Gail Williams (gail) Tue 18 Aug 09 15:55
Mark Dowie is up next at the Inkwell, with his new book entitled, "Conservation Refugees: the Hundred Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples." Mark Dowie is an investigative historian. His previous work has included histories of organ transplantation, land use, the environmental movement and philanthropic foundations. He is a former editor at large of InterNation, a transnational feature syndicate based in Paris and a former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Point Reyes Station California. Leading this conversation is WELL member Anne Boyd. Anne is a project manager at a landscape architecture firm in Los Angeles, specializing in parks and public work. Her professional interests include the expression of narrative, history and the arts in landscape; memorial landscapes and cemeteries; urban wildlife habitats; and ecoregionally appropriate landscape design. She first read William Cronon, Alfred Crosby, and Donald Worster as an undergraduate at Brown University, and has maintained an interest in environmental history ever since. She blogs about landscape architecture, urbanism, nature, and the ethics of being a design professional at http://theparsley.wordpress.com/ Thank you for joining us here, Anne and Mark!
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 18 Aug 09 21:42
Hi everybody! And hello to Mark. Thanks so much for joining us here. I jumped at the chance to host this discussion, since the topic was both relatively unknown to me and very relevant to many of the issues I grapple with as a design professional concerned with the intricate relationships between culture and nature. I was very interested to see the early reference in Mark's book to William Cronon's provocative essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Nature." In college, I studied the history of the landscape of colonial New England, and I think it was Cronon's book "Changes in the Land" that first really got me started thinking about the complex relationships between humans and the landscapes they inhabit. As you can imagine, I've been coming up with a lot of questions as I worked my way through the book...and found most intriguing of all the questions raised by the material at the very end, in the Epilogue. But more about that soon. I'll start off with a basic question: How did you first start getting into this subject, and what motivated you to undertake the research to write the book? I believe that in the book it refers to at least four years of travel and research, and the amount of information in the book is really immense.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:10
(for our off-site readers, you may send your questions to <firstname.lastname@example.org> and we will happily post your question for you).
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:17
At an Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) meeting in Ottawa, in early 2004, I was approached by two representatives of an international organization focused on indigenous land rights. They told me that native people around the world had for some time been in conflict with global conservation, particularly with the five large conservation NGO's based in Washington, organizations that were receiving generous support from some of the foundations meeting in Ottawa. Well conflict always grabs my attention, so I raised some grant money from some of the other foundations in EGA and headed into the wild and see for myself.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:20
What an exciting call to action. I'm looking forward to this conversation!
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Wed 19 Aug 09 10:41
I read 1491 a year or two ago, and it really opened my eyes about how much of what we learned about the 'primeval' american landscape as encountered by european colonists was already dramatically altered by earlier european contacts and diseases and population shifts in indigenous communities. Very interested to see where this conversation goes.
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Wed 19 Aug 09 12:12
One of the major themes of the book, it seems to me, is the lasting damage done by our (privileged Westerners') sentimental notions about "wilderness" as something separate from any relationship with humans. A quote from the 1964 United States Wilderness Act is repeated several times throughout the book, defining wilderness as a place where "man himself is a visitor who does not remain." By contrast, indigenous peoples live on and relate to their landscapes in a much more intimate and dynamic way. Mark's book uses the term "Traditional Ecological Knowledge" (TEK) which sums up the ways that traditional/indigenous peoples utilize and manage the resources in their environment, which he argues tends to perpetuate or increase biodiversity, rather than the reverse. "Every shaman, healer, chief and elder knows that without biotic wealth there is no food security." (p 91) Nonetheless, there has been a lack of recognition of this positive relationship between native peoples and their environments; the model of "fortress conservation" around the world leads to people being kicked off their land and deprived of their traditional livelihoods. Mark, do you think that Westerners truly "don't get it" because our science hasn't yet fully understood what's happening in these environments (you mention that anthropologists and biologists tend not to agree about this), or is it just willful blindness because these peoples are inconveniently in the way of powerful national and corporate interests?
