Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Must We Be Gardeners?

Author’s note: Must We Be Gardeners? was written as part of “2042”, my final submission for The 5000 Days, which I took in 1992. That course, offered through the University of Guelph, examined environmental and development issues. The assignment invited participants to consider life in the year 2042, 50 years after the Rio Conference, and I chose to write it as an online magazine called E-Coli (Eco-Logic International). To do so, I had to write a number of small articles and reports, each in a different voice. This is my favourite, and is influenced by Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature; I have not included my other sources here. If there are aspects you find inaccurate, please consider how long ago it was written - before the Web, before the IPCC, before we knew how hard corporations and governments would push to do nothing, before we knew how bad it might get.
D.C.K. 2010

Must We Be Gardeners?

wild 1 a. in an original state, not civilized or domesticated or cultivated or populated.
garden 1 n. piece of ground for growing flowers, fruit, or vegetables; (esp in pl.) grounds laid out for public enjoyment. 2 v.i. cultivate a garden

The definitions reflect a recent shift in the perception of Nature and our relationship with it. Until late in the last century, people of the Western (and Westernized) world felt themselves separate from Nature. The elements made them uncomfortable, both physically and, since the inability to control Nature made them feel powerless, psychologically. The result was an adversarial relationship with Nature: it was to be conquered and used for human purposes. Since Western culture and its consumerist ethic came to be globally dominant, this human-centered view of nature caused global environmental damage. By the time of the Rio conference, the relationship was becoming less adversarial: while the First Principle of the Rio Declaration still began with “Human beings are the center of concerns…”, it concluded with “They are entitled to a … life in harmony with Nature.”

But it was events in Nature, not conferences, which really convinced people to change. When knowledge of climate change and ozone holes sank in late in the century, people realized that they had become bigger than Nature, that there was nothing outside Homo Sapiens. What, then, was “wild?” Where could anyone go to “get away?” It seemed nothing was beyond the reach of human enterprise. There was no wild left, only garden.

At the time, this was a dangerous vision of the environment. The argument was put forward that, since everything was effectively controlled by Human actions, there was actually no Nature to save. Many, especially in governments, were therefore prepared to continue past practices of resource use and pollution, with added measures to lessen the environmental impacts; others were on the verge of giving up and allowing this to happen.

Fortunately, there was already proof that the footprint of humanity could be erased, in that ozone depletion rates had begun to drop by early 1992, only a few years after the Montréal Protocol. The depletion rate continued to drop, especially after the bans became universal, and the net ozone depletion halted just after the turn of the century. The desire to withdraw, to “tread lightly on the Earth,” permeated human consciousness, bringing a paradigm shift – we became Gardeners.

During the shift, there was much debate about how to proceed, especially with the use of technologies such as bioengineering. On the one end, some groups demanded a return to extremely simple lives as the solution. They emphasized the hubris of imagining that the complexity of the planetary ecosystem could be managed. At the other end of the debate, groups looked to technology to save them and allow a continuation of their lifestyles. The reality, as we know, is that the solutions, like the problems, are multi-faceted. We simplified our lives, lowered our impacts, and used technologies as appropriate. Some still bemoan the fact that trees are altered to withstand higher temperatures and ultraviolet levels, or that laser beams are zapping CFCs in the aurora. Most do not want to hear about sea walls or algae farms on their coasts. Yet all understand the purpose of the technologies – after all, following a storm, gardeners protect what is left and repair the damage done.

As gardeners, we are responsible for the care and repair of this Garden Earth. There is sadness in imagining the wildness we may never know, but also joy in knowing that wildness may in time return to spaces we have restored and protected. Such work is our only link with future generations.

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