Cronon Calls for Balance of Humanity, Environmentalism

October 11, 2005
William Cronon gave the keynote address at the Environmental Letters/Environmental Law conference Oct. 6.

The key to protecting nature lies in the compromises and sacrifices made by both nature and humanity, said William Cronon, Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, during his keynote address at the Environmental Letters/Environmental Law conference Oct. 6. "Nature is all that we've got," he said. "We're never outside it."

The interdisciplinary conference, hosted by the Law School and sponsored by several local and University organizations, invited scholars from universities and law schools nationwide to examine the role of the humanities in the field of environmental law and policy.

Cronon presented a series of points outlining the philosophy of "humanist environmentalism," an approach to protecting the environment that seeks to trump more anti-humanist viewpoints. Humanist environmentalism stresses a responsible use of nature and calls for compromises and sacrifices to be made by both nature and humanity.

The definition of the word nature is in constant flux, Cronon suggested. "I think that nature is an idea," he said. "[It is] a profoundly complicated human idea that is almost always embodied in places." When most people use the word nature, they tend to mean either one of two things: nature as everything on this earth or nature as everything on this earth that we are not. The resulting paradox of this definition is an important obstacle to overcome in discussions of how to deal with the environment.

"[We] have to pass though [this paradox] in order to make sense of our strange place in the world," he said.

Cronon appealed to the use of the first-person plural when dealing with environmentalism. "I would argue [this] is an absolute central engine in this thing called environmentalism," he said. "Thinking about the 'we,' and the boundaries of the 'we' and the 'not-we' is of course what this dualism called nature [is about], which includes everything in nature that is not us. The boundary of the 'we' runs through that and shapes politics in very interesting ways."

All too often, environmentalists inject human values into the dialogue between nature and humanity — something Cronon sees as problematic. "Nature does not speak in a language of values as we ourselves so often do," he said. "It seems to me that values are impossible in the universe without a self-reflective consciousness projecting its goals and desires forward into the future and imagin[ing] their good and bad consequences."

Humans inevitably affect the world they live in, said Cronon, and people should consider what kinds of marks we, as a species, wish to leave on Earth. "Non-use [of nature] is not an option," he said. "To live in the world is to use it and to change it by our presence and by our actions." Humanist environmentalism looks to use the environment enough to serve human ends that justify the changes in the environment, whether or not they are reversible.

"The use [of nature] alone is not by definition evil," he said.

Environmentalism always will be a field rooted in history, Cronon said. The field uses history as "baselines" to evaluate the significance and the consequence of environmental changes. The baselines Cronon suggested included asking what nature would look like in our absence and whether the ways humanity uses nature can be sustained over a long period of time.

Although baselines are important to evaluating present and future change, fundamentalism is not the answer. "We must not flee history," said Cronon. Faith without a respect for nature or history is problematic and "pulls us away from the kinds of insight that history gives us."

Betting on an apocalypse to solve environmental problems leads to an ignorance of "mid-range" solutions, Cronon said. Environmentalists should not give in to such fundamentalist thinking, which stresses that "only [the] collapse of society will solve problems."

However, diverse viewpoints in the field should be acknowledged as reflections of individual groups' own interactions with nature. Environmentalists need to understand that everyone brings important insights to the field that need to be shared. Environmentalism needs to move beyond entangling dualism and begin to explore numerous cultural landscapes. Protecting nature in just a few select landscapes is not an option, said Cronon. "[We] must protect nature in all of them."

Ultimately, humanity needs to reclaim the idea of wise use of the environment as a means of achieving balance between the ethics of the wild and the harvest. The ethic of the wild involves protecting some nature so it may flourish as it would without human presence; the ethic of the harvest calls for harvesting some of nature for the greater human good.

The goal of responsible environmentalism is "to take genuine responsibility for the whole, not just the parts," said Cronon. Beauty, humor and joy are some of the values that humanity must value in order to honor nature.

"It is all finally about the politics of what home looks like — our one true home in the universe."

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