Saturday, September 24, 2011

Acknowledging Exceptionality

"As glass office and condominium towers have proliferated in the last decade, so, too, have calls to make them less deadly to birds. The San Francisco Planning Commission adopted bird-safety standards for new buildings in July, and this month that city’s Board of Supervisors will vote on making it law. Legislation is pending in Washington that would require many federal buildings to incorporate bird-friendly designs. The United States Green Building Council, a nonprofit industry group that encourages the creation of environmentally conscious buildings, will introduce a bird-safety credit this fall as part of its environmental certification process, called LEED."
- "A City of Glass Towers, and a Hazard for Migratory Birds," New York Times, September 14, 2011
I enjoyed reading "A City of Glass Towers, and a Hazard for Migratory Birds," a recent New York Times article about bird-building collision mortality. Lisa Foderaro's piece is a hopeful account of how a confluence of activism, technology, and regulation can improve the lot of animals, especially in cases where a particular species has been adversely affected by human development.

The comments that follow the article, however, are predominated by doom-and-gloom attitudes. A representative survey follows:
All that matters are people and every little whim. We're a doomed species.
-Karma Every Moment, NY, NY

The people who tell us that evolution and climate change are just unproved theories have no idea how life formed this planet since its inception and no understanding whatsoever of the role of extinction in maintaining the climate within habitable bounds when any one plant or animal breaks the equilibrium. They convinced me long ago that there is no future for my own children.
-Steve Bolger, NY, NY

Yet another example of the consequences of man's selfish and destructive behavior. So sad.
-agetibi, Carrboro, NC
No wonder over 50% of Americans polled by The Nature Conservancy caricatured environmentalists as preachy reactionaries. In the words of the Conservancy's Chief Scientist, Peter Kareiva, most people see members of the environmental movement as "misanthropic, anti-technology, anti-growth, dogmatic, purist, zealous, exclusive pastoralists." Unsurprisingly, this negative stereotype has led to a dwindling of the movement's ranks.

I consider myself an environmentalist, but I distinguish between preservation and conservation (placing myself in the latter camp) and, more critically, I believe that environmentalism needs to embrace a "can do" attitude. If the majority of my fellow Times readers identify as environmentalists, their comments suggest that they're a well-intentioned pox. Wholesale condemnation of our species is as wrongheaded and malignant as exclusive glorification. In order to decry humanity as a "selfish and destructive" brute, one must stubbornly overlook all the evidence to the contrary. I wrote about such oversight in an essay included in the catalog for "A Live Animal," a group show that Selene Foster and I co-curated at Root Division.
"Although 'deep ecologists' and animal rights activists bemoan conservation approaches that prioritize human interests, the fact remains that human beings are exceptional animals. Skeptics and naysayers need only consider our species' biological and imaginative success to find evidence of our unprecedented faculty. But of all our remarkable features and feats, among the most notable examples of humanity's anomalous nature is our interest in and empathy for other species. Although there is growing scientific agreement that some other species possess self-awareness and even a capacity for empathy -- whales, dolphins, elephants, and our ape relatives are especially interesting in this regard -- humans are the only animal striving to learn about and better the lot of other creatures and environments. It's true that we often prioritize short-term, anthropocentric interests and it's also clear that reckless human activity has contributed to dramatic climate change and the ongoing Holocene extinction (our geological epoch's staggering loss of biodiversity), but conservation efforts and legislation, as well as our burgeoning interest in sustainability, speak to another, more hopeful human impulse; we possess an innate ability to see ourselves in other animals and, in turn, to recognize our capability as their stewards and representatives."
In short, we're not all bad. If you believe that we are, then you're guilty of sapping our species' potential. Christopher Cokinos is excellent on this point. I've quoted his terrific "Consolations of Extinction" essay before; I'll do it again.
"Too much grief for the world means less energy to help it along. [When] you find yourself free of the poisons that too much angst can cultivate, then something marvelous happens. You can sense how very old the planet is, how very old life and death are, and you can keep going on, you can keep doing the work you do in this universe, feeling despair when you feel despair, feeling - amazing - joy when you feel joy."

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