I – Every Piece of Green on Earth
“Everything come up out of ground –language, people, emu,
kangaroo, grass. That’s Law.”
–Hobbles Danaiyarri, from Yarralin,
Northern Territory, Australia*
In September 2008, I was attending a conference on urban parks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sponsored in part by the The National Association for Olmsted Parks (Naop.org), a U.S. organization of which I am a member. Organizers had named the Pittsburgh meeting “Body and Soul: Parks and the Health of Great Cities.”
On the first day, clean-cut delegates assembled in a hotel convention room to hear the keynote speaker, Luis Garden Acosta, the 55-year-old founder of a community group in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called El Puente – “the bridge.” Acosta described how working on a small neighbourhood park in Brooklyn had created links between communities usually alienated from each other: Afro-Americans, Hassidim, white ethnic Americans, hipsters, Latinos.
Then, a surprise happened in the Pittsburgh room. Acosta said it was time to demand that access to nature be considered a human right, and he led his well-intentioned, English-speaking listeners in a chant: “El Pueblo Unido! Jamas Sera Vencido! The People United! Will Never Be Defeated!” As I stood by a side wall, I felt a thrill hearing a New York street accent among the tweedy crowd. And I thought with some sadness about the real origin of that slogan in another time and place where I had been reporting for radio — Santiago, Chile, 1970, the Allende election campaign, with hundreds of thousands from the Unidad Popular, marching along avenues chanting those same words…
What was Acosta doing exactly, this Heinz award winner for the Human Condition, rousing Pittsburgh folks circa 2009 in the pre-Obama land of George Bush?
He was using Brooklyn , Hispanic spin, I think, to stake an historical claim and encourage “park people” to see their work in a new light.
I managed to talk to Acosta the next day, as I pinned a microphone to a crisp white Cuban-style shirt he was wearing. Without missing a beat, he laid out his argument: “My mother always said that we are of the earth, the earth is in us” he began. “It’s an obvious truism that we grow from the planet. To the extent that we are connected to the earth, to that extent are we even more human. To the extent that we are not, I believe we are less human.”
Acosta drew a picture of what is essential to human beings, logically steering his thoughts to a larger project of reclamation: “If you take it from that perspective, you ought to be able to see that everyone needs a certain amount of sunlight, everyone needs a certain amount of open space, of green. The question is how much. And should some get way more and some way less?”
Then this convinced, and convincing, man proposed the notion of a required human rights minimum – not of food or work, but of green space: “Isn’t there a threshold to allow for the development of our human nature, a threshold that would absolutely protect us and enhance our well-being? If this is so, then obviously in the United States and in North America, in many places all over the world, there is an inequity – some people have the views, some people have green and open spaces, accessibility to nature, and so many, as the world becomes so urban, do not.”
Acosta looked straight into the small video camera: “And therefore,” he said, “I think we are really, as people who are committed to open spaces, really radicals because we are trying to get to the roots of our humanity, we’re trying to become revolutionaries, to reclaim our humanity, as every single force conspires to vie for every piece of green on earth.” [To see Acosta….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rikcdj5tg4o].
Later during that conference, in a wealthy house on a hill over-looking the evening lights of downtown Pittsburgh, Acosta sat on a couch talking. I wondered
in the comfort of that living-room whether it made sense to use radical language, from a Latin American tradition and shaped by a marxist perspective, to speak
to upper-crust conservationists.
And I decided that, yes, the language did make sense, and that the message of greenspace as a human right applies to everyone, everywhere, just as Acosta
In fact, activists know that every type of green, open space – especially public or common land – is now the subject of increasing exploitation
and encroachment. Stretching all the way from small green places in city cores, to the coasts of national states, this endangered territory spans a broad continuum;
the public urban park, nature-parks, agricultural lands, park systems, state-owned or crown land, forests, uninhabited zones, coastlines. The backdrop of this
competition for “every piece of green on earth” is habitat reduction, not only for our fellow animals, but for us human beings as a species.
And, at the planetary level, all the signs agree: we are destroying the very eco-system which gives us life and playing with our own, self-induced extinction.
So, Acosta is right, a small park in Williamsburg is part of something deeper and profoundly radical: the separation of humanity from its own life-support
system, which is nature herself. First we become progressively “less human,” as Acosta indicates, then… we cease to be.
Edward O. Wilson, the entomologist, points out in his landmark book, The Diversity of Life, that by the end of the 20th century, 75% of the world’s original
forests had been destroyed, as have 50% of the rain forest in both temperate and tropical zones. Most of the grasslands, savannas and barrens of the U.S.
have been cut to 2% or less of their original cover.
Extinctions of species are probably running at rates 100 to 10,000 times the normal “background rate” (International Union for Conservation of
Nature; Wilson, data for rain forest), or even as high as 30,000 times, by some estimates (McGuire, Global Catastrophes). The “sixth great extinction”
now taking place simultaneously involves the existing bio-diversity–unparalleled in earth’s history–and unprecedented extinction rates caused by human
activity (see Evolutionary Biology, Douglas J. Futuyma). Little wonder that a number of scientists pay heed to the Astronomer Royal of the U.K., Martin
Rees, when he warns in his recent book Our Final Hour: “I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on earth will survive
to the end of the century.”
