I’ve presented a lot of evidence here on The Right Way To Be Green (and in plenty of other places) that grazing livestock on grasslands here in the West, especially when that grazing is done in a way that mimics natural herds of bison, bighorns, or other hoofed critters, can be beneficial to those ecosystem.
I’ve also given literally hundreds of presentations on that topic to environmentalists and others, and when I give those presentations a majority of people in the audience are usually surprised and impressed by the photos comparing the positive effects of grazing versus the negative effects of protection.
“ I had no idea.” Some comment. “I changed my mind tonight,” said another at a recent presentation.
The problem is, although plenty of enviros appear to get the message, the connection doesn’t seem to last very long nor does it go much of anywhere.
“That’s nice. So what? Now what?”
A few are impressed in an even less connected way.
“What about overgrazing!?” They sputter. “You can’t convince me there isn’t overgrazing! Those ranchers are in it to make money not to help the environment! Your information is anecdotal! It’s not science!”
That is usually followed by some form of…
“Those places grazed by livestock might look healthy, but they’re not natural. They would be just as healthy, actually healthier, if they were protected and, therefore, truly natural.”
Recently, when my wife, Trish, heard me wondering out loud about this two-sided response, the lack of connection it made clear, and how to deal with it, she offered…
“You’ve got to remember, those people think of themselves as environmentalists. You’ve got to give them some way to make sense of, and to make use of, the information you’re giving them. You’ve got to give them the right frame of reference.”
Frame of reference, I wondered? What is the “frame of reference” of people who call themselves “environmentalists,”
The first thing that came to mind was the definition of “nature.” Environmentalism, of course, is about “nature,” specifically about protecting it and restoring it.
Cambridge Dictionaries defines “nature” as: all the animals and plants in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that exist or happen independently of people.
From the Merriam Webster definition “nature” is (T)he physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people.
All of my presentations are about humans having a positive impact on the ecosystem, about making it more natural, more healthy, more functional.
Could it be that all the problems people have with the positive examples of humans effecting the environment I present and, beyond that, the endless list of contemporary environmental issues that have to do with protecting the land from humans, are nothing more than this — merely a matter of semantics? Merely about definitions?!
In a very significant way it seems to me the answer is, “Yes.” What we call “environmentalism” maintains that the health of any collection of living things and their surroundings is determined by the degree to which that “ecosystem” conforms to the above definition — to the degree to which it “exists or happens independently of people.”
I’ve had a number of experiences that verify that conclusion. One of the most notable was an encounter in one of the “collaborative” groups in which I have participated over the last 30 years. At a gathering of environmentalists, ranchers, agency people and neighbors on a cattle ranch in the grasslands southeast of Tucson, Arizona, the rancher who was our host made an offer to a number of people who had expressed their opposition to cattle ranching in the “desert Southwest” several times during the day.
“Tell me what you would like for this place to be,” he said, “and I’ll set that as my goal and work toward it. Then we can be allies instead of adversaries.”
“There’s only one thing you can do to make this place better,” replied one fellow who had identified himself as a “radical environmentalist.”
“You can leave.”
“Because if you stay, no matter what you do to the land, no matter how good you make it look, it will be unnatural and, therefore, bad. And if you leave, whatever happens to this place, even if it ends up being as bare as a parking lot, will be natural and, therefore, good.”
In other words, if a piece of the planet conforms to the definition of “nature” it is healthy and good no matter what its condition.
A statement like that deserves an illustration (or two).
Here’s an illustration that will be familiar to visitors of this website or readers of one or both of my two books Beyond the Rangeland Conflict, Toward a West That Works and Gardeners of Eden, Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature…
This is the Drake Exclosure, a U. S. Forest Service study plot near Prescott, Arizona. It is very nearly as bare as a parking lot. However, since it is protected from human use (and has been since 1946) it conforms to the definition of “natural.” For that reason, according to the contemporary environmental frame of reference, it is healthy and good.
The land in the picture below is just outside the Drake Exclosure. (See the sign on the fence.) It has been grazed by livestock since the 1800s. For that reason, it is does not conform the the contemporary environmentalist definition of “natural” and, therefore, in need of healing (removing the impacts of humans). Does that mean the goal of contemporary environmentaism is to make it look like the land in the previous picture?
This land, along the Verde River in Arizona, had been protected for 9 years when this photo was taken. During those 9 years it had existed as “independently of human activities” as possible. According to the contemporary environmentalist frame of reference that means it is “natural” and “healed” or at least on its way to being so. One environmental group involved in the protection of this land states: “We’ve protected more than 119 million acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers worldwide,” That, the group claims, qualifies as a “tremendous record of success” The land in the photo is a portion of those “thousands of miles of rivers” part of that “tremendous record of success” because it conforms to a definition.
On the other hand… This land, also along the Verde River in Arizona, is grazed by livestock. (Photos taken roughly at the same time. Yes, most of those plants are natives.) Within the contemporary environmentalist frame of reference that means it is “unnatural” and in need of being “restored to nature” or “healed,” The only way to achieve that, according to the definition of “nature” is to protect the land from human activity, turning this “failure” into the “success” illustrated above.
