John Muir’s Legacy

caliStquarUnc_revWe recently spoke with Jon Christensen of UCLA who thinks that John Muir’s legacy is outdated. Cynics might think it’s because the future is bleak and it’s hopeless to keep chasing after the preservation of huge swathes of untouched wilderness.

But that would be missing the point.

More has changed since Muir’s time than the state of the environment.  Our relationship with the environment has changed, too.  Even the “We” has changed. California is not what it was when Muir first explored the Sierras.  It’s a culturally diverse, technologically-advanced place.  It’s a place whose inhabitants interact with the environment in a myriad of ways – including new, previously-unimagined ways.

The problem with Muir’s legacy is not that it’s old.  Or that it’s no longer feasible. Or that it’s no longer good.  It’s that it overshadows other forms of nature appreciation.

Beneath Muir’s legacy is a diverse understory of perspectives on nature.

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Just say NO (and drop it in the refusal bin)

I was surprised to discover a fourth “R” lurking in the phrase: reduce, reuse, recycle.

It’s “refuse.”

I don’t know if it was there all along, or if it was recently added.  Perhaps someone can find out and tell me.  Either way, it got me thinking about our culture’s obsession with refusal.  Of the four R’s, it seems to be the most popular.  Or the one we spend the most time thinking about.  For those who refuse, it can take up a lot of their thinking, eventually becoming part of their very identity.

We see refusal most clearly in our relationship with the environment of food.  This may be the most intimate of environments – our very bodies.  Not the outward appearances of skin and hair, even, but the dark space inside us.  Into it we drop things: baby carrots and graham crackers and slices of other animals.

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Why nature interpreters should re-think explaining the historical uses of plants

I work a lot with plants – native plants, to be precise.  People seem to appreciate the value of these plants in the aggregate, but not as individual species.  If the Bay Area suddenly lost all of its native flora, people would probably regret the loss.  But if you ask why this particular species is valuable and should not be allowed to disappear, they’re likely to shrug.

Perhaps this is because they don’t use it.  It’s a reasonable hypothesis: we appreciate plants that we use, like cotton and bananas.  Many of us appreciate the individual species that we use to enliven our yards.  Yet few people I know use Achillea millefolium (even if it was once used to treat battle wounds) or Stipa pulchra (even if it is California’s official state grass).

We therefore find interpretive signs, brochures, and guided tours replete with information on the historical uses of native plants by American Indians and European settlers.

This is a mistake.

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Back to the Land, again


I first noticed the man with the goats.  I’d been working on an ecological restoration in East Palo Alto, along the San Francisco Bay’s salt marshes.  EPA, for short, is across the 101 from wealthier Palo Alto and Stanford University, and is still known as a dangerous and gang-run town.  Yet as I walked to and from the restoration site, I discovered that the city’s housing lots were surprisingly long – up to an acre in size. Many, I learned, had their own wells for pumping water.  And quite a few resembled farms: rows of vegetables, fruit trees, and animals – including goats.

Thanks to Stanford historian Michael Kahan, I learned that East Palo Alto was home to a back-to-the-land movement nearly a century ago.

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Don’t worry, it’s not contagious

One of the questions that drew me into environmental philosophy was whether ecosystems could be healthy or sick.  A lot of people around me were talking (and still do) about “restoring ecosystem health.”  When I started my job with the environmental non-profit, I felt like I’d joined a clinic of nurses attending to patient Earth.  So I wondered, does it make sense to describe an ecosystem as healthy or unhealthy?  Is this merely metaphorical (as in a “healthy economy”), or can an ecosystem actually be unhealthy?

And once again, as with every step I take in environmental philosophy, I was surprised to learn that lots of people were actively debating this very topic.

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What does it mean to “restore” nature?

This is a big topic for The Socratic Trailhead, in part because I’m working in restoration ecology.  One of the things I do is organize volunteers at nature preserves to remove invasive species and install native plants.  So I’m particularly interested in asking whether these projects are really what they’ve been made out to be: attempts to “heal” nature for nature’s sake.  But it’s also a fascinating topic because it asks what it means to be human in a non-human world.

Professor Eric Katz is a critic of restorations.  He recently published an article, “Further Adventures in the Case Against Restoration.”  Katz thinks restorations can have positive purposes, such as mitigating damage caused by pollution or recreating wetlands that were destroyed by development.  But he takes issue with their meaning:

To call the product of an ecological restoration project the restoration of nature is, as I provocatively proclaimed twenty years ago, a “big lie.”

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Appreciation from afar: preserving nature’s “hidden gems”

I’m on an environmental aesthetics kick and I think it’s going to last a while.  So I hope you like this stuff as much as I do.

Glenn Parsons recently published an article that took me by surprise.  Here’s the problem:

It’s hard to say what nature’s “intrinsic” value is.  It’s a lot easier to argue that its value is instrumental – that it leads to an end outside of itself.  For instance, we can say that nature is valuable because it causes humans to experience aesthetic pleasure.  (Similarly, we can say it is valuable because it provides us with food, building supplies, fuel, medicines, etc.).  In other words, nature is a means, not an end.

But there are problems even with this “easier” approach to describing nature’s value.  Professor Parsons focuses on one – what he calls the “Hidden Gems” problem.  If people cannot visit a particular natural area because of its ecological fragility or inaccessibility, this area can’t be a means to its aesthetic appreciation.

Since no one can actually enjoy the aesthetic value of the natural area, its aesthetic value seems tantamount to no value at all, and useless as a justification for its preservation.


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