The Third Way

One UA professor rejects polarization in exchange for reconciliation ecology.

It doesn't seem that long ago that Bill McKibben published his dark prophecy, The End of Nature.

But it was that long ago--1989, to be exact--and as a high schooler trapped in the nightmare of the Reagan/Bush dynasty, I responded to the New Yorker writer's promise of cataclysm.

Even as McDonald's and MTV and Meatballs III put their dirty fingerprints on my imagination, I longed for Armageddon to cleanse the world of its impurities, whether environmental, cultural or spiritual. That is, I enjoyed The End of Nature in the same way I had enjoyed Catcher in the Rye and the Book of Revelations. Basking in the notion of an apocalypse is an aesthetic pleasure that stands outside of sound science and practical solutions. It's what makes movies like 28 Days Later and Bowling for Columbine satisfying, while PBS' Frontline just wears down the soul.

But guess what? Fourteen years after McKibben published his book, nature didn't end. It continues to do whatever it wants. Now McKibben has moved on--or backward, depending on your philosophy--to promoting vasectomies.

Anyhow, "prophets" always end up as kooks. Remember Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968)? "In the 1970s ... hundreds of millions of people will starve to death." This scenario matches up well against other late-'60s/early-'70s sci-fi like Soylent Green. The truth, of course, is much worse. In fact, to date, 17 million Africans have died from a virus that attacks the immune system, slowly wastes away its victims, then turns them into living skeletons just before killing them.

What these sci-fi masterpieces possess that Michael Rosenweig's Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth's Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise lacks is called "romantic cynicism." Some may prefer the term "critical thinking," but then, some may prefer to call Rosenweig a "constructive thinker." Whatever his designation, he's a pedestrian writer. I'll go so far as to say his limited prose style softens his upbeat message of "reconciliation ecology," which he posits as a third way between nature for profit and nature for conservation. His examples, however, are thought provoking, even if his third way is, like Aquinas' argument for God's existence, a false path.

Rosenweig's best example is his first: the Red Sea Star Restaurant in the city of Eilat, Israel, where a white-tableclothed dining area and cocktail bar are merged with a coral-reef reserve. Thus, the Red Sea Star serves as commercial, culinary and ecological site.

Perfect--except for the fact that the imagination and ingenuity necessary to pull off something like this is scarce. To admit this would clash with Rosenweig's optimistic goal of changing the way ecologists--and we as readers--think about nature: We should no longer conserve or restore; we should bring nature to us (or vice-versa) and fuse with it.

Which explains why Rosenweig is an advocate of the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat campaign. On the surface, it sounds great. Provide a patch of wilderness for animals to thrive in: birds, butterflies, desert mice. "Wisely," says Rosenweig, "the backyard wildlife habitat strategy does not ask us to abandon our properties to wild things." (It better not, because in Florida, installing a habitat means two things: snakes and alligators. You can bet suburban soccer moms don't want to risk a croc crunching on little Sydney.)

Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, Fla., is another example where controlled burning eradicated thousands of acres of useless sand pine. The Air Force "planted more than three million longleaf seedlings." Longleaf pines are the perfect territory for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which now flourishes on the base grounds amid more than 200,000 acres. So the seemingly disparate goals of Star Wars testing and protecting an endangered species were combined. Easy, right?

But Rosenweig doesn't pretend to offer a lesson on environmental economics. Instead, he gives simple, specific models of how ecology and economics can blend, and how they can fall apart. He also devotes a chapter to "happy accidents," like Florida's Turkey Point power plant; its dirt-dredged canals were never designed to support biodiversity. By chance, the berms that separate canals allow those American crocodiles I was telling you about to prosper in the sun and warm water.

Things get dull with the chapter "The Tyranny of Space," as Rosenweig uses charts and graphs to prove that "diversity is the net result of nature's dynamic give and take." Things pick up again in later chapters as he dispels the romantic, often unhelpful, ideas that govern our conventional policies of conservation and restoration.

By the final pages, though, I couldn't help but wonder which is the more romantic notion: that we must live apart from nature to avoid despoiling it, or that we can unite with nature and reconcile our pursuit of profit with the pleasures of Earth?

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