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24.5.06

Nature Is Not Wise, But We Are Foolish

One of the most common themes in environmentalism is the need for humans to be humble in their actions that impact nature. This is an important principle. But I'm not entirely happy with the way it's usually framed.

The most common way of articulating the need for ecolgical humility -- as seen, for example, on Dave Pollard's blog, or in Hugo Schwyzer's interpretation of Chris Clarke's squirrel poem -- is to refer to the Earth's wisdom. Gaia is smarter than us, they say, so we need to defer to her judgment about what should happen in nature. There's an obvious appeal to having a higher and wiser authority to look to for guidance, and it avoids directly knocking what wisdom we humans do have.

I would rather frame it the opposite way -- it's not that nature is wise, but that humans are foolish. We simply don't -- and in many cases can't -- understand all the ramifications of the things we do. The idea of human foolishness rejects such hubristic projects as the Three Gorges Dam, importing Canada's rivers to the US southwest, or correcting global warming through massive eutrophication of the oceans.

But on the other hand, the idea of human foolishness does not require us to hold an elevated and unjustified ideal of nature. Nature is in a constant state of crisis and readjustment, plowing forward on the basis of what works for the moment, not what's good in the long run. Nature doesn't have wisdom, it just has routines that have not (yet) self-destructed or been destructed by others. It's not a process that we should ever expect to tame or direct -- but it's also not one whose dictates need be respected in any particular case.

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