The Anthropocene Bookshelf: Reinventing Nature?

Anchorage 5/1/16 – I pulled out a golden oldie from 1996 and found it resonated with the subject. Michael Soule and Gary Lease’s “Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction” came out of one of those Humanities events where scholars talk about landscape and literature. And back in those years, these professors were much into the issue of privilege as revealed by deconstruction thinking. It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as sophistry and it can certainly turn boring and meaningless in a heartbeart yet keep droning on endlessly. But my point of view back 20 years ago was angry. I found it not only boring, but dangerous and pernicious, because it bordered on solipsism. I consider it serious business when young minds are contaminated with such delusions.

This book I found interesting back then because it tried to find a way not to slide down that slippery slope from “some things are relative,” to “everything is relative,” to “everything only exists in your own head.” I have seen people – very smart people – fall for this. Elsewhere I have referred to such a risk as ” that country of the mind just past the Hegelian swamps. It’s hard to find the channel through the shallows and avoid the reefs of solipsism, then the deep currents of mysticism can drown you.”

The scholars in the book try to navigate such an epistemological channel – a daunting prospect in 1996, when postmodern babble was flying high on campus. If you want evidence of how bad it was, just try to make your way through any issue of PMLA (the publication of the Modern Language Association) from the era. Everything was a “text,” and only to be discussed as “text,” not as something that existed. Not that such postmodern babble isn’t flying almost that high today, what with safe spaces and trigger warnings and so forth. But I’m not here to rant about political correctitude. I’m just saying it took some courage for Soule and Lease to put forth contrary ideas.

At issue in this book are two relativities, both of which can lead to solipsism – that of the culture of science, and of the culture of public lands management, more specifically wilderness. Much is now being written about both, but not often in the same book.

Science does have a culture, the postmoderns were right about that, and that culture can lead to absurd blooms of hubris, such as Skinner’s behavioral psychology, which contended that only the measurable should constitute that science, hence the mind does not exist, and all that needs to be known in psychology can be ascertained from behavior, because that can be measured. Or technocracy, which contends that the experts always know best and are best trusted with the power to enforce their decisions. This brought us ideas such as using nuclear reactions to turn electrical turbines and mechanized, irrigated monoculture food production, and continues to advocate for changing the genetic compositions of crops so that they will better suit changing environmental conditions.

Well, why, pray tell, did the environmental conditions change in the first place? (salt residues from irrigation, pestilence encouraged by monoculture, drought due to weather pattern alterations caused by albedo loss, overgrazing due to bad land use policies, etc.) Yes, the argument for technocracy has now reached the point where the experts want the power to address the consequences of what they themselves did. That’s the sorcerer’s apprentice right there. And not the answer.

But just because the very worst kind of science is flawed, does that mean it has no value whatsoever? Of course not. Yet the deconstructionists dared to put that case forward, and they quickly gained allies from those who had axes to grind against science – those who do not enjoy its privileges.

We have to get over this nonsense. There is work to be done. Two years after the book found Soule busy with Earth First founder David Foreman, introducing large turtles at Ted Turner’s ranch in Texas, and campaigning for the “radical rewilding” strategy of re-introducing large ungulates and predators on the North American continent. This sort of activism is scornfully condemned by E.O. Wilson as “Anthropocene enthusiasm,” yet the reality is that millions are being spent trying to maintain public lands in states they can no longer support and no public dollars at all go to enterprises like like those Soule and the rest of them want to try. Just try.

Ella Marrs’ well-researched 2011 “Rambunctious Garden ” gets us a little caught up on these issues. It’s happening anyway. Instructive is her account of the guerilla gardeners who have taken it upon themselves to migrate the Torreya Taxifolia evergreens northwards from the refugium along the Alabama-Florida border where they have been trapped since the Ice Age. Also instructive is Michael Hobbs’ account in “Beyond Naturalness”(2010) of a species of mouse that arrived on sub-antarctic Gough Island a century and a half ago that has somehow evolved in that short time to five times its body mass and switched prey from insects to small birds. That’s not the sort of natural selection we learned from Darwin.

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