(Ahmed the elephant. Douglas-Hamilton, I and O. 1975. See also webpage 1.8.4)

Threats: Erasing Nature from the Mind

Section
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
Page
7.7

I am going to help you here before you make a terrible faux pas and condemn yourself as a “morally repugnant”  ‘conservationist’, or worse, an old-fashioned ‘preservationist’. You cannot see this picture of the Peruvian Amazon. Look away quickly and repeat after me: ‘There is no nature, there is no nature, there is no nature’. Repeat after me: ‘There is no wilderness, there is no wilderness, there is no wilderness’. ‘There is only us, there is only us, there is only us’. That was close, you almost – embarrassingly – acknowledged the existence, might, and wonder, of something as well as us – Nature.

(Silvera, W. 2012. The Peruvian Amazon. Rainforest Foundation Norway)

Nevermind that the Amazon Basin is over six million km2 (slightly smaller than Australia), began forming 15 million years ago with the rise of the Andes2, and its rainforest started in earnest 10 million years ago (ibid). Nevermind that humans did not arrive in the Amazon until around 9,000 years ago3, numbered anything from under a million to five million4, and led a largely hunter-gatherer lifestyle without the use of metal tools, the wheel, or power from fossil fuels and domesticated animals, nor the ready availability of fire in this wet environment (only recent climate change and clearing has allowed large-scale fire in the Amazon). Nevermind any of that, when you look at the Amazon, and indeed any natural area, you must see only human use, human management, human ‘creation’. The vast sweep of pre-human history must be ignored, the great processes and cycles of evolution, geology, nutrients, and water, must be ignored, what you see with your own eyes must be ignored, and the cleverness of low-impact hunter-gatherer lifestyles must be ignored in favour of vastly inflated stories of agriculture, gardens, cities and ‘civilisations’. This is ‘El Dorado’ dreaming in its modern form and it has a hold on the modern human imagination every bit as strong as it did on Portuguese, British, Spanish, Dutch and other explorers throughout history. (For a readable modern update on this obsession, obtain a copy of ‘The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon’, by David Grann5).

This could be dismissed as an understandable human foible, or a mildly irritating modern anthropological, archaeological and historical fashion, were it not for the profound impact it has on our relationship with Nature and how we respond to, care, neglect, or destroy it.

There seems to be a modern imperative to deploy the following formula wherever indigenous people live, or lived:

  1. Downplay, avoid or direct attention away from hunter-gatherer lifestyles;
  2. Conversely, play up, exaggerate and conflate ‘agricultural’, ‘gardening’, clearing and construction activities;
  3. Take estimates of population and double or quadruple them;
  4. Take dates of first arrival and double them;
  5. Wildly inflate the extent, type and power of available technology, including fire;
  6. Engage in ‘El Dorado’ dreaming of great cities and civilisations, regardless of the evidence;
  7. Assert complete control and manufacture of the environment by native people. In other words, transform the role of indigenous people from carer/guardian, then to owner, and finally – to creator/Creator.

Proponents of such approaches see this is a crusade, a campaign for due recognition and celebration of Aboriginal people all over the world, but I see it as sad, misguided, and lacking in respect for what indigenous people actually did, for the truth, and for the natural world.

An egregious example of this most damaging thinking has been mentioned previously in T10 (e.g. see Sections 6.1, 6.4, and 1.1.4), and it is with reluctance that I reproduce it here, but it cannot be ignored, no matter how absurd it is, no matter how distasteful, as it has – amazingly – many followers in what goes for ‘environmentalism’ in the present day, and is deeply damaging to protection of habitat and species, the subject of this section, and indeed, all and every effort to have a natural world at all.

 

(Vidal, J. 2002. Wild Lies. January 3rd, The Age/Guardian. MF: apologies for poor copy)

 

Apart from the wild lashing out at innumerable ‘straw men’ and entities seen to be antithetical to human interests – “who runs this planet?” –  especially indigenous interests, the core of the piece lies in the following:

“ ‘There is no such thing as wilderness, says Hilderbrand. ‘Almost everywhere has been significantly modified by tens of thousands of years of human presence. Many peoples do not even have a word for nature and do not see themselves in any way separate from the whole environment in which they live. The forests of Amazonia are only there because the indigenous peoples have kept them for generations’.

“If wilderness is an alien concept for much of the world, the idea of protecting land ‘for nature’ is bizarre and offensive’ “.

There you have it; the very concept of something else, of something as well as us – Nature – and wanting to protect and cherish it, is “bizarre and offensive”. Well, let it rip, I say, and let’s see whom that advantages and what we have left. We all know the answer to this question – total destruction and degradation.

Why the anger, the petulance? Why the smears of all those who have valiantly battled to look after the natural world, which of course, includes us, but not ‘destructive us’? I can only think it is over-weaning hubris, or some sort of ideological bile that must be disgorged upon ‘enemies’, even if they must be fabricated every bit as much as Don Quixote’s imaginary windmills.

