Mr. Gore is right in a claim he made some years back in Earth in the Balance. This century must be the time we come to grips with our relationship to the planet. It is the crucial issue of our time, and it links everyone together in a common fate.
When the phrase “Nature is not a luxury” occurred to me, it resonated so well that I wondered if I had heard it before. If not, I could sort of claim it as a slogan and possibly as a book title for myself.
I’m not the first person to utter the sentence, but according to Google, other people mean it a bit differently than I do. The first hit is from Campbell Webb of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, writing in Conservation Biology:
Nature is not a luxury. The nonhuman world has rights. Conservation is an ethical stance. True, humans have rights, and these will often clash with the rights of nature, but let us at least talk about this conflict. Obviously, arguing for the rights of nature is not new (Naess 1973), but it has seldom been the stance of academic biologists, although this appears to be changing.
I understand this point of view, and I agree with it, but it doesn’t capture what I mean by “nature”. Even stranger to me is this:
Nature’s services cast a broad net, says Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont. He spoke recently in Maryland, where he studied the bay for many years. They range from regulation of climate, pollination of crops and food and timber production, to soil formation, genetic resources, waste treatment and recreational opportunities. “Nature is not a luxury, not an ‘if we can afford it’ proposition,” Costanza told members of the Maryland Conservation Council. He and other researchers have attempted to put a price on the natural planet, coming up with what he calls “a very conservative estimate” of around 33 trillion bucks a year in goods and services. That far surpasses the value of the human economy.
Both of these fall into the old trap of imaging humans as being in conflict with nature, of economics as a triumph over nature, of nature as an obligation or a line item in the budget that needs to be thrashed out every year. In practice of course there will be such battles, but this yields the perspective to those who are so wrapped up in the wealth game that they forget it is a game. Taking the romantic, empathetic view of nature as delicate and fragile disrespects nature and seems to persist in undervaluing the risks we take.
As I see it, the problem is in the nature of “nature”, a word which, as William Cronon points out in a remarkable symposium he put together, has had many interpretations. Consider, though, what nature means in a literal sense, the sense the publishers invoked when they decided to call a leading science magazine “Nature”.
Nature in that sense is not going away; the idea of “protecting” it is ludicrous. The main things we can do about nature are to make it less congenial to us or to leave it alone. (Conceivably we can argue about whether it is possible to make it better, but we are so far from that as to make this question quite academic for the present.) We can provoke nature, souring the oceans, razing the forests, soaking up the rivers. Nature will (in the sense I mean the word “nature”) go on. Possibly we won’t, or possibly we will squeak by in poverty; possibly the planet will be greatly depleted of life forms, and won’t appeal to us very much. There will still be life, most likely, and even if there isn’t life there will still be nature.
We arose in and live in a peculiar and unique configuration of nature. We can’t get by on other planets where nature has other configurations. We don’t fully understand what keeps nature in the peculiarly fine configuration it’s in. As we push the balance ever harder, eventually we’ll disequilibrate something.
We need to rethink how we think. Human laws cannot override natural laws, and the eco-system is not a component of the eco-nomy. We can behave very stupidly, but we’re the ones who’ll suffer from it, not nature.
Nature is necessary not merely because we need the forest to cleanse our souls. Nature is pervasive; we need air to breathe and water to drink and food to eat and land to walk on. There is no number of gold bars sufficient to tilt the balance once it goes far enough. There is no limit to the peril into which we can place ourselves by poking at nature, short of our own extinction. Nature will not care, but we very definitely will.