Seen in this larger context, Luis Garden Acosta’s description of alienation is direct and global. Alienation is not being “connected to the earth,”
since that connection defines our human essence, our very life as a species.
The formulation both echoes and reverses Karl Marx’s famous youthful essay “Alienated Labour” (1844). Marx, influenced by Hegel, believed that
human beings have created themselves through a dynamic, historical process, but one rooted in nature. However, for Marx nature was the “body”
of man, only given meaning by human work through our active species-life (a term taken from the philosopher Feuerbach) and the realization of our species-being.
Marx compared human beings to the social animals such as bees, beavers, and ants, stressing, however, that these animals only reproduce themselves, in one
direction, as it were. Humanity, he wrote, reproduces all of nature, and the natural world then becomes a mirror in which we see ourselves, what we have
created. By means of work, nature appears as humanity’s work and reality.
Acosta, like virtually every modern environmentalist, implies the opposite: that our work and reality, the development of our human nature, can only successfully
and enduringly “appear” as a result of nature working through us.
Let’s stand Marx upon his head. Humanity appears, and may disappear, as the work and reality of nature, not the other way around. To survive we need
to work with nature, not over it, or against it, or beyond it.
Edward O. Wilson holds, I suspect, hold very different political views from Acosta , yet the two men agree on our essential connection to the environment.
Human beings are an emergent phenomenon, rooted in the natural world yet, in Wilson’s words (quoting the 1953 novel You Shall Know Them) “ we
have little grasp of our true nature” and our troubles “arise from the fact that we do not know what we are and cannot agree on what we want to
II—What We Are and What We Must Do
Many things are strange and wonderful
None more so than man.
(The Chorus, Antigone, Sophocles circa 440 BCE)
I see an animal less strong than some, less agile than others, but, taken
all together, organized more advantageously than all the others.
(Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité
parmi les hommes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754)
It is strange, but park advocacy eventually makes you think about the roots of human nature. El Puente and Luis Garden Acosta laboured very hard to help create Grand Ferry Park, a small site of only 1.5 hectares, looking out to the Manhattan skyline. The new area replaced one of the largest garbage facilities in all the northeast. An obviously beneficial change, one would think, yet that act of reclamation required tremendous work to fulfill.
In my own, brief experience here in Montreal as a park advocate, I have experienced the effort required to protect or enhance greenspace, both landscaped and natural. And I have learnt and felt something unknown to me before. Not only is modern capitalism relentlessly destroying our planet, but something deeper and older is also at work, a tremendous resistance to and, I would say at times, a fear and even hatred of nature. One day this spring, David Fletcher, Vice President of the Green Coalition, led a group of us through a newly acquired public woods in the west of Montreal. He stopped to show me a vernal pool full of small creatures going through their cycles of reproduction. Then Fletcher told me about a grove in a nearby jurisdiction where public officials, responsible for parkland, saw a similar pool and decided to pave it over, apparently because it looked like a sink-hole to them.
Of course, the commercial hunger for land means that natural spaces are always vulnerable. But psychologically, as well, we cannot leave them alone. Our instinct is to exploit, to cut, to level, to build, to pave, and ultimately – to destroy. Those benighted bureaucrats who killed the pond were undoubtedly unable to recognize what it was, nor did they know that such a system has its own natural economy in which a great deal occurs that is autonomous and invisible. Their oversight is typical: what has not been touched by human intervention, we do not see.
Eighteenth-century economics is to blame for much of our blindness, since classical theory views nature as a dead input which has no real value until it is transformed by human labour. But the denial of our connectedness with nature’s active processes lies further within us and comes from routines inherited from our deep history.
An impressive amount of recent environmental literature, much of it written by anthropologists, has described our current species-crisis by pointing to the far-reaching connections between three critical moments– our long period as Paleolithic hunters, the Neolithic Revolution, and modern capitalism.
More than a generation ago, the french sociologist, Edgar Morin, published a highly imaginative book that received little notice in the English-speaking world: Le paradigme perdu: la nature humaine (Éditions du seuil, 1973). Morin’s essay is at once an attack on reductionism, a search for the roots of our complex organization , and an attempt to re-connect homo sapiens to the living system of nature from which we emerged. Morin used information theory to build his image of early humanity, and in his model “noise” and error are critical. As he puts it, the gap (la brèche) between human beings and their environment –first initiated by bi-pedalism and the shift from forests to the savanna– stimulated decision, choice, imagination. Because of this gap, he says, “the order of sapiens corresponds to a massive increase of error in the heart of the living system.” Mutation breaks the self-repeating structure of the gene to produce walking creatures, and error engenders creativity. Morin consciously echoes Rousseau’s beautiful, prescient picture of early human beings, presented in the Discours sur l’origine, in which weakness leads to the complexity of the human generalist.
