Environmentalism’s Original Sin

James K. Boyce

In 2007 the National Audubon Society, one of the leading environmental organizations in the United States, issued a report headlined “Common Birds in Decline.” Based on statistical analysis of 40 years of bird population data, it announced “the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds.”

The story attracted wide press coverage. “Spreading suburbs and large-scale farming are contributing to a precipitous decline in once common meadow birds,” began a New York Times story. An accompanying editorial lamented, “We somehow trusted that all the innocent little birds were here to stay. What they actually need to survive, it turns out, is a landscape that is less intensely human.”  A letter to the editor predicted that the deadly pattern will continue “as long as we ask the earth to support too many people.”

Few commentators bothered to study the study itself. Had they done so, they might have noticed that among 309 bird species for which statistically meaningful trends could be established from data in two population surveys, birds showing a “large increase” exceeded those showing a “large decrease.” Forty-one species recorded a large increase in both surveys; only twelve saw a large decrease.

Looking at the data on individual species, reported in an appendix, readers would have found that one species registering a large increase was the bald eagle, until recently classified as endangered in the lower 48 states. The eagle’s numbers rebounded after the 1972 ban on use of the pesticide DDT. Another rapidly increasing species is the wild turkey, driven to extinction in many northeastern states more than a century ago by forest clearing for agriculture. It has returned as abandonment of farms led to forest regrowth. In both cases, the comebacks were actively abetted by private and governmental restoration initiatives.

Of the species that registered significant declines, many are birds of open habitats – meadows, pastures, and early successional forests – habitats that were created and sustained by farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries on lands that have now reverted to forest.

So the take-home messages from the Audubon study could have been:

  • more bird species in the United States are increasing in population than decreasing;
  • efforts to protect and restore threatened species have scored major successes; and
  • many of the species whose numbers are declining depend on human-created habitats that are disappearing.

The relationship between non-industrial agriculture and biodiversity is not unique to birds in the northeastern U.S. For example, in a recent study in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico, published in Global Environmental Change, University of Manitoba researchers James Robson and Fikret Berkes found that widespread abandonment of traditional milpa agriculture is leading to “localised declines in biodiversity, despite (or because of) extensive forest resurgence.”

The American writer Wallace Stegner once noted that when facts enter “the maw of that great machine that at once creates and obeys public opinion,” they often come out as something else. “Ideas,” he wrote, “are like dye thrown into moving water.”

A powerful current in American environmentalism maintains that Humans are Bad for Nature. It is a belief that took hold with the closing of the frontier in the late 19th century, but its roots can be traced to early European settlers’ misperception of North America as a pristine wilderness, and perhaps even further back to the Christian doctrine of “original sin.”

The mission of environmentalists, in this story, is to preach self-restraint in a valiant effort to curb our ecological footprint and limit our misdeeds so as to remain within Nature’s capacity for forgiveness.

Absent from this narrative are the ways that humans can and do have positive impacts on the environment. Call it our ecological handprint. It can be seen in the diverse habitats created and sustained by non-industrial agriculture. It can be seen in the co-evolutionary processes by which humans domesticated plants and animals, originating the species on which we depend today for most of our food. It can be seen in the ecological restoration that brought the return of the wild turkey and bald eagle.

Hellfire and brimstone may be effective for garnering media attention and procuring donations from the faithful and fearful. But original-sin environmentalism not only rests on a selective reading of our past. It also has led to a political dead end. When the choice is framed as Humans versus Nature, it turns out that most people will choose Humans. If environmentalism is to win the future, we must move beyond this false dichotomy.

6 Responses to “Environmentalism’s Original Sin”

  1. Bartosz B. says:

    I guess, I am an environmentalist, if you take the common definition. And as such, I give you my full agreement. While wanting to do good, many environmentalists show a tendency to exaggerate, ignore facts, oversimplify… This is understandable to some extent, though: given the complexity of most environmental problems, the only way to reach ordinary people is, sad as it may be, through black-and-white stories. If you try to explain them all the complexity (provided, you understand it yourself), most people will pick up the “easy”/”optimistic” parts that give them the feeling that nothing needs to be done.

    It is not to excuse all these oversimplifications, exaggerations etc. I am not engaging in this “business”. But maybe this is the reason why I am not really convincing for ordinary people.

