, were natural. The apocalyptic changes that occurred, apparently when an asteroid hit Earth, were natural. The first appearance of photosynthesizing organisms, which exuded oxygen, a gas poisonous to all then living creatures, was catastrophic, but it was natural. The eruption of so much carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos in Cameroon that people and animals around it died for lack of oxygen was natural, as was the bringing together by flowing water of enough of the right kind of uranium to start a nuclear chain reaction 1.75 billion years ago in what is now Gabon. If it's natural that continents break up and drift apart, surely it's natural that airplanes and ships should inadvertently carry living things from one continent to another, and hobbyists and collectors consciously move them from one to another. Does it matter that starlings and the invasive mile-a-minute vine were not here when the first Europeans arrived?

What unites river keepers, protesters in treetops, middle-aged birders, children discovering aquatic invertebrates, tropical biologists, environmental lawyers and toddlers stumbling after butterflies is not mystical worship of pristine ecosystems but a respect, even a reverence, for life. I don't mean a fanatical respect. (I remember well the times, not all that many years ago, when it seemed I was spending more for cockroach bombs than I was spending for food each week. And even though I'm goofy about dogs, I'm very happy that cardiac surgeons first learned their coronary bypass skills operating on dogs rather than people.) The kind of respect for life I'm driving at does go beyond any potential usefulness to ourselves, however. We've all heard about the medicines expected to be discovered in as yet unknown living organisms. The potential is very real. But there's more to it than that. The natural world has been described as our life-support system, harking back to the metaphor of Earth as spaceship. Last year Robert Costanza of the University of Maryland and his coauthors tried something that a recent briefing in the British journal Nature said has been described as both "heroic" and "foolhardy." They tried to put a dollar value on all the services the natural world provides us: water filtering and storage, flood mitigation, pest control, soil generation, air filtering, plant pollination, oxygen production, and on and on. (Their result: $33 trillion a year, more than the combined gross national products of all the countries in the world.)

Mainstream economists largely dismissed the paper, according to Nature, on the grounds that Costanza and his group didn't properly understand what they were doing. But some thought that even if the attempt was flawed, it was still useful. Trudy Cameron, of the University of California, Los Angeles, called it "a recklessly heroic attempt to do something that's futile." She went on to say, however, that the paper has been "very useful — it has stirred things up a lot." Dollars aside, we must recognize the value to science of each and every living thing on the planet, the loss of which is like the loss of a volume from an encyclopedia.

I'm thinking more of a respect for life for its own sake, whether it be a hovering dragonfly or the intricate orange flower of the jewelweed plant. I'm thinking of the perfection of a white caterpillar crawling along the ground, or a roseate spoonbill feeding or a dolphin leaping. I'm thinking of the biologist E. O. Wilson writing, in Biophilia, "...mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions."

An invisible army of men and women have devoted their lives to studying our fellow organisms and, it is safe to say, developed a respect for them, grudging or otherwise. The umbrella term "field biologist" seems inadequate. A quick glance through the directory of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History produces botanists of all sorts, as well as entomologists, mammalogists, ornithologists, herpetologists, microbiologists, ichthyologists and more. There are field biologists working in all levels of government and for any number of conservation organizations as well as profit-making companies. Most, needless to say, are not in it for the money. Some are ever so slowly creating a new discipline, called conservation biology, complete with journals and meetings devoted to exactly what the name implies. We don't yet have a word for people who stay out of the woods altogether, so that they won't trample seedlings underfoot. (The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who first coined the phrase "deep ecology," is supposed to have had such misgivings.) We don't have a word for the person who joins no organization, sends no money, attends no public meetings, but from time to time picks up knapsack and canteen and spends a day or a week soaking up the world of woods or desert or estuary.

To use the word "enviro" to label anyone who has respect for all forms of life is to embrace a poverty of language that we don't have to tolerate. My old taxonomy of preservationist, conservationist and environmentalist is just about as pauperized. What we need is a new field guide, complete with distinguishing characteristics, so we'll be able to name all the ways of looking at a very complicated world. Then at least we'll know who we're talking about.

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