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Wed 19 Aug 09 12:33
I have found that many Westerners still don't get it, but fortunately a growing number are beginning to realize that the very lands they seek to protect and conserve contain high biological diversity (the current quarry of global conservation) because the people who have been living on those lands, some for thousands of years, have been living right, ie. sustainably. And some of these awakened Westerners are working for transnational conservation organizations. This is a heartening development. I also find that there is a growing convergence of tradition ecological knowledge (TEK) and conventional textbook biological science. And that is happening on both sides of the divide. Western wildlife biologicals are beginning to understand and respect TEK (a difficult task as very little of it is written down or published). And literate indigenous people are developing a respect, even reverence for Western science. An Inuit leader I met recently described a person who understands and uses both TEK and Western science as "strong like two people."
Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 19 Aug 09 16:55
I think of central California, where I live. The native peoples kept the hillsides open and grassy to support grazing animals. Now the hills in the East Bay are thickets of brush and trees, and the wildflower meadows that charmed the earliest conservationists are no more. Where do native peoples control the land enough to manage it in the old ways? And where do the laws allow them to?
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Thu 20 Aug 09 07:07
About 20 percent of the planet is occupied by about 370 million people who regard themselves as native to the land. Indigenous tenure and management of those lands varies from zero to 100 percent depending largely on ownership claims of the states that envelop native land. So of course a major goal of the global indigenous movement is to secure maximum land rights. The slowly shifting paradigm of transnational conservation is to restore land tenure to its first stewards, let them return if they have been evicted, and give them management responsibility under scientifically sound conservation guidelines.
Robert Hill (rob) Thu 20 Aug 09 08:31
Can you give us an example?
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Fri 21 Aug 09 08:45
Yes The Matavan Forest in northeastern Columbia (page 239 in the book)
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 Aug 09 08:47
I understand the premise--that some human interactions could be good, or at least sustainable for long-term conservation/some sense of steady state. But this clearly isn't always true. Jared Diamond's recent book on places where humans caused collapse is very much on my mind--the trees of Easter Island, for instance and human settlement thereon. Not every culture is sustainable, and primitive cultures aren't necessarily better at sustainability.
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Fri 21 Aug 09 09:21
I would also tend to wonder what happens, as is alluded to a few times in the book but not addressed at length, when traditional societies become equipped with some forms of modern technology - such as chainsaws, ATVs, etc., that might tend to disrupt the balance created by traditional lifeways. Are traditional ecological knowledge, and traditional ethical systems, enough to maintain a natural balance when the tools and technologies used are changing?
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Fri 21 Aug 09 13:04
Diamond's example of Easter Island is a bit unfair. Most indigenous island cultures in the world have survived sustainably in their totally confined ecosystems for generations. Misapplied technology is a problem the world over. There are non-indigenous societies that use modern technologies wisely and there are indigenous societies that use them unwisely. And vise versa in both instances. White civilizations concerned about non-white communities coming into possession of chainsaws, ATVS, shotguns and outboard motors should first examine how wise their own use of those technologies has been.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 21 Aug 09 13:20
Well, in many cases, indigenous island cultures survived after extirpating much native fauna. Granted in many cases later white settlers were even more efficient, but there's little cheer about in the ecological history of places like New Zealand.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Aug 09 13:36
Hey, Mark, your old Point Reyes friend Steve here, connecting from my post-Point Reyes home in the mountainous wilds of New Hampshire -- which happens to be where much of the familiar American concept of wilderness first was described. But anyway. Boy, this is a *very* provocative book, and I've got about a thousand questions. Perhaps here's a place to begin: John Muir emerges in the book as a difficult figure -- godfather to generations of American conservationists, the founder of one of our great environmental organizations, influential writer, and the guy who wanted all the natives out of Yosemite. (I'm reminded by your analysis of Muir of some modern analyses of another difficult American figure, Abraham Lincoln.) Muir lobbied hard to establish Yosemite National Park as a recreational and even spiritual preserve. His kind of wilderness was in the Eden mold: a pristine place devoid of human presence. You noted that this concept of wilderness is so potent in the American imagination that it is literally embodied in the Wilderness Act of 1964. "Eden" is the noteworthy word here, I think, in that pristine, humanless Nature was seen as being closer to God's perfection. Just as Manifest Destiny was driven by one kind of biblical conceit, so was the preservation of wilderness. Yet isn't there an a big irony in all of this? I mean, it was the *Garden* of Eden, after all, and a garden requires tending. Anyway, I'm wondering to what extent you think the American concept of wilderness, which has spread around the world, is rooted in a particularly American Protestant interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis.
