Tuesday, March 07, 2006

on environmentalism

In a fine review of Michael Grunwald's The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, which traces the vexed environmental history of Florida, Greg Easterbrook ends with some thought-provoking words:
Closing this fine book, I had a small complaint and a big complaint. The small one is that The Swamp takes numerous potshots at the developers and amusement-park builders who crowded into Florida, but dodges an important aspect of economic growth that affluence makes possible: environmental protection. Townhomes can be tacky, and freeway congestion is infuriating; but the global population is expanding, and people must live somewhere. If environmentally destructive development (which is the story of most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) makes possible environmentally clean development (which has been happening roughly since the mid-1980s), the outcome is high living standards plus a respect for nature. And that is a good outcome.

My big complaint is that Grunwald's analysis of human interaction with the Everglades reflects what I once called the Fallacy of Environmental Correctness. The Swamp presents the pre-European-contact condition of Florida as correct in some first-causes sense, while implying that all human tampering with the Everglades was an offense against the proper order of things. Since the human lifespan is less than a century, we tend to think of environmental conditions as fixed. Yet when they were first seen by the conquistadors in the sixteenth century, the Everglades were just the latest variation on an endlessly changing natural landscape, created rather recently in geological terms and certain to be altered many more times in the future, whether humanity acted or not.

Not that long ago, much of North America was buried under an ice sheet, and what is now the Everglades region was drastically different. Step back further, into the Oligocene Epoch, and North America was arid, with no marshlands to protect. Step further back and Earth's temperatures were much higher than today; the birds of the current Everglades could not have lived at Florida latitudes in hotter prior eras. Or think about the future: even were there no Homo sapiens, a few thousand years into the future, the Everglades are sure to transform in unpredictable ways. There is no "correct" condition for a land area or biosphere. There is only the condition that happens to obtain at the moment. Given that humanity arises from the natural scheme, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our monkeying around with nature. Some of this monkeying fulfills our purposes as moral and historical agents--if it is done wisely, as Michael Grunwald has persuasively shown.

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