Fortunately for all of us, including environmentalists, there is a much better, much more functional, more accurate and realistic way of interpreting the concept “nature” that can provide a basis for our relationship to the world in which we live. This more functional view of what is “nature” fortunately doesn’t lead to absurdities like the ones just described. It is derived from science and experience rather than from definitions. It is a basis that we can learn about and confirm “on the ground” rather than merely by indulging in word games.
First of all this functional way of relating to our environment resolves one of the main problems with defining nature as: existing or happening “independently of people.” Humans have been a part of nature for as long as any other plant or animal, i. e. for as long as we have lived on this planet. And while we’ve been here, we’ve lived and participated in nature in the same way as those other life forms. We’ve provided input and we’ve harvested output. We’ve been predators and prey; herders and harvesters; cultivators, pollinators, and seed spreaders. We’ve dunged and urinated, lived and reproduced, died, and decomposed just the same as all those other “natural” living things.
From that it seems obvious: an environmentalism based on a dividing line that separates us from everything else on the planet is mistaken and useless. So, If we’re going to come up with a way to understand and practice an effective way of living on planet Earth, whether we call it, “environmentalism” or not, it has to be inclusive. It has to effectively increase our understanding of all those ecological processes we’ve been a part of and continue to be a part of today.
Oddly enough, the best candidate for such an understanding comes to us from the space program and our efforts to visit other planets. In the 1960s, in advance of sending a probe to Mars, NASA decided it might be good idea to know in advance if there is life up there, so they enlisted a number of scientists to come up with a way to tell if there is life on a planet without (or before) visiting it. Among those scientists was James Lovelock, an English chemist known for thinking out of the box,.
Lovelock noted that there are a number of characteristics of our own planet that cannot exist without being sustained in some way (or, in other words, by some thing). For example, there is no way our planet’s atmosphere could stably consist of 20+% oxygen (which it does) if left purely to the vagaries of chemistry. Oxygen is a very reactive gas. That means it would quickly react itself into compounds with other chemicals and trend to zero or nearly so if something wasn’t replacing and sustaining it in its pure or free form. (Venus and Mars, for instance, contain 0.00 percent and 0.13 percent, respectively, of free oxygen.) Here on Earth, plants, both on land and sea, produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. In other words, they produce one of the main components of a habitat that will sustain life for life by the process of living.
Something similar happens in the case of the salinity of the oceans. In spite of the fact that every year roughly 500 million tons of mineral salts are eroded and dissolved from the Earth’s dirt and rocks and carried by streams and rivers into the planet’s oceans, the salinity of those waters remains a surprisingly stable 3.4% and has for a very, very long time (millions of years). Lovelock considered it no accident that this is exactly the level of salinity required for the continuing existence of the forms of life that inhabit the seas. (And we’re supposed to worry about a little more carbon dioxide.
To make a long story short (you can read more on your own.) Lovelock hypothesized that living things have developed the conditions that make life possible here on Earth, and they sustain those conditions in a relatively stable form. That means the life forms of Earth (including us) haven’t lucked out by being placed on or happening onto a planet with a series of geologic or interplanetary processes that inadvertently make life possible. The living things on Earth have evolved or been created in a way such that they sustain the conditions for life by the very natural act of living. Example? — Bees pollinate flowers as they feed on their nectar, which creates seeds, which create more plants, which create food for bees (and other creatures) along with the oxygen that bees and other creatures breathe, which creates more bees and more other creatures, and more flowers…
And while we’re at it, think about those ranchers and cowboys, and cows and grasses, or Indians and bison, and The Great Plains, etc.
Lovelock attached the name “Gaia” (the Greek name for the Earth Goddess) to his hypothesis at the suggestion of an author friend. The name has the unfortunate (in my opinion) effect of making his conclusions susceptible to being co-opted by mystics (for pantheistic purposes) and feminists (for political purposes). In spite of that, the most notable implications of Lovelock’s hypothesis are decidedly practical.
Consider those photos we looked at a few paragraphs back. If we interpret them in terms of Lovelock’s hypothesis, what seemed like an absurdity at the time (That’s healthy?! And that’s not?!!) now makes perfectly good sense. The green photo is green because living things, including cattle and humans, have developed the conditions for life and are sustaining them by the act of simply living. Humans are acting as predators, cows are prey, humans are moving and circulating cattle, who are harvesting, recycling, seeding, tilling, and fertilizing. The result is a prosperity that benefits more than cows and humans. It benefits deer, rabbits, mice, fish, birds, bugs, plants, microbes, the list is longer than I have room to include here.
In the other photo, the most significant predators, prey, circulators, harvesters, recyclers, seeders, tillers, and fertilizers have been removed, and where the interaction of living things has been reduced, so have the conditions to support life and, thus, so has life itself.
Translation: protecting the environment from humans performing the functions Lovelock identified as sustaining the conditions for life does no favor for the environment, nor for us, nor for anything, really.
Unless, of course, you live in a world where semantics matter more than results… or more than sustaining the conditions for life.