In 2004, the Canadian archaeologist and writer, Ronald Wright, delivered the Massey Lectures, available in print as A Short History of Progress. The book is important because Wright is one of a squadron of specialists who share his view that “the future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years.”
Wright reviews four past societies which experienced ecological collapse: ancient Sumer, Rome, the Maya, and Easter Island. The ruins that stand in jungles and deserts, Wright observes, “are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilisations which fall victim to their own success.” The asymmetry that Wright describes began in the Paleolithic. Archaeological evidence increasingly suggests that Ice Age hunters, as they migrated all over the world, brought megafauna to the edge of extinction, thereby destroying the host populations on which they depended. Consequently, “the perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life.” Early humans were creatures of their own culture since we “moved beyond the ecologies that had made us and began to make ourselves” and hence “became experimental creations of our own devising.”
The failure of hunting led to farming and the widespread domestication of plants and animals during the Neolithic Revolution, and this settlement in turn gave rise to the first great cities in Sumer. Just as Rousseau had argued, these new developments depended upon and produced radical inequality stemming from property, slavery, militarism, and the further domination of women.
Ronald Wright points out that from its inception the invention of agriculture has been a “runaway train” with increasing populations repeatedly hitting the boundary limits of the food supply, and upward concentrations of wealth resulting in not enough food to go around. The Maya and the Romans operated “pyramid schemes” in which vertical hierarchies became unstable when they reached their “maximum demand on the ecology.” Ancient Sumer suffered from its enormous skill at irrigation which eventually resulted in extreme salinization of the soil, and the once rich, alluvial earth turned white. “Eden” was a Sumerian word and Wright sees the decline of Ur as the first in a series of similar patterns: “human beings drove themselves out of Eden, and they have done it again and again by fouling their nests.”
Ancient Sumer is a good benchmark for measuring our ecological situation. In Maps of Time: An Introduction To Big History (2004), the historian David Christian examines human per capita energy consumption from 10,000 years ago until now. During that period “the total amount of energy controlled by our species has multiplied by at least 50,000 times” and the human population has increased 1,000 times, from 6 million in the time of Sumer to 6 billion now. Christian discusses “net primary productivity,” (NPP) or the energy entering the food chain via photosynthesis to feed all animals. And he estimates that homo sapiens now uses 25% to 40% of NPP: “Resources used by humans
are, by definition, unavailable to other species. So, as human numbers have risen, other species have felt the pinch.” The actual global per capita human energy consumption, measured in calories, has increased 200 times.
In the first recorded and magnificent Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, the civilizing hero must learn the fundamental lesson: human beings and their works are mortal. At the end of the poem, after he has lost the flower of immortality, Gilgamesh returns to his city of Uruk with the ferryman of death, Urshanabi. As the two approach the great city, Gilgamesh tells his visitor to look at its walls and architecture and proudly tells Urshanabl about the plan of Uruk – it is one third urban, one third fields, and one third orchard gardens! In other words, the Sumerians, with their intense intelligence, knew that they had to build themselves an “ecological city,” as we now call it – and yet they could not escape the failure wrought of their own success.
Maps of Time includes a fascinating chart ( taken from J.G. Simmons, Changing the Face of the Earth) of human per capita energy consumption in historical perspective. Calculating how many calories are used by each single person eating (food, including animal feed), by one person in home and business, and by one person in industry and agriculture – it appears that Sumerians consumed their energy in a balanced way across all three categories. City, fields, and garden – just as Gilgamesh tells Urshanabi, with virtually no transport energy consumption.
Since the time of Sumer, we are only consuming approximately twice as many calories in our re capita daily eating, although that consumption is distributed in a grossly unjust way.
The huge increases in modern energy consumption are in: 1. Home and Commerce; 2. Industry and Agriculture; 3. Transport. These are the three areas where we must carry out radical reductions in energy use.
Another imperative becomes obvious if we take the long view from Gilgamesh to now: we must radically reduce human economic inequality.
Also, we must preserve, and then increase all open greenspace throughout the world.
These changes are possible, I think. But as Luis Garden Acosta says, they are radical. I believe as well that a new dialogue is necessary because capitalism as we know it, and certainly American capitalism, cannot meet the required agenda. Environmentalists need to continue their work, but also to realize that they will have to examine their political ideas, especially regarding the issue of economic justice.
Sophocles’ exalting chorus in the first part of Antigone lyrically describes the evolution of human beings, from hunting, to farming, to the creation of cities. The word the chorus uses for anthropos, for homo sapiens, is the adjective deinos whose meanings are charged with ambivalence: formidable, dangerous, frightening, clever, powerful, extraordinary, and strange. In my view, this strangeness, this brèche, is actually a very deep part of nature as a whole. I hope that we have enough time to act wisely and to reach a greater understanding of nature which will allow us to more clearly see our strange place in it.
* Quoted in Christian, and taken from Deborah Bird Rose, Nourishing Terrains