  2. I fully agree with this.

    Today, more than ever, we need to realise that there is no nature separate from humans, all we do change nature much more than people understand, and have been doing it for millennia. I wrote:
    “While most ecologists classify the biomes (nature types or ecosystems) of the world largely as if they were not touched by humans, the truth is that humans now influence most parts of the world, even to the extent that some scientists speak about the Antropocene as a geological era; that we actually change both the geology and climate”
    in a recent blog post, http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/04/welcome-to-antropocene-and.html
    Other posts on similar themes are:

    The solution to our ecological crisis is to further develop the human nature in intelligent ways, something I promote in the book Garden Earth, http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/05/finally-satisfied-with-garden-earth.html

  3. Stephen Minkin says:

    An obvious example of Boyce’s thesis comes from Bangladesh where we found that more than 30% of the fish captured and consumed by poor families were predacious species that consumed other fish.

    These highly nutritious fish species were largely captured during periods of water recession when they were most vulnerable to human predation. By culling the fish that eat other fish, and by relying on simple technologies, humans served the ecologically important role of top predator in the food chain.
    This had several important functions for maintaining a robust, productive and bio-diverse aquatic ecology benefiting fish, flora and other fauna in addition to humans.

    Humans assured the continuing availability of an abundant supply of diverse fish species by controlling the size of the populations of the most predacious fish species. As the dominant predator, people prevented the predator fish species from undermining the reproductive potential of the prey fish species, which made up 70% of human consumption. The prey species are most vulnerable during juvenile and adolescent stages.

    Secondly, human fishing pressure prevented any species, predictor or prey from outcompeting other species. As a result that until recently the Bangladesh inland aquatic environment supported more than 250 inland fish species and perhaps a dozen or more nutritionally important prawns.
    Unfortunately, internationally financed activities have rendered much of the dynamism of this complex aquatic ecosystem.

    The most important was the massive construction of flood control embankments which were designed to halt the natural interaction between the rivers and the flood plain, which is essential for a naturally productive and biologically diverse aquatic environment.

    The embankments also increased fishing pressure by breaking up the floodplain into isolated units. This prevented much of the brood stock required for the production of future generations of fish from escaping to the rivers. The embankments also diminished the recharging in the floodplain of deep water recessions which also sheltered fish.

    All this made it easier to use modern de-watering methods and more effective gear to maximize production without regard for the reproductive requirements of a sustainable natural fishery. The loss of the biologically diverse natural recruitment was replaced by hatchery produced fish fry of a limited number of species deemed to have a high market value.

    These international funded investments were also responsible for the introduction and spread of epizootic diseases that decimated natural fish and shrimp populations.

    They also undermined intricate common property relationships that enabled consumption and small scale fishing in favor of revenue generating, rigid leasing systems benefiting the politically powerful and super wealthy.

    As a result the natural environment and a large section of the rural population in Bangladesh are now poorer.

    In contrast, environmental restoration programs supported by local communities have demonstrated that the floodplain and its fishes and wildlife will respond to wise human stewardship.

  4. Greg Lieberknecht says:

    Good one, Jim. I appreciate any ideas that can help move us from the impasses we face today. I’m glad to hear that so many bird species are doing well.

    Your point that in a choice between humans and nature, most people will choose humans made me think of something. I just finished reading Bonobo Handshake and Vanessa Woods made the point that if people have to choose between starving and eating bonobos, the bonobos are going to get eaten. But when they worked with the people of the town of Basankusu to create a bonobo sanctuary and showed those people the economic advantages they’d gain by sharing their world with the bonobos, the people quickly saw the value of protecting them.

  5. Jim, I couldn’t agree more. More now than ever, we need to be honest about the positive changes we have made in the world, highlight what has worked, and remind ourselves of our successes so that we can repeat them. Our failures are ever more glaring when viewed in light of our accomplishments.

  6. George McKee says:

    Following author James Boyce’s logic to its conclusion, the modern monoculture cornfield or wheatfield is a maximally successful ecosystem. It produces greater yields than any of its predecessor combinations of species — the fact that all the other species are gone is irrelevant if your only measure is “productivity”. In reality, the correct measure of ecosystem success is total diversity. Counting how many species are increasing and subtracting the number that are decreasing is silly. Putting it very simply: extinction is forever. No amount of growth by invasive varieties can compensate, ever. There is unfortunately no moderate answer to extinction.