Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Border (Bio)diversity (of opinion)

The Robert Smithson in me is bemused by international borders, particularly those boundaries that are not physically demarcated, lines that exist only in cartography and our collective political imagination. Last night, I contemplated a striking black-and-white photograph of the Mexico-U.S. border. The image was dominated by a rural "vehicle barrier" fence (similar to the one shown above), far removed from an official border checkpoint or crossing. In the desert of the American Southwest, this fence draws an arbitrary line in wire and steel.

It struck me as an emblem of humanity's absurdly tenuous existence, a reminder that our species is an insignificant mote in an incomprehensibly tremendous weave. As the artist Carl Buell wrote in the comments section of a recent HH post,
"With every change in sea level and shoreline, with the raising or eroding of every mountain range, with every changing weather pattern, life spreads out as it can and comes into contact with new environments, opportunities and hazards...As I get older (than dirt), I find myself starting to think like the hills themselves. Some day after eroding and washing out to sea, I’ll be a hill again."
Indeed, each of us (and, eventually, our species) will be reconstituted, and our arbitrary borders, those lines in the mud of space-time, will be erased. In this respect, the border fence is a healthy reminder of our existential folly, but it also reveals humanity's darker inclinations. We build fences, after all, to divide "us" from "them," the demonized "other."

The photograph that inspired this post was printed in the most recent issue of Wildlands Connection, the Wildlands Project newsletter. It accompanied an article about wildlife bottlenecks at the Mexico-U.S. border. The Wildlands Project's mission is to create vast, uninterrupted linkages, known as wildlife corridors, that will extend from Canada into Mexico (on the Rockies spine) and from Canada into Florida (on the Appalachian spine). The U.S.-Mexico border fence is a major obstacle to the organization's first goal.

Yet physical barricades are but one of the obstacles that ambitious conservationists face. Consider wildlife trade legislation that protects species in one country, but not another, adjacent nation. If strict laws prohibit the trapping or hunting of a species in China, for example, but not in neighboring Mongolia, is the Chinese legislation effectively addressing species welfare (particularly when Chinese citizens are paying top dollar to have the killed contraband imported)? Similar issues haunt conservation efforts the world over.

The humanitarian and social concerns that ethically-minded conservationists must take into account present a more nuanced hurdle. Environmental groups in the European Union are warring with one another about how best to create the legislative and physical infrastructure necessary for sustainable energy development. How can you raise thousands of wind turbines without hindering bird migration, ruining aesthetics, or plopping towers in the backyards of folks too poor and disenfranchised to protest?

If the various interest groups in the EU, one of the most environmentally progressive governing bodies in the world, are at odds, is it realistic to expect conservation to become a truly supra-national affair? After all, the EU's concerns are petty alongside those of the southern hemisphere. Whereas Europe is a sprawl of cultivated landscape relatively lacking in biodiversity, the "Third World" represents the usually disastrous meeting of remarkable biodiversity and an exploding human population. Impressed by our terrible example, the citizens of these nations emulate the unsustainable behavior of the "First World." In order to counter the detrimental environmental effects of Third World industrialization, international legislation will face increasingly substantial challenges. The supra-national bodies can create laws, but can we enforce these laws without wielding the colonial sceptre? More critically, can we conserve biodiversity and healthy ecosystems without subjugating the rights of the humans that call the Third World home?

These questions bring me to "Climate of Fear," a recent book by the eloquent Nigerian poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. Though Soyinka is writing about humanity's attempt to cope with terrorism, his political thrust is applicable to all realms, and his message is clarion.
"The gray zones of moral definitions where relativity reigns and remote cause are evoked to justify the abhorrent will continue to haunt certain casts of mind. The rest will insist on the primacy of an ethical will, one that dictates that some deeds demand to be judged within an identifiable and shared moral universe, however restricted...The ethical will is the redeeming assertion that, even when all other considerations of social conduct are subjected to the fortuitous, one, an ethical core, remains inviolate."
All of our fences fail. Perhaps we should recognize in that certainty both an entropic truth and an implicit morality. Within the context of this "shared moral universe," we are impelled to remove artificial barriers, whether they are constructed to stem the natural tide of human migrations or to protect us from our enemies. No matter the justification for the boundaries we draw, they are immoral inventions. And man, it is said, is the moral animal.

Photo credit: ripped from Kris Eggle's website

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