Books

In Our Nature

Three writers try to restore our relationship with the environment

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

The first house I rented in Vancouver looked like a barn abandoned on a residential block. The landlord built parts of it in the ’70s, when he believed aluminum was the material of the future; three decades on, neighbours called it the Tin Palace. During our four happy years there, my roommates and I could never rid the place of its essential earthiness. Rotting and damp and bereft of sunlight, it was Mother Nature’s flophouse. Rain poured indoors, squirrels mated in our walls, fleas flourished in our beds. Mice lived in a world of plenty.

The Tin Palace affirmed what has always seemed true to me: nothing separates humankind from our environment. The material world cannot rise above nature. Industry, commerce, ethics, art—these are mere reconfigurations of material, none of which alters our intrinsic animal basis. We mistake our cities and technologies for evidence of human transcendence, as if the hexagons of a honeycomb were proof of the bee’s unnaturalness. Humans can do many splendid things, but escaping nature is not one of them.

Still, despite environmentalism’s mainstream moment, we persist in seeing ourselves as detached from the earth, affecting it but somehow not of it. In a 2008 study published in the Human Ecology Review, for instance, the vast majority of participants believed they were a part of nature. However, after being asked to list phrases that came to mind when thinking about the natural environment, the most common answer was “undisturbed by humans”; when considering the unnatural, it was “human-made entities.” Paradoxically, even those who claimed to believe in our connection to the planet nevertheless perceived the natural world as pristine and untouched.

Much depends on how we conceive of this relationship. Psychologist P. Wesley Schultz, of California State University, San Marcos, has demonstrated that concern for the environment is intimately tied to a person’s sense of interdependence with it; if most people make choices based on self-interest, then expanding our notion of self to include the world around us will result in more sustainable choices. However, as three new books unwittingly illustrate, sometimes even the most impassioned environmentalists fail to erase the false division between humans and the planet.

In his iconoclastic Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, Jim Sterba traces the rise of suburban sprawl and calls for a corresponding new ecology. Of the 81 percent of Canadians who now live in urban areas, half are suburb dwellers. Suburban growth outpaces that of city centres by more than 160 percent. In the age of sprawl, we all live in the Tin Palace; the ring of farmland that once separated cities from the woods has largely disappeared. Against the default vision of many environmentalists—that sprawl has made North America less green—Sterba points to the remarkable reforestation and the surge in wildlife populations that have occurred since the latter half of the nineteenth century.

If this environmental triumph has gone unremarked, its unfortunate side effects have been equally neglected. With hunting prohibited in most American suburbs, for example, the country’s white-tailed deer population grew from an estimated 350,000 in 1890 to between 25 million and 40 million by the 1990s. Crop damage, habitat destruction, Lyme disease, and automobile fatalities are among the consequences of this population explosion. “The only deer predator left is a Chevy pickup,” one state highway department worker tells Sterba.

The social response to these problems has been just as chaotic, and Sterba has considerable contempt for those activists who, still reacting to nineteenth-century excesses, defend the ecological scourge of animal overpopulation. “Some people believe that wild animals and birds live in a natural balance if left undisturbed by the destructive interventions of man,” he writes. But, as Nature Wars illustrates, leaving nature alone “would amount to abdicating management of our forests to white-tailed deer.”

Instead, he calls for human oversight. Feeding birds, mowing lawns, using garbage cans, and keeping pets are just a few of the ways in which citizens already engage in wildlife management. He rather vaguely hopes that by extending our sense of stewardship—which includes accepting our role as top predator—“people can learn lessons from past mistakes and correct them and can learn new ways of thinking about issues and dealing with them.”

Sterba desires a renewed connection to the planet, but his argument bears traces of the troubling binary that keeps humans separate from the environment. In a passage his book would do better without, he audaciously claims that because they were better acquainted with farms and forests, “early boomers were the last generation to be able to appreciate a nature presentation on film for what it was and not confuse it with the real world.” His otherwise measured argument then turns technophobic: portable digital gadgets, he writes, can “summon up various reproductions of reality, often in real time, but not reality itself. They made reality easier to ignore.” Because of technological mediation, he believes, we have lost the ability to appreciate nature on its own terms.

Suddenly, his message is mixed: humans, especially young, urban North Americans with iPhones, must recognize that they are not exempt from nature; yet somehow we have fallen outside it. When we use our gadgets, we are not even a part of reality. Such claims have the unintended effect of elevating humans precisely where humility is in order. Rather than expanding his reader’s sense of self, Sterba draws an arbitrary line around technology. A better environmentalism, on the other hand, would consider technology entirely natural. Until the iPhone in my pocket is perceived as a product of its environment, it will serve as a kind of talisman, magically isolating me from Mother Earth and her concerns.

John Shivik is what Sterba would call a “species partisan,” someone who has chosen a particular group of animals to defend. In The Predator Paradox: Ending the War with Wolves, Bears, Cougars, and Coyotes, Shivik decries what he calls “the longest war carried out by the US government”: the one against large mammalian predators.