The least problem that this fantastic belief system faces is that it is simply, ridiculously, untrue. To take but one ludicrously simple example, I have walked and flown and paddled in the Amazon Rainforest and how anyone could say that it is a human construction only, that there is no Nature there, or if there is, it is indivisibly tied to and controlled by us, is so absurd that it is mad. This in no way denies our presence there, nor the rich relationships indigenous people and others had, and some still have, with it, but why is this ‘other’ of Nature so fearful, so offensive, so wrong? Why is recognising it a subtraction of and from the human condition, rather than a glorious addition? As Gavin Van Horn says in his introduction to the book series ‘Kinship’6 about our relationship with the natural world: “These are the stories of how to listen to voices other than our own”. This is what Vidal’s hated Muir, Thoreau, Leopold, and Emerson,  and modern-day heroes such as Douglas-Hamilton, were on about, and it was the antithesis of the mean nastiness presented in the article. It was wonderful, joyous, celebratory and inclusive. A new world was there for all of us if we could just ‘listen to voices other than our own’.

But we won’t listen, and it is immaterial that scientific evidence tells us otherwise. ‘Proving’ that we are not the alpha and the omega of the universe is a bit like proving that water is wet, but, for example, Bush et.al.7 (plus seven authors) concluded, after examining ‘paleoecological data’ – sediment and pollen cores, largely, in lakes in central and western Amazonia, looking for Holocene fire and plant records – that:

“These data are directly relevant to the resilience of Amazonian conservation, as they do not (MF: my underlining) support the contention that all of Amazonia is a ‘built landscape’ and therefore a product of past human land use”.  

And similarly, Urrego, et.al.8 (plus seven authors) concluded, after examining pollen and microcharcoal cores in the south-western Amazon, that:

“We found little evidence supporting widespread pre-1491 cultural landscapes”.

Science can be very annoying when an agenda is underway.

Undeterred, and spraying like a machine-gun from this bunker of denial, Vidal goes on to attack wilderness, Nature and national parks as: ‘elitist’, ‘privileged’, ‘rich’, ‘white’, ‘European/American’, funded by the ‘World Bank’, an ‘industry’ and a ‘push’ that is taking over the world and ‘running this planet’, based on a ‘white lie’, springing from Puritanism and fundamentalist religions, ‘morally repugnant’; ‘most national parks and wilderness areas have a history of genocide’; and the real enemy is ‘traditional, science-based, Western conservationists’.

Well, quite a list there and I have responded previously in webpage 6.4 so will not repeat that here. What I will reproduce is an initial article I wrote in reply in 2002 that was printed, in reduced form, in several newspapers, e.g. The Age9. Here is the full-length copy.

 

I have used the Amazon as an example in this webpage, but this attack on the concept of Nature and the accompanying extreme anthropocentrism is a worldwide phenomenon.

As in other countries, it is actively underway in my country, Australia, and I discuss this in the previous webpage – 7.6 ‘Fire’ – and in Section 1.1.10, ‘Articles – Killing Nature in the Mind’. I am not the only one to be deeply concerned about the content and logical outcomes of this agenda, and in 2021 ‘The Age Good Weekend’ magazine10 published a lengthy rebuttal of its latest iteration, the book ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe11, by two of Australia’s eminent anthropologists and archaeologists, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe. Their wide-ranging criticism can be summed up with: “in presenting pre-colonial society as more ‘advanced’ than was known, Dark Emu understates the complexity of hunter-gatherer life”; “depictions of Aboriginal life hail from the journals of blow-through European explorers, rather than Aboriginal people”; that it “lacks true scholarship”; and the book’s “success as a narrative was achieved in spite of its failure as an account of fact”. In academic-speak, this is damning language indeed.

 

(Rintoul, S. 2021. Debunking Dark Emu. The Age Good Weekend)

 

Not to mind, though, ‘Dark Emu’ has been wildly successful, has won some of the nation’s richest and most prestigious literary awards, a children’s version has been published, and a documentary is being made. It, and all the cultural baggage that goes with it, is meeting a deep desire.

At the end of the day, does all of this matter? Is it all just a bit of a tiff within environmental and history circles? Sadly, yes it does matter – greatly – and it is not confined to academic or ‘insider’ circles and debate. John Vidal was, unbelievably, the Environment Editor of the Guardian UK, and this ‘legacy’ appears to live on in the form of their current environment columnist, George Monbiot, who spends much of his time attacking such ‘demons’ as David Attenborough, or impugning the motives and morals of anyone who dares to suggest that overpopulation is a problem. The Guardian is a global leader and ‘thought manager’ for much of the New-Left, and as such has great influence over environmental paradigms, people and policies, particularly in the age of the internet and social media.

As mentioned, I examined the import of this new paradigm for the protection of the natural world in the article ‘Killing Nature in the Mind’. In it I concluded that:

This matters desperately to conservation because this extreme humano-centrism unites the dominant Western perception with the new indigenous paradigm to kill Nature in the mind. It is not that there is just us – it is suspect to suggest otherwise – so it doesn’t matter that 30,000 species are currently assessed by the IUCN12 as threatened with extinction or that Mt Everest now looks like Chadstone Shopping Centre at lunchtime. It is just we and our choices, and for every human choice there will be another, another alternative, and it will all be good. In such a world there is no loss, nothing to grieve, no ‘other’ to protect, or preserve, or to live with.”       

