Sick Environmentalism: A Prescription for Change

Courtesy of NASA
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Courtesy of NASA

BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER – According to a growing body of experts, environmentalism is failing, especially the war on invasive species. The current approach to conservation with its emphasis on weeding the world is damaging the environment and harming people. And there is no end in sight.

Dr. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, is one of the newest voices in the scientific community criticizing current conservation practices and calling for a new environmental approach for the 21st Century.


In his recent expose´ of today’s failed conservationism, excellently discussed in the eye-opening, must read article entitled, “Conservation in the Anthropocene”. It argues that nature is resilient and not fragile and easily destroyed as typically portrayed, and argues that environmental policy must consider the needs of people, rather than trying to exclude people. People are not the enemy, it reasons, but part of the solution.

As Dr. Karieva states, “…(w)e need to acknowledge that a conservation that is only about fences, limits, and far away places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition. Protecting biodiversity for its own sake has not worked. Protecting nature that is dynamic and resilient, that is in our midst rather than far away, and that sustains human communities — these are the ways forward now.”

(More detail, in video form. “Failed Metaphors and A New Environmentalism for the 21st Century”

So here is the Nature Conservancy asking for a new environmental approach. As we answer the call for alternatives to managing the environment, it would be helpful to consider how we manage our most intimate environment – our bodies.

Each one of us is a world unto ourselves, composed of various ecosystems analogous to forests, deserts, wetlands and caves. Our bodies are inhabited by hordes of bacteria fighting for survival on our human planet, living among fungi forests and yeast gardens grazed by mites and lice and uncountable microscopic critters.

How we manage our body’s environment is called healthcare. It is personal environmental management. And it can tell us a great deal about how to manage the environment outside of our bodies.

What would an invasive species be in terms of our bodies? Is there a medical model that describes an invasion of species that threatens our fragile bodies, comparable to the invasion biology model that sees invasive species taking over the fragile environment?

Actually, we already have a model for that. It’s called the germ theory. According to this theory, our personal micro-flora of bacteria, yeast, and so forth co-exist as a fragile ecosystem under constant threat of attack by invading micro-organisms. These invasive species, which we call pathogens, can sometimes get a foothold and begin taking over the body.

In essence, then, the germ theory is the same as the invasion biology theory. The germ theory dominates medicine as the invasion biology theory dominates environmentalism.

The germ theory leads people to sterilize their hands frequently and use antibiotics to prevent and treat infections. The invasion biology theory leads people to weed frequently and use pesticides and herbicides to prevent and treat infestations.

Antibiotics are the same as herbicides and pesticides. In fact, the word antibiotic means anti-life. All are poisons of living things.

Human and environmental healthcare, then, have a similar approach, and some of the same treatments. For both, treatment consists of fighting invading organisms with antibiotics.

Of course, there are many people who oppose the current medical model. Alternative medicine emphasizes encouraging health over treating disease. It holds that a healthy body can withstand germs, which are only a problem when the body is weakened. In fact, exposure to germs makes the immune system even stronger. So to fight and prevent disease, one must strengthen the body, and trust in the body’s ability to heal naturally.

Applied to the environment, we would not worry about introduced species potentially becoming invasive, but would instead make sure the environment is healthy so there is no place for harmful species to move in. In reality this works, especially in the garden. Gardeners know that a healthy garden is a living system that can keep out pests.

This alternative approach would also decry the use of antibiotics. Often, these poisons harm the body as well as the target. They also kill harmless bacteria, and can create resistant germs that can be more of a problem in the future. Likewise, spraying pesticides and herbicides often results in worse problems than before, killing harmless species and resulting in resistant weeds and pests.

Conversely, an alternative healthcare approach would encourage the introduction of beneficial species to enhance and assist healthy functioning of the body. Probiotics in healthcare include bacteria, such as L. acidophilus in yogurt, which people consume to augment their bacterial flora in their gut to aid in digestion. In environmental healthcare, it might include mangrove trees to clear the water, or a flowering ornamental plant that feeds honeybees when other flowers are not in bloom, or frogs to eat insect pests, or fruit trees that provide food for wildlife, or sheep to eat vines and weeds and provide meat for predators, hunters and their families.

It is an emphasis on the positive, not a focus on the negative. It is probiotic, not antibiotic.

An alternative environmental healthcare would be looking for ways to improve and protect environmental functions. We would allow change to occur, and have trust in the ability of Nature to withstand change and to adapt and evolve. Just as our bodies know how to heal from disease, so does Nature.

A healthy environment needs to adapt and adopt if it is to survive. That goes for all life.

A healthy environment, like a healthy body, is usable. Life is meant to be lived, and the environment is meant to be used and enjoyed.

This approach would also hold that humans are part of the environment. That’s necessary for a holistic understanding, since we humans certainly have an impact and cannot be ignored. This is in stark contrast to current the environmental approach that is misanthropic and considers humans the root cause of environmental problems.

There would also be less emphasis on native ecosystem restoration, except in the context of a living museum. Restorations are really attempts to reverse time. Most never succeed, and if they do, they require constant upkeep and maintenance.

Of course, there will be times when you need an antibiotic to get through a nasty infection, or when you may need to use herbicide or pesticide to kill a noxious plant or insect. There are times for war. But this should be the last resort.

Living systems have defense mechanisms to maintain their integrity. We need to respect that power and not be quick to declare war and unleash its deadly methods.

Germ phobia has created a huge industry of sterilization and cleansing products. This huge industry promotes germ phobia. Both go hand in hand, and the hands are pre-wiped with hand sanitizer. Invasive species phobia is also a product of the poisonous chemical industry. Both have turned our culture into a bunch of alienated, isolated, sterilized people living in sterile, polluted worlds.

Given our culture’s alienation from nature, it is no surprise that we have had an environmental approach that focuses on alien species. In psychological terms, this is called projection.

Meanwhile, the environmental model of cut and poison is harming our own personal environments, since the distinction between our personal worlds and the world around us is really an illusion. Exposure to pesticides is a leading cause of human disease and death. When we spray the world for weeds we also are spraying ourselves, our water, our air, our food, and are destroying our health.

So what we need is a new healthcare paradigm with which to shape our lives and our world. We need to stop waging war on nature, despite the pressure of the eradication profiteers to proceed. We need to treat our bodies and world healthfully so we don’t have to treat it for disease. And we need to respect the inherent ability of the human and the environment to heal.

We need to stop weeding the world and start healing the planet.