Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Who owns "nature"?


The heat wave continues. I don't want to whine about the weather, but to tell the truth, I've been pretty miserable. I haven't been birding. Heck, I've hardly even been outside.

Today's round up of birds: crows, wood ducks, robins, cardinals, mourning doves, house sparrows, common nighthawks.

Instead of birding, I have been attempting to teach my new dog, Raven, that she is not allowed to chew on: houseplants; furniture; electrical cords; books; my mouse (the one that goes with my laptop, that is; I am currently rodent-free). Since she wants to chew on everything, this is a bit of a challenge. Also, I've been reading more of The Nature Principle by Richard Louv, mostly during my breaks at work.

Since I haven't been birding, this post is more musings and ramblings -- if that's not your thing, feel free to skip this one. Hopefully I'll have some more wacky birding adventures to share over the weekend, with my birding buddy Sunwiggy, no less!

In my last post, I was a little critical of Louv for romanticizing nature and being a bit too fuzzy in his definitions, but overall it is an interesting book, and I keep running into some intriguing ideas (and references for further reading).

Something that captured my attention today was a discussion of whether or not we have a "right" to walk in the woods--or, I would paraphrase, if access to natural areas should be made available to everyone who wants them.

Louv points out a couple of objections to this idea, such as the fact that acute human suffering (abused children, etc.) should take precedence over the "right" to walk in the woods, or that people are already feel too entitled (thinking they have a "right" to absolutely everything.)But, considering how salutary exposure to nature can be for a variety of human ills, shouldn't access be freely available to all as a matter of course?

Another interesting topic that he brought up are different philosophies of those who try to preserve (and create more) natural spaces, often categorized as "conservationists" (those who wish to preserve nature for responsible human use, such as hunting or hiking) and "environmentalists" (those who wish to preserve nature for its own sake, often in an attempt to protect it from humans). Although he admits that these categories are over-simplifications, I would say that Louv comes across as a "conservationist," especially as his prior book, The Last Child in the Woods, occasionally criticized "environmentalists" for wishing to restrict use of natural habitats (such as not allowing children to build forts or dam up creeks).

Our wonderful park system -- on national, state and city levels -- has certainly done a lot to maintain green spaces that the public can use, and I admire the visionaries behind all these (John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt being just two of them); but as population grows, sprawl spreads across the land, and "development" ruins more and more ecosystems, obviously we will need to create even more natural spaces. A lot of these will need to be woven through the cities and suburbs, as Louv envisions, although this will supplement, not replace, more wilderness-type environments.

Unfortunately (and so far Louv has not addressed this much, focusing more on hopeful visionaries of change than the dismal status quo), the current political and economic climate is not very friendly to green spaces. In fact, I would say that a lot of public discourse on the matter (both from public figures and comments found from average readers across the Internet) is very disdainful of preserving, let alone expanding, natural areas. Sometimes this is clearly stated for the reason that maximum profits cannot be reached by conservation, and maximum profits are, of course, the raison d'etre of society--I like to paraphrase something that Derrick Jensen wrote--we are not a democracy, but a theocracy; and our god is money. (I am understating my feelings considerably here; any justification for "tar sands mining" or mountaintop removal mining, for example, makes me froth at the mouth.)

So a lot of people are obviously completely unaware that they might need nature, and this presents a challenge to many of Louv's ideas. Especially the "right" to walk in the woods. Some countries (such as the Scandinavian ones, from what I've read) already acknowledge this right, allowing all people to walk freely in the woods. As I understand it, Britain also has several ancient "right of ways" where anyone can walk; and here in the USA, all beaches in Hawaii (except for those controlled by the military) are free for all to enjoy unhindered. I don't anticipate this idea to spread across the United States any time soon, however.

My personal reaction is: yes, there should be parks and green spaces available to everyone; but I also see some complications here. One is that private property must be respected, and a lot of nature preserves (here in Illinois, anyway) are actually privately owned, such as the Parklands' Foundation Merwin Preserve in McLean County, Hennepin-Hopper Lakes (owned by the Wetlands Initiative) in Putnum County; and Nature Conservancy preserves across the state.

These areas are, by and large, open to the public -- for which I thank them! -- but they have a right to set some ground rules. For example, Parklands does not allow dogs, so I will not be trying to walk my dogs there; I respect that this is their preserve and I am a guest.

There are also many conflicts between how people wish to enjoy their natural spaces. Some want a quiet place to bird or look for plants, or just soak up the quiet; some want to drive ATVs through it; some want to let their kids build forts and dam up streams. My opinion: unless it's your personal property, you don't necessarily have the "right" to do what you want. You have to respect the wishes of the owner--and those wishes might be, keep out! (Especially in our litigious society--if I had a lot of land, I would not want people roaming uninvited for a variety of reasons, the specter of frivolous lawsuits being just one.) And I have read a few accounts of some individuals becoming down-right belligerent (even to the point of death threats) over their "right" to enjoy a space the way they want (such as motor boats in an area protected for manatees in Florida, as just one example).

Sadly, differing interests often create conflicts. What if I want to enjoy the bird song, and you want to ride your ATV? I think it is absolutely reasonable to designate different areas for different uses...and that must then be respected if the system is going to work. Also, with "rights" comes "responsibilities"--sometimes we have to admit that our own personal enjoyment cannot take precedence over the greater good. (Although the phrase "the greater good" always makes me think of the murderous villagers in the movie Hot Fuzz...anybody else enjoy that style of dark humor?)

Sometimes, I do believe that the welfare of fragile ecosystems and the animals and birds they harbor has to take precedence over my desire to walk in that particular woods. If a rare bird is nesting there, and my presence will disturb it, why do I need to walk that particular trail? There are other places I could go, but few other places for the bird. Doesn't it have a "right" to exist? Coming down firmly in the "environmentalist" camp, I say YES! And that right trumps my right to stroll through its habitat. Another controversial idea.

Another problem is stewardship, or maybe I just mean citizenship. Many places that could be quite nice are unsafe because of local crime (some parks in Chicago, for example), or the people who use them throw trash everywhere, or create problems for others. I have had belongings stolen in a state park here in central Illinois while I was camping, for example. Or in northern California some parks are used by marijuana growers for their illegal crops. Until society becomes more civil, conflicts will continue.

Finally, I would sum up my reaction by saying that although there should be green spaces and parks available to everyone, sometimes restricting use for the good of "nature" is the right thing to do. And since truly we humans are a part of nature, there really isn't a conflict there. What's good for "nature" is good for us to, even if we don't understand that yet.

Any other opinions are welcome, as always (as long as respectful, of course). This is a huge topic and I know I've barely skimmed the surface of it.

1 comment:

  1. This IS a huge topic! I respect that everyone enjoys nature in his own way...I bird, my neighbor loves his ATV, some of my coworkers seem to live to hunt and fish. We all need "habitat" for our particular pleasures; even selfishly we all want healthy forests and clean water. One thing that baffles me is how completely ignorant a lot of my coworkers are about nature and natural things. Such as birds, how can someone not know what a starling or a turkey vulture looks like? In the UP? Can you love it, can you care, if you don't even know its name? Mom

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