Like Sterba, he is attuned to sprawl, “a megalopolis of micro-habitats that create homes for rabbits, rats, mice, gophers, squirrels, and deer—thus spreading a tablecloth upon which mammalian predators can dine.” Rather than using deterrence, however, the US imposes a single draconian penalty for animals tempted to the feast: “84,584 wolves, coyotes, bears, and lions were terminated by the Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, in 2011 alone,” he writes. In response, Shivik, a biologist and wildlife management expert, has developed non-lethal techniques to protect livestock, pets, and people.

He praises the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill, Manitoba, which deals with problem animals humanely and “does just about everything we want to accomplish with this book.” Meanwhile, although Canadians have made peace with these beautiful bears, we have no coyotes on our coinage, and our general attitude toward mammalian predators is consistent with the Americans’. When nineteen-year-old folksinger Taylor Mitchell became the first North American adult to be killed by coyotes, while hiking in Nova Scotia in 2009, the province issued a bounty for several years afterward. In the first year, 2,600 pelts were collected; at the time, the total coyote population in Nova Scotia was estimated at 8,000.

Although Shivik focuses on the ecology of sprawl, which in his depiction is as porous as my Tin Palace, he too falls into the fallacy of our separation from nature. “I worry about our cities,” he writes. “They are great comforts for humanity, but people wall themselves away, a highway and a driveway at a time, from the world that created them.” While he assigns much of the blame for the war on predators to “rednecks”—the ranchers most affected by wild carnivores—he also describes the “sense of nobleness and purposeful importance among agriculturalists that is all but lost in modern-day urban culture.”

How can urbanites cross back into the natural order? Shivik’s answer seems to rest in a taste for blood. In a lyrical moment, he writes about the elk he hunted, gutted, and ground into burgers and sausages: “To this day, when I pull a package of elk meat from the freezer, my heartbeat quickens. I relive the moment of taking a life in order to sustain my own.” One gets the sense that his partiality toward predators is linked to his own particular sense of what is natural: pain. In preparing the meat, “there is pain and suffering, and for me that is the point. The connection has been stolen from us by the inventors of Styrofoam and plastic wrap.” Once again, technology is the problem—in this case plastic wrap, though not, apparently, Shivik’s freezer.

“Nature’s wrath is a big part of what I think makes it so beautiful,” writes Dan Riskin, an evolutionary biologist and co-host of Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet. If fear will inspire us to care about the environment, then Riskin’s Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You: A Lively Tour through the Dark Side of the Natural World is the most effective of the three books. Structured according to the seven deadly sins, it brings us a pageantry of the damned: wasps that lay their eggs in cockroaches, plants pumped with noxious chemicals, infanticidal zebras. Riskin’s ruthless Darwinism envisions every animal as “an elaborate robot, made of meat and bones, built by the DNA to protect itself.”

Nature, he argues, is “immoral, vulgar, and downright wicked,” and those who advocate for a “natural” way of life are his bêtes noires. Such advocates—often advertisers making dubious environmental claims—would have you believe that nature is “all honey and no stingers,” and that mould, vermin, and the like are somehow alien invaders.

His perverse tour hammers a more holistic vision of the environment into his reader, and he demonstrates a refreshingly even keel when it comes to technology. Concerning genetically modified foods, for example, he writes, “There’s no reason to fear genetic engineering as a technology. Just because it feels unnatural doesn’t mean it’s bad.” But he oddly overshoots the mark when describing human virtue. “What’s natural about gender equality? What’s natural about human rights? Nothing,” he writes. “So let’s call them what they are—unnatural and wonderful.” Like Sterba and Shivik, he encourages readers to recognize the wholeness of nature, but he still cannot resist depicting humans as somehow engaged in abnormal behaviour.

He hopes that pride in our own unnaturalness will encourage progress. “We’re humans—we evolved in nature, but we can do better than the natural order,” he argues. Sterba and Shivik drew lines around technology, but Riskin, unable to relinquish his meat-robot vision even momentarily, draws his around human goodness. However, if a greater sense of connection to the earth does inspire more sustainable choices, then aggrandizing ourselves cannot be the basis for effective environmentalism.

Even if the Tin Palace had been cleaner, its leaks stopped, the mould bleached, the flies swatted, that would not have made it less a part of nature. There are better and worse ways to conserve our species and the resources on which we depend—and these books help us uncover solutions—but there can be no unnatural way. Houses are to humans what the den is to the fox; cave and condo dwellers are part of one inescapable whole. To connect sensitively with nature, we don’t have to get dirt under our fingernails. Rather, we should look upon our highways, stadiums, and smokestacks, our loves, doubts, and griefs, as evidence of Mother Nature’s strangeness.

This appeared in the May 2014 issue.

Michael LaPointe ((@MWLaPointe) has written literary criticism for The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and The Los Angeles Review.

Graham Roumieu (roumieu.com) is a National Magazine Award winner and a regular contributor to The Walrus. He draws for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

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