Every bit as much as the bulldozer, the shotgun, the pest, the disease and the flamethrower, this new ‘smallness’ of the mind is paving the way for a tragic ‘smallness’ of the natural world, and it may be the greatest threat of all.

As I postulated in Section 1.1 ‘Build the Nature-Human Relationship – Introduction’, if we cannot move our collective understanding of ourselves and the natural world from the left-hand side of the schema below (‘Nature as ‘Resource’, ‘Nature Subjugated’), upwards and to the right and across the great intrinsic divide towards ‘Nature as Home’, ‘Nature as Wonder’, or more, then we will eliminate it without knowing or caring that we ever did.

(See, also, Section 1.1.9, Richard Flanagan’s ‘Birds are a Liberation that Never Ends’; but their wonder and mystery is going, “and along with them there will have vanished a larger sense of what the world is and who we are in it”).

 

 

 

1 Vidal, J. 2002. Wild Lies. The Age, January 3rd.

2 Mapes, R. 2006.  Amazon River Flowed into the Pacific Millions of Years Ago. Oct. 26th, Mongabay <Amazon river flowed into the Pacific millions of years ago (archive.ph)> .

3 Williams, S. 2020. The Peopling of South America. Sept. 1st, The Scientist, LabX Media Group, Wilmington, USA.

4 Hudson, A., (ed.). 1998. Brazil: A Country Study. Library of Congress, Washington, USA.

5 Grann, D. 2009. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Doubleday, New York, USA.

6 Van Horn, G., Kimmerer, R. W., Hausdoerffer, J., (eds.). 2021. Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations. Vol. 1, Center for Humans and Nature Press, Libertyville, USA.

7 Bush, M., et.al. (seven authors). 2007. Holocene Fire and Occupation in Amazonia: Records from Two lake Districts. Jan. 9th, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Royal Society Publishing, London, UK.

8 Urrego, D., et.al. (seven authors). 2013. Holocene Fires, Forest Stability and Human Occupation in South-western Amazonia. 40, Journal of Biogeography, Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, USA.

9 Fendley, M. 2002. Living with Nature – Not Consuming It. Letters, January 12th, The Age, Melbourne, Australia.

10 Rintoul, S. 2021. For the Record. June 12th, The Age Good Weekend, Melbourne, Australia.

11 Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Magabala Books, Broome, Australia.

12 IUCN. 2020. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Explore Other Natural Habitat and Species

7.1 Introduction

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be able to stop, let alone want to stop. How far ...

7.2 State of Habitat

The Worldwide Fund for Nature’s exceptional ‘Living Planet Report 2020’1, Fig. 19 – reproduced below, attempts to show the global distribution of highly modified, largely natural, and in-between habitats. The dark green areas approximat...

7.3 Threats: Land Clearing and Direct Habitat Loss

This is the big one. As pointed out in 7.1 and 7.2 it accounts for over half of all population declines (see Figure 5, webpage 7.2) of native species and is as obvious as it is crude. We burn, chop, bulldoze, log, graze, and drain remaining habita...

7.4 Threats: Species Overexploitation

After land clearing and direct habitat loss, the next biggest threat for native species is overexploitation. It accounts for approximately 24% of declines1 (see webpage 7.2, figures 4 and 5) and can be as simple and direct as overhuntin...

7.5 Threats: Invasive Species and Diseases

Again, strangely, an unfashionable topic for modern environmentalism, but nonetheless, third on the list of threats to the natural world, with an average score across regions of 13%  (to recap: #1 is habitat loss at 50% and #2 is exploitation of s...

7.6 Threats: Fire

Running across and through almost all threats to habitat is fire. Whether indirectly, through clearing, draining and ‘opening up’ of the bush, and as a result of climate change, or directly, through the deliberate lighting of fires, we are seeing ...

7.7 Threats: Erasing Nature from the Mind

I am going to help you here before you make a terrible faux pas and condemn yourself as a “morally repugnant”  ‘conservationist’, or worse, an old-fashioned ‘preservationist’. You cannot see this picture of the Peruvian Amazon. Look awa...

7.8 Habitat and Species Protection Goals

The most relevant international goals for habitat and species protection for the latest decade, 2010-20, were the so-called ‘Aichi goals’. (‘Aichi’, because the location where the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was signed by 193 signatory n...

7.9 Acting for Habitat and Species

Everything in T10 is designed either to increase the protection of habitat and species, or reduce the pressures on same. As such, actions outlined in each of the 10 sections will – directly or indirectly – make a significant contribution. This sai...

7.10 The Future

Jorgen Randers was one of the authors of the seminal ‘Limits to Growth’ in 19721, as well as the 30-year update published in 20042. In 2012 he published ‘2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years’3. It woul...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...