Understanding Ourselves Through the Land

It is often said that it is since Darwin that we know of our natural history. This is unconvincing, because countless cultures before ours knew very well that they were related to animals and that they were, first and foremost, members of a wider biotic community; they simply did not have testable hypotheses as to the precise nature of human animal membership. What Darwin has given Western cultures, besides the theory of evolution itself, is a culture-specific impossibility of denying that we are naked apes of a special kind.

The lack of excuses available to human essentialism has not made it any less rampant. It is extraordinary that, as a species as well as individuals, we routinely conduct our lives as if we do not know that we are members of a natural world. We think of other animals as part and parcel of their environment, but fail to apply the same thought to humans: the human being appears to the human being as an abstraction. We overestimate the primacy of the built environment (this is one way of maintaining the human as abstraction), as if cities and offices and homes and railways could exist outside of natural processes that sustain and feed them. If we were to treat other animals like we treat ourselves, zoos would present animals suspended in mid-air. Instead, they go to great length to simulate ‘natural environments’, so as to conform to people’s correct expectation that the animal is part of a world. What would it mean to think of ourselves as also part of this natural world?

I am fascinated by this question and am currently trying different avenues for answering it. Something must be clarified straight away: the question is not meant in an individualist sense. There are plenty of individual people that think of themselves as part of a world, and try to live accordingly. That’s fine, but not enough. The question is meant politically. It is as a collective being, as a species, that we live as if suspended above the surface of the earth, and it is through policy that people that might privately feel part of the natural world end up acting in alienating and destructive ways. It is through policy and through a political and social program that we can make individual people’s ecological affinity pay off and spread.

What would it mean to collectively live like the self-reflective species that we are? Many things, to be sure, but one aspect in particular I think is worth pausing on: the promotion of ecological restoration as a political and social project. Right now, restoration projects – that is, attempts to redress environmental harm by trying to recreate previously prevailing conditions – are done in a piecemeal fashion. One organization here, another there, each with its own agenda and each insisting on its particular way of doing restoration. For example, a big practitioner and academic controversy is about whether restorations should be held to a strict baseline (the ‘previously’ in the above definition), or left free-floating. In this latter sense, can we even speak of restoration at all? Though interesting in their own right, these debates distract from the wider issue of the potential of restoration in some form to be a political vision.

Looking at restoration from a political perspective, I am tempted to say that what matters is not exactly which kinds of environments are created where, but rather that we engage with the natural world in a restorative fashion. As William Jordan argued, restoration can be a paradigm for interacting with nature. So in some cases this can mean holding to strict baselines (this pasture shall be restored to the prairie it once was); in other cases, we can create new environments in current ecological desserts. The point is that, by engaging with the natural world in a restorative fashion, human beings can live up to their potential as beneficial members of a biotic community. And I think that more people than immediately apparent would be eager to restore their relationship to the natural world. So two things stand out here: restoration can be thought of as redressing a harm in the relationship with the natural world, and part of the point of doing so is to allow people to think themselves (and act as) beneficial to the environment.

For example, the Bronx River in New York has been under a restoration project for the past 10 years. There are several interesting things going on there. Using historical maps, the restoration project has been able to ascertain what used to be the ecology of the river. This is used as a general guideline, not as a strict baseline, because marshes will likely never return to their previous extent, and it might not be possible in light of climate change and technical limitations to restore exactly what was (also – what was when?). So instead of designing a technical restoration strictly tied to some essence of the river in year 1700, the project has involved community members – Bronx residents – in the cleanup and repopulation of the river with species. The Bronx River restoration is an example of a project that is only superficially tied to baselines. What it is really about is restoring the relationship between the community and the river. It is about remaking a biotic community.

Community organizer and activist Majora Carter speaks about the first step in this project: “I had to help folks in the neighborhood understand that […] there was a river here”. This is hardly surprising, as it reflects the ways in which human collective action detaches people from the land they inhabit. Throwing old TVs in the river is not conducive to seeing the river, or to seeing oneself as a member of a riparian community. But once the river becomes part of the local conscience, it can become embedded in systems of meaning that are also transformative for human self-perception. The participation of the local community is crucial in this effort, and shows the mutually reinforcing relationship between ecological and hermeneutical criteria: the more participants helped the river, the more they understood themselves as beneficial members of a community. The local volunteers speak about the fulfilling experience of participating in clean-up operations, plantings, or species release. Many had never been on any river before, let alone this famously polluted one. As one participant describes the restoration project, “this gave me an eight mile back yard”. This doesn’t mean that she is thinking about the river as her private property. Instead, she is living the river as a community asset, a place that is now filled with meaning, also because it has transformed her own self perception. The Bronx river is her back yard not because it moved closer to her physical home, but because its meaning as part of a biotic community that includes her has been restored. And this was achieved through collective action: community members are not mere recipients of a project. As she then continues: “this is pretty personal”.

This initiative is but one of the many scattered around the planet trying to do their bit. Now think about what it would mean if the state of New York dedicated a proper budget to sustaining restorative initiatives, and declared its ambition to restore biodiversity and a sense of belonging to the world by the year 2030. We have sustainable development goals, but we also need goals of meaningful belonging to this planet. And one way to achieve this kind of belonging – where people see themselves as animals that can do good, and therefore live well – is through a political project of restorative ecological practice. Why would I like to see this? So far restoration has mostly spoken about ecological reasons. But what I think recommends restoration as a vision, and not just as a tool, is that it can combine ecological gains (biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and so on) with gains in meaningfulness. By engaging with the natural world in a beneficial way, we can hope to restore the sense of meaningful belonging to the land that many before Darwin had. We might then buy less pets, build less zoos to paint in natural colors, and be more aware of the potential of a specifically human ecology. We can come to understand ourselves through the land, through the mark we live – a potentially beautiful signature.

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