Berry’s Elitist Charges

I’m probably guilty of at least one of the charges Berry makes against conservationists in Another Turn of the Crank:

As necessary as it obviously is, the effort of "wilderness preservation" has too oft implied that it is enough to save a series of islands of pristine and uninhabited wilderness in an otherwise exploited, damaged, and polluted land. And, further, that the pristine wilderness is the only alternative to exploitation and abuse. So far, the moral landscape of the conservation movement has tended to be a landscape of extremes, which you can see pictured in any number of expensive books of what I suppose must be called "conservation photography." On the one hand we have the unspoiled wilderness, and on the other hand we have scenes of utter devastation-strip mines, clear cuts, industrially polluted wastelands, and so on. We wish, say the conservationists, to have more of the one and less the other. To which, of course, one must say amen. But it must be a qualified amen, for the conservationists' program is embarrassingly incomplete. Its picture of the world as either deserted landscape or desertified landscape is too simple; it misrepresents both the world and humanity. If we are to have an accurate picture of the world, even in its present diseased condition, we must interpose between the unused landscape and the misused landscape a landscape that humans have used well.

Most of my efforts and contributions have gone to preserving isolated “wilderness,? to preserving the last few unspoiled places in America. Not entirely coincidently, they are my favorite hiking and backpacking destinations. So little can even loosely be called wilderness, and probably none that is truly wild because of the human overuse that I feel it imperative to protect these places now. Protecting these places is a also vital step in preserving wildlife. Without wilderness areas the most magnificent forms of wildlife, grizzlies, mountain lions, wolves, simply wouldn’t be tolerated. They would be hunted into extinction. No matter how well farmers protect “the land? they are intolerant of animals that prey on their livestock, not unnaturally so. I don’t want any cougars or grizzly bears in my backyard either, but I don’t want to see them exterminated. I only have so much money and so much time that I can devote to causes, and I choose to donate it to these causes.

Though I think Berry sets up a false dichotomy between farmers and conservationists,

Conservationists have now begun to acknowledge that the health and productivity of the land constitute a common-wealth I say they have begun to acknowledge this because at present they tend to acknowledge it only so far as it pertains to forested or otherwise "wild" land, the land that most conservationists understand as "natural." They wish to protect common wealth of the forested land by some such doctrine as "the forest commons." But the danger is that this will accomplish only one more anomalous inversion; from a doctrine of private landownership that acknowledges no commonwealth, we might go to a doctrine of commonwealth in which there are no private shares. "The forest commons," I am afraid, may become an idea that will separate forestry and forest conservation from the rural economy, just as industrial agriculture is an idea that has separated farming and soil conservation from the rural economy.

I do prefer to trust what little is left of the Northwest woods to organizations like the Nature Conservancy or, better yet, local conservancy groups, rather than to individual landowners or their heirs, who have shown a decided tendency to clear cut their land whenever a profit is to be made.

This is not to say, though, that I don’t recognize the importance of healthy farmland to the country as a whole. It’s foolish to think that by themselves wilderness areas can support a viable ecosystem. Healthy farmlands are as essential to the well-being of animals and humans as is a healthy sea.

Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to look very hard to see that both the land and the ocean are suffering from human misuse. It’s hard to imagine how such misuse can continue without the human race itself suffering irreparable harm.

2 thoughts on “Berry’s Elitist Charges

  1. I don’t understand Berry’s comment. A decision to preserve areas of wilderness is an important and beneficial use of the land. The ecological benefits from preserving wetlands is an obvious example. If you don’t have people fighting to protect those areas, they’re gone. I hear in his comment (e.g., the “landscape of extremes?) the echo of Rush Limbaugh mocking environmental “wackos.?

  2. Berry is not easily understood until you read a lot of his work and understand how much importance he places on the right role of man in God’s creation. In Berry’s world, wetlands would be conserved because they are the source of many human needs (nursery for fish, water filtration, harvestable plants, etc.). For Berry, setting aside wetlands for human pleasure makes no sense, nor does setting aside “wilderness” areas. But just because wilderness areas are not set aside doesn’t mean that it is O.K. to kill all the wildlife or clear-cut the timber. Berry’s writing is nuanced and complex and is nothing that Limbaugh would ever understand.

What do you think?