Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Myth of the "Pristine"

Recent debates in fields as diverse as conservation, ecology, atmospheric chemistry, and geology have often touched on issues related to a proposed new geological era called the Anthropocene. First coined by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer in the 1980s, the idea has since been popularized by Paul Crutzen (atmospheric chemist), and, although it has not yet entered the official nomenclature, it has been steadily gaining currency as a description of the present state of our planet for the last decade or so. The general argument is as follows: man's influence on global natural systems is now so pervasive (from the atmosphere to the nitrogen cycle, mass extinctions, climate change, changes in the distribution of species, etc...) as to constitute a distinct geological epoch. There is no aspect of life on earth, in other words, that is not in some way affected by human activity, no matter how remote or removed it might seem. 

By implication, therefore, there are no longer any truly pristine wilderness areas on planet earth. Every nook and recess has now been conscripted by human modernity, and, resultantly, the natural has become inextricably entangled with the human. Dr Kathleen Alexander's Coupled Natural-Human Systems project takes this situation into account from the first; it is in some sense the underlying premise. The Chobe River system and all surrounding (read dependent) human and wildlife populations are assessed in precisely these terms: as interconnected and inseparable, theoretically and practically – the extent of their interconnectedness itself constituting what might be considered the primary concern of the project as a whole, particularly in areas such as disease transmission and antibiotic resistance.

As recent literature would seem to indicate, this state of affairs requires a reassessment of conservation goals - particularly in fields and activities related to the preservation and restoration of wilderness areas. An article by Kopf, Finlayson and Humphries suggests that the answer might be to abandon ideas of returning such areas to their historical "pristine" states - which are in any case not only difficult to adequately define, but often fail to take into account the manner in which these systems naturally change over time - and instead to focus on what they term "Anthropocene baselines". These are defined as "ecosystems or parts of biodiversity that cannot – or will not – be restored to historical conditions," and would take into account the “reality of the modern world: humans depend on natural resources and, in many cases, biodiversity is depleted or permanently altered - but may still be used sustainably.”

“[T]he traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection,” as Minteer and Pine put it, “rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.” So there is no longer such a thing as “pristine” – if ever there was. Both of these essays – and a host of others – are collected as part of a broader project on American Conservation in the Anthropocene published this year as an anthology of letters and essays. Entitled “After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans,” it is available from the University of Chicago Press, and promises to survey an idea that has come to represent the zeitgeist international conservation efforts.

In effect this means taking stock of a “new normal”, and with an abundance of terms like “historical”, “traditional”, “modern” etc… it is perhaps not surprising that history is manifestly a part of these debates. So far, this aspect of the conversation has tended to centre around locating the start of the Anthropocene epoch. Intellectual movements like this one, which seek to radically distinguish themselves from previous currents of thought often find themselves drawn to questions of origins, and the potential for rupture inherent in the very idea of the Anthropocene has lent itself to precisely this kind of intellectual foray.

Less attention has been devoted to the idea of “pristine” wilderness, or the manner in which it is a product of a specific moment in human history. The word pristine itself has undergone a series of shifts in meaning in the past few hundred years. In the original Latin, pristinus, (and also the Middle French pristin) it meant simply “former” – referring to any previous state. In the 16th century, in English, it was endowed with an additional sense of the primitive and undeveloped – coinciding, perhaps, with Britain’s first stirrings towards the outside world. Pristine in the sense in which we understand it today, that is of the unsullied, the unspoilt, the spotless, actually dates from as recently as the late 1890’s, that is at the tail-end of global exploration and European territorial expansion, the height of the British Empire and the rise of the first truly global economy.

