Art, Earth And Ethics, Part One
National Forests, Spotted Owls, Environmentalism, The Abuse Of Nature And Our Future
The Earth will survive, but will man survive on the Earth? – Philip Hyde
(See the photograph large here in David Leland Hyde Sierra Portfolio.)
My father, American landscape photographer Philip Hyde, and my mother Ardis bought 18 acres in 1956 for a few thousands dollars in Plumas County in the Northern Sierra Nevada of California. Plumas National Forest borders this land where I grew up, on two sides. Plumas National Forest also happens to be the top lumber producing national forest in the Lower 48 United States.
While my father was an artist and my mother a schoolteacher, my childhood friends were sons and daughters of loggers in Plumas National Forest and farmers in nearby Indian Valley. I remember conversations on both sides of the environmental equation. A good example of the nature of these discussions occurred recently. It was more of a one-sided rant than a dialog. A retired logger, who I consider a friend, and one of his friends, a claim gold miner, were raving about “those damn enviro’s.” Their comments were vaguely directed toward me, though also more general, offered in protest of all the injustices in the world and their own lives.
“I can’t believe the Feather River Land Trust won’t let us hunt ducks on the Heart K Ranch in Genesee Valley any more. We’ve been hunting ducks there for 50 years. Rich city people come up here and they don’t know anything about our way of life.” They were on a roll, fueled by beer and who knows what else. I did not intervene at first.
“There are no jobs left because of the enviro’s,” One of them said. “Yeah, and the damn Spotted Owl,” the other said. “Just because of one tiny bird, whole forests are closed to logging. What’s more important: one stupid little bird, or the economy? I’d like to take every one of those damn Spotted Owls and strangle them. People are the endangered species.”
I started to respond, but the old logger interrupted me, “We know what you’re going to say. You’re in cahoots with the wealthy Bay Area crowd. Don’t talk any of that rubbish in this house. I’ll throw you out.”
I rode my bike home and pondered how the above conversation has not changed for 50 or even hundreds of years either. What these hard working old guys fail to understand is that the Spotted Owl is only a symptom, just the tip of a very large iceberg. The ecosystems are breaking down and these few species that are dying are like advance warnings. Depending on your perspective, a few bees are not so important. “We can just get beehives to pollinate the crops,” another local said. Neither is it vital whether the local frogs can still reproduce, or whether any other single species, or single population of a species lives or dies. However, when you stop and think about how many human fertility clinics there were 30 years ago and how many there are now in every town, when you start to connect the dots, you begin to get the bigger picture.
The Earth is a web of all life. Everything is connected to everything else. You destroy one part of the web of life and you eventually destroy yourself. People reading this blog perhaps will say this is a “no-brainer,” that I’m not pointing out anything new here. True, but why are we as a collective not getting it? Not doing enough to change our perspective and our ways? Greed? Corruption? Selfishness? Lack of vision? Denial? Laziness? Pessimism? Resignation? What is your excuse for still driving a traditional car? …For burning fossil fuel? …For using plastic products? …For not recycling? Even hybrid and electric automobiles have a tremendous impact on the environment just through their manufacture and the mining extraction of the materials that go into them.
Is it really the environment that we need to save, or ourselves? When we act in ways that have less impact, carpool, ride a bike, is it truly on behalf of the environment? Is that the primary concern? Or is environmentalism really self-preservation? My father used to say that we do not need to worry about the Earth. It will be here long after we are gone. It is our own survival for which we need to be concerned. Therefore, are environmentalists in reality interested in protecting the environment at the expense of people, or precisely because it is our own future that is in jeopardy.
This paradox still escapes the majority of people in our culture. What do we do about it? I was lucky to grow up with both an environmental ethic and an art aesthetic. Care for the planet and beauty as a telltale of balanced health are ingrained in my psyche. Unfortunately, most people do not grow up as fortunately. To put in perspective how blindly oblivious and unaware some can be, take for instance one extreme case: this video of former Boy Scout leaders destroying an ancient rock formation in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.
When I first saw this video of young men responsible for leading others into nature having no respect for nature, I was dismayed, not only about those committing the crime and their kind, but also about whether there is any hope for our civilization. What we fail to realize is that we are all taking actions much like these ignorant young men. Not only are there just enough clueless people like them running around that it is easy to fall into thinking we are doomed, but we are all clueless to a much greater degree than we understand. In the realm of photography, even many nature and landscape photographers seem to have no respect for nature or other photographers, as landscape photographer Sarah Marino reported in her photoblog post, in which she suggested a field etiquette for landscape photographers.
Regardless of misguided deeds and a destructive approach to nature by our whole civilization, I believe there is still hope. I am writing this new series of blog posts precisely because I believe there is something we may not yet know, something we have not yet discovered, some new information or new action that will save us. This does not mean we can sit back, relax, watch TV, play video games, surf Facebook and not worry. It means that we need to put all of our synergistic efforts and pooled resources into finding a solution. But are we likely to do that? That is the question.
A New Yorker article, Scientific American and Grist Magazine report that even many leading scientists believe it is already too late to do anything about Climate Change. Wow, that went fast. Many people still doubt and wonder whether it is reality or myth, truth or fiction. Those of us who have been reading the science know that it is based on much more than mere computer modeling. We know that the science of Global Warming is based on mountains of hard evidence and real measurements that are hard to misread.
The abuse of nature has gone on for thousands of years. It is even sanctioned in the Bible. Genesis says our role is to conquer and have dominion over the Earth. Fortunately, today large numbers of Christians are not taking the Bible literally. More moderate Christians are in favor of applying the passages in the good book that tout taking care of Earth.
In the recent winner of the Colorado Book Award, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future, author Stephen Grace covers the devastating state of water and drought in the Western US today. Water laws, originally developed in the much wetter East, protect the use of water channeled away from rivers and streams at the expense of in-stream ecological, aesthetic and recreational values.
As economies across the West surged, streams were dammed, ditched, and diverted until their beds were nearly bare. Many rivers became toxic trickles because they didn’t carry enough volume to dilute poisons and flush themselves clean. And each diversion for an offstream use, whether to grow crops, make steel or send drinking water to city taps, reduced the amount of instream flow available for supporting fish and wildlife populations, nourishing riparian vegetation, and promoting recreational pursuits such as boating, camping, fishing, and bird watching… To some, especially those profiting from raising beef on irrigated pasture—these uses seemed ridiculous at best, a threat to their way of life at worst.
Hoover Dam on the Colorado River helped supply the power to win World War II. After the War Hoover Dam was one of the underpinnings of the US rise to world power. Damming and diverting rivers has become as American as apple pie and as loved as baseball in the political arena, but the effects on watersheds, the durability of our limited fresh water supply and ultimately the health of the arteries of life on Earth is at stake.
On a larger scale, we are treating nature with the same abusive disdain across the globe. Are we lacking ethics or taste? Is it simply in our nature to be a parasite on the face of the Earth? Can we change? These and other questions, answers and ways out of the trap we have set for ourselves will be the subject of this new blog series.
(Continued in the blog post, “Art, Earth And Ethics 2.”)
Please comment, email or write me through the Contact Form above what environmental issues, ecological concerns and related psychology and philosophy you would like to read more about.