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Fri 21 Aug 09 15:10
Steve, I wondered where you'd landed. Of course the American sense of wilderness is rooted in Genesis, as is so much of the rest of our world view. It is almost impossible to find the true origin of wilderness or the notion that nature as wilderness is best preserved in the absence of humans. My friend Marcus Colchester, who with Phds in Zoology and Anthropology bridges the scientific gap I discussed in my book, has rummaged though history to find that most urban civilizations from their inception have characterized nature as brutish and evil and yet contradictorily as a refuge from the ills of city life. Thus the Tale of Gilgamesh, the worlds most ancient epic, recounts the primordial struggle between kingly civilization and the forest, the source of all evil. Yet even Gilgamesh admits that in the city man dies with despair in his heart. In ancient Greece, Colchester observes, untamed nature was perceived as the domain of wild, irrational, female forces that contrasted with the rational culture ordered by males. In this world view, not only was nature a dangerous threat to the city state, but the wilderness beyond was peopled by barbarians, the epitome of whom were the Amazons - long haired, naked, female savages who represented the antithesis of Greek civilization. Likewise Judeo-Christian myths of origin told anyone who would listen that man was given dominion over the beasts. In Europe's middle ages the image was sustained of an ordered world of culture managed by civilized men, bounded by a chaotic wilderness peopled with savages, the abode of pagan warlocks and witches who drew their power from the dangerous, evil forces of nature, the realm of Beelzebub. Similar images continued to sustain the views of Christian missionaries who perceived the shamanism of indigenous peoples as 'devil worship', and believe that as 'Commandos for Christ' they had a God-given role to 'reach the lost until they have reached the last'. These views of humanity and nature were reinforced in almost every new settlement of the New World. So it should be no surprise that a century or so later Americans would seek salvation in bordered wildernesses, from which they had carefully and brutally extracted the savage, places that the reclusive Henry Thoreau would describe as little oases in the desert of our civilization. However, unlike John Muir and other wilderness advocates, Thoreau believed passionately that it was vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of nature in us that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord. Despite that fine advice, the idea that humanity is something apart from nature remains deeply rooted in the western mind, which, as you suggest, also embraces belief in the Genesis myth where man is given dominion over all other beasts. Taming the wild, both in nature and themselves, became a fundamental aspect of the New Worlds manifest destiny. By contrast, indigenous cultures that have remained isolated from Judeo-Christian influence continue to see themselves and their cultures, as they always have, deeply imbedded in nature, and nature even more deeply imbedded in themselves and their cultures. They and nature are so inseparable that if the n word appears in their language or their cosmology it is as a cultural concept, internalized in their very being, not some space beyond the walls of their community. Westerners still revere nature as place, rather than as cultural concept, a place to commune at a distance with the rest of the Phylogenetic Scale, discover themselves and also, perhaps, the purpose of life. An antagonism between human society and nature continues to grow as humans urbanize their cultures and separate themselves from both the places and the concepts they regard as nature. The antagonism expresses itself in the growing popularity of new environmental philosophies like deep ecology, which embraces a form of conservation that puts wilderness, defined as pristine nature, off limits to human occupation. This exclusion is justified by the fact that most of the Earth has been colonized by humans only in the last several thousand years. Before humans evolved, say the new ecologists, the entire planet was pure and undefiled. Then we arrived and invented nature and wilderness ... then became their worst enemy. Rid the planet of humans and it will flourish again, say the deepest of deep ecologists, who seem either unwilling or unable to face the fact that if the entire planet Earth were to suddenly disappear from the universe, with all its occupants, nature would continue to exist.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Aug 09 15:29
Yowza, Mark, what an answer. Thank you! There's also the aspect in Christianity of man as "fallen," burdened with Original Sin and as such forever imperfect. Thus, a perfect Eden cannot harbor imperfect man and remain perfect. It seems that in our generosity we allow for temporary visits -- backpackers, say -- but if wilderness is the equivalent of Eden, then there can be no permanent residence, *especially* by unbaptized heathens. I think this idea has been powerfully present in one form or another in the American conceit of wilderness. Mark, another somewhat difficult figure to emerge in the book is Ansel Adams, who of course famously photographed what Muir before him had described. You're right in the book to note that Adams' classic photographs of Yosemite and the Sierra do not show any humans (although Adams himself always said there were at least two humans in every one of his photos -- the photographer and the person looking at the photo). Yet Adams also made plenty of photographs of native peoples in the American Southwest even during the years he was photographing a dramatically austere and apparently humanless Sierra, and there is also his remarkable series of photos of Japanese-Americans in the Manzanar concentration camp with the High Sierra as backdrop. I wonder if Adams changed his sense of wilderness and wild places over the years and, if he did, if there's something we can learn from his migration to a different point of view. Did you find any kind of change in Adams' perspective?
