Natural Agents Of Change


The very act of living, requires life to alter it’s environment. From the byproducts of eating and breathing to the castles we live in; all require and produce change in the environment. This is the natural order of life on the planet earth. Birds do it, bees do it, trees do it, beavers do it, we do it. It’s natural.

dam-on-thorofare-creek-nps.jpgThere is nothing ‘destructive’ about our changing food into poo. There is nothing ‘destructive’ about our changing O to CO or CO2 during breathing. This is ‘natural.’ There is nothing ‘destructive’ about a beaver building a dam across Thorofare Creek in Yellowstone.

The byproducts of the dam built by beaver-trees.jpgthe beaver include dead grass, dead trees, eroded trails & runs, trapped fish, eroded stream banks, siltation of the pond, etc. This is natural and it’s what beavers do. In fact, whatever a beaver does – and whatever alteration of the environment results – is natural.

oshaughnessy-dam-hetch-hetchy.jpgThe only difference between beaver dams and human dams is one of scale. Oh, and somewhere along the way a value judgment is made. Not the value judgment of “good vs. bad,” but the value judgment about “natural vs. unnatural.” Somewhere the perception develops that some natural behaviors are “bad” and others are “good.” And, in the case of humans “Natural” vs. “Unnatural.”

The National Park Service at one time believed that wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and other predators were bad. These “bad” elements of the ‘natural environment’ were eliminated so that the “good” elements of the ‘natural environment’ could proliferate. The consequences of this action are with us today and we deplore the “unnatural” “imbalance” that the removal of predators left behind.

world-match.jpgSomehow, removal of predators (coyotes & muggers,) from Central Park, in New York City is viewed as good and natural. These kinds of value judgments creep into our vocabulary and cloud our thinking.

From Julian Steward to Noam Chomsky there has been a thread of thought that points out how the universe is shaped by our language and it’s depictions of the “natural world.”

Depending on your theology you believe that humans are “natural” or “unnatural.” And that theology structures your vocabulary, and that vocabulary is laden with value judgments about the alterations to the environment that humans make – from breathing to dam building to global warming.

There is no behavior or byproduct that can be attributed to humans that is not found in some other living organism. There is of course the attribute of scale, and the supposed attribute of “reason & intelligence.”

In a very real sense the current state of the world is 100% natural. The anthropogenic component of global warming is as natural as the rhythmic swing of temperature & weather has been in the past.

holy-cow.jpgHumans, (of course depending on your theology,) are just a recent development in the long history of environment-altering organisms.

Humans, (depending on your theology,) are just another part of the complex equation that determines the current and future state of this little rock. And humans, (depending on your theology,) will be long gone by the time this little rock becomes part of the sun. It’s just natural, (depending on your theology.)

It’s time to deal with the semantic component of our values. Are protected wolves “natural?” Are protected grizzly bears natural? Are we going to make anything “more natural” by delisting either? Of course not. We are natural and our actions are natural and the byproducts of our actions are natural. The question is — is it good?

Because, my theology demands that I make decisions based on a value structure that sees us all as natural: and all of our actions are natural as well. We can, however, change those actions in light of our definition of good or bad. Good for what? Bad for what? If it’s good for the earth, should we eliminate humans? If it’s good for humans does that mean we have to change the earth?

What’s good for Yellowstone? What’s good for visitors? Now there’s an interesting question framed over 90 years ago with the establishment of the National Park Service. And it’s a question of values not “natural vs. unnatural.” Or, is it?

The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purposes of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

interiorbuilding.jpgThe arguments about what is, or is not, “natural” are spurious. It’s all natural – and in a most troubling sense it’s both good and bad. That’s just the way human constructs are. Just like the roads that “impair” the “natural” scenery so that we can enjoy the “natural” scenery.

We and our roads and our dams and our CO2 are natural. We should decide what to do to make them “good.” If we can.


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