These changes in significance chart a rather different epochal progression. When Lady Anne Boleyn used the word in a letter in the year 1534 (“Restored to his pristine fredome”), it referred simply to a previous, original condition, not to something in any way new or untouched, and certainly not primitive or undeveloped. By 1899, when the word appeared in the Westminster Gazette, it carried with it a sense of the unspoilt – in this case, of unspoilt architectural beauty, and also a little of the political upheavals of the time (“This indignant Tory thinks that what would be pristinely beautiful as Dollis Hill would be newly ugly as Gladstone Park”). A pristine wilderness in the 16th century was therefore a very different thing from what it came to mean in the 20th, and the epistemic violence of this shift should not be underestimated. The key change – one best perhaps illustrated by the history of the Masai people – was one from a previous condition, in effect the journey back in time experienced and described by the explorers of antiquity encountering wild landscapes and less technologically sophisticated cultures, to an idea of pristine that completely excluded a permanent human presence. A pristine wilderness today – and strangely enough, from the late 19th century onwards – is a wilderness devoid of permanent human habitation.

In the early 1890’s, Italian forces landed in present-day Eritrea and commenced battle with their Somalian adversaries. They brought with them Indian cattle and in so doing triggered one of the worst epizootics in human history. The rinderpest outbreak of the final years of the 19th century would eventually kill millions of people and even greater numbers of cattle and wildlife. It would eventually reach as far south as the Cape of Good Hope, leaving a vast swathe a death and suffering in its wake. In fact, so devastating were the consequences of this disease for the Masai people that contemporary estimates indicated a two-thirds decrease in overall population.

As a result, the Masai herdsmen and their cattle all but disappeared from the Serengeti plains, leaving subsequent European visitors with the impression the area was just about uninhabited. A 1955 report by the Royal National Parks Department concluded that the Serengeti was “a glimpse into Africa as it was before the white man ever crossed its shores”, a statement which couldn’t be further from the truth, given the fact that the emptiness of the landscape resulted directly of European adventurism on the horn of Africa half a century before. Ignorant of this fact, Tanzania’s colonial administrators set about protecting this status quo with the establishment of several national parks, including the world renowned Serengeti National Park – an area devoid of Masai herdsmen to this day. The conflation of the separate ideas of previous conditions and the absence of humanity is quite clear in this case, and the full violence of the term “pristine” could hardly be better exemplified.

This sad history also illustrates the difficulty inherent in adequately defining the parameters of an historical benchmark. Snapshots are never sufficient in terms of incorporating natural processes of ecological change, and fall even further from the mark in terms of man’s historical impact on the world’s ecosystems. Little wonder, then, that the term “pristine” has fallen out of favour. The full historical impact of the term is perhaps yet to be fully addressed, but its absence from future ecological debates is nonetheless something to be celebrated.

The Chobe Region has something in common with the Masai Mara and the Serengeti in that it has also been inhabited by humans for millennia now. The term “pristine” makes absolutely no sense here – the system has been a coupled natural-human one for a very, very long time – so long that any gesture further back, any attempt to restore a previous condition would be patently absurd. Man’s impact on the region’s ecosystems, though, has changed dramatically, particularly over the course of the last century. Assessing the nature of these changes is imperative in terms of defining the kind of “Anthropocene baseline” described above – and this is about much more than simply counting and finding substitutes for regionally extinct species (of which there are, unfortunately, quite a few).

The Coupled Natural-Human Systems Project will go some way toward defining these interactions and affects. The Chobe River system itself is at the heart of this endeavour of course – as it is at the heart of the system as a whole as well as being a (if not the) major interface between the human and the natural in this part of the world. The spread of antibiotic resistance within this system and a broad analysis of water quality variations over time are both a part of this process. Both of these sets of data will contribute towards a fuller understanding of what the Chobe’s Anthropocene benchmark should actually look like for the simple reason that they both shed more light on the effects of man’s actions on the environment around him – most crucially in terms of what man is putting into it, unintentionally or not. The end of the “pristine” need not herald the end of the wild, and nor does it mean the abandonment of sustainably managed ecosystems or the formulation of forward-thinking environmental policy. This is the philosophy of Virginia Tech’s Alexander Lab.

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