Ari Davidow (ari) Sat 22 Aug 09 06:51
So, we should see cultures that are not Western--Confucianism, for instance, as thoroughly comfortable with nature? I accept that Western culture sees a dichotomy; I'm not convinced that we are unique in that regard.
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Sat 22 Aug 09 09:24
Ari, I didn't mean to imply that we Westerners were unique in out view of nature and wilderness, only that we had very different views than those of native peoples. Steve, I don't know the answer to your question about Adams. But my sister, a photographer who apprenticed under him and became pretty good friends might remember. I'll ask her. I seem to recall him remarking once on the fact that Yosemite Valley, with it's asphalt roads, paved campgrounds, rock climbing schools, restaurants, bookstores and an architectural egospasm (The Ahwahnee Lodge) built right under the defining geomorphological icon of the Valley (Half Dome) were probably not what Muir and his friends had in mind when they sought to remove the natives and turn the place into a wilderness retreat.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Mon 24 Aug 09 10:34
Mark, the PR apparatus is moving into high gear in anticipation of the new Ken Burns series on PBS, which is about "America's best idea," the national parks. (It premieres Sept. 27.) Just from the magazine ads I've seen I'm already getting a "St. Muir" feeling about the series, which would be in keeping with the "great man" approach Burns used for his documentaries on baseball, jazz and Lewis & Clark. Yet, as noted above, you show Muir to be a difficult figure -- saintly in some ways, perhaps, but also flawed. How do we have an honest assessment of his contributions without minimizing his shortcomings? And will we be able to reassess and reimagine conservation without reassessing Muir?
For Rosetti, wombats held a peculiar fascination (loris) Mon 24 Aug 09 10:40
mark, how does the Romantic view of nature, which began to arise in the 19th century, fit in here?
Mark Dowie (markdowie) Mon 24 Aug 09 15:27
There are no saints. Muir's hagiogrpahic archives are at University of the Pacific, open to all historians. BUt to get behind the man and his archives one must dig a little deeper. That's what investigative historians do. And that's what I am. The 19th century romantic view of nature fits this story like a hand in a glove. The book in fact begins in 1851 when nature romantic Lafayette Bunnell and his Savage sidekick first entered Yosemite Valley to remove the Miwok.
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 25 Aug 09 08:20
<scribbled by nitpicker>
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 25 Aug 09 08:35
Mark, to get back to something you wrote a few posts ago - >>An antagonism between human society and nature continues to grow as humans urbanize their cultures and separate themselves from both the places and the concepts they regard as nature. << I'm not so sure that urbanization is in itself the problem. After all, you could argue that agriculture itself - at least in its more extractive forms, and certainly in the current megaindustrialized form found in the US - is a bigger enemy to biodiversity, and of longer standing. As for urbanization, its effects can be very different depending on whether it takes sprawling, poorly managed, and/or suburbanizing forms. The more idealistic urbanists among us are working hard on making cities more sustainable; some of the 'green building' and 'green urbanism' technologies we are adopting today have their own parallels in traditional practices - our own urban versions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. For instance, we are trying to get back to an awareness of building in ways appropriate to the local climate, and using 'naturally inspired' 'green infrastructure' to make cities livable, rather than relying on the single-purpose engineering model. I'm very aware of how these issues are playing out in the US, but less familiar with the ways cities relate to their surrounding landscapes in other parts of the world. It seems to me that urbanization can actually be a very beneficial thing to the conservation of biodiverse landscapes, if properly pursued; denser models of urbanization don't eat up as much land, and different approaches to the built environment and infrastructure can improve the ecological relationship between city and country. But of course, urbanization is not happening now in such an orderly and idealistic manner in most of the world, including the US. Mark, do you think that there can actually be conservation benefits to urbanization, or is it being driven so much by poverty and deterioration of rural conditions that it's an overwhelming negative for conservation and the relationship between humans and nature?
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