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Spare Land for Nature?


Few would doubt that they should spare something for another human. The Christian scriptures,  for example, read that ``this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also" (1 John 4:21). But sparing something for Nature may need justification.  Far from commanding humanity to spare land for Nature, the jeremiads of the prophets conjured up wilderness and its beasts as a wrathful Lord's scourge upon immoral nations.

They shall name it No Kingdom There, ...

Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses.

It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches.

And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas, ...(Isaiah 34:12-15)

Philosophers, too, have viewed Nature dimly.

This doctrine of accord with Nature has usually marked a transition period. when mythology is dying in its open forms, and when social life is so disturbed that custom and tradition fail to supply their wonted control, men resort to Nature as a norm. They apply to Nature all the eulogistic predicates previously associated with divine law; or natural law is conceived of as the only true divine law (Dewey, 1922[Dew22]).

In the fairy tales we tell our children, evil befalls Hansel, Gretel, and Snow White, too, in the forest. How shall we defend sharing land with Nature?

In private with Moses, the Lord amended the Ten Commandments with an ordinance: ``For six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild beasts may eat" (Exodus 23:11). This was, of course, the same Lord who had said, ``Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed .... Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth." ``And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:11-12; 20-21). Although the Koran has few words about Nature, the Prophet did say, ``And in the earth there are tracts side by side and gardens of grapes and corn and palm ..., and We make some of them to excel others in fruit; most surely there are signs in this for a people who understand" (Sura or Chapter 13.4,5). And the same wilderness that terrorized Hansel, Gretel, and Snow White also sheltered Bambi.

The fundaments of Western thought can be cited to justify  sparing for Nature. A twentieth century prophet complained, ``There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations" (Leopold, 1966,[Leo66] 238). As customary in jeremiads, this overstates. Even the God of Genesis found Nature good, and the God of Exodus ordered sharing a seventh with the poor and Nature.

Several arguments justify sharing land with Nature. A philosopher classified them as espousing three values: commodity,  amenity, and morality (Norton, 1988,[Nor88] 200-205). I think of portfolio, money, and ethics.

Everyone understands the security against ups and downs imparted by the diversity of a portfolio. Humanity's food portfolio is displayed in Table A-1 in Appendix A. Behind the diversity among species in the lengthy table lie the diverse genes in each species. The centers where the species arose are clues to where other useful species might be found. Further, plant explorers know that they improve their chances of finding diversity within a species by searching in the centers of origin. Fortunately, they know the eight centers of origin and diversity of cultivated plants: China, Hindustan, Central Asia, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean Region, Abyssinia, Central America, and Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia (Vavilov, 1951[Vav51]). Sparing land for Nature in these eight centers diversifies humanity's essential portfolio.

Other considerations than humanity's portfolio, however, seem the preeminent causes for the present concentration on biodiversity.  Wilson (1988,[Wil88] vi) explains the reasons for this concentration.

The first was the accumulation of data on deforestation,  species extinction, and tropical biology .... The second development was the growing awareness of the close linkage between the conservation of biodiversity  and economic development. ...Destruction of the natural environment is usually accompanied by short-term profits  and then rapid local economic decline ....
Finally, portfolio considerations are mentioned:
In addition, the immense richness of tropical diversity is a largely untapped reservoir of new foods, pharmaceuticals, fibers, petroleum substitutes, and other products.

Loss of hectares of tropical forests  and species holds first place in the agenda of present worriers about biodiversity.  What these hectares would add to humanity's portfolio is a less specific argument than preserving the centers of diversity  of humanity's present crops. Nevertheless present worries do add the portfolio justification  to their arguments. The growing capability of biotechnology to transfer genes from wild to crop species strengthens the added argument.

Money in hand today also is invoked to justify sparing land for Nature. Ehrlich (1988,[Ehr88] 21-27) writes ``The most important anthropocentric reason for preserving diversity is the role that microorganisms, plants, and animals play in providing free ecosystem services without which society in its present form could not persist." Among the free services that can be saved and are worth money today, he would number control of erosion and cleansing of water, shade for humans and shelter for attractive birds, storage of CO2, and control of Opuntia spp. in Queensland by a moth (Ehrlich and Mooney, 1983[EM83]).

In another way, by valuing it as a thing of beauty  or as a place to fish and shoot, people make Nature worth money today. In 1985 in one nation alone, this worth totalled $56 billion ``Wildlife-associated recreation expenditures," two-thirds for fishing and hunting (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990[USD90b]gif).

The breadth of the meaning of Nature multiplies  reasons for sparing something for her. Nature could mean wilderness, land showing no evidence of development, such as settlements or roads. Webster's dictionary defines Nature as an order that is the subject of art and has an unchanged as contrasted with a developed, ordered, perfected, or man-made character-simply natural scenery. Some might think as Tennyson did of ``Nature, red in tooth and claw." Many would think as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, ``Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat, sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe."

Here, the land spared for Nature is thought of as bits or expanses of land that is uncovered, unpaved, and unplowed where untamed plants and animals can persist or recover, sometimes alone and sometimes with visitors.

Beyond humanity's desire for a secure portfolio, cool shade, and a hunting license, lie ethics.  Something within us flinches when we step on an iridescent beetle or crush a songbird against our windshield. When an advocate of sustainable agriculture deplored agricultural surplus   as ``waste," I felt his objection was ethical; ``waste not, want not, is a maxim I would teach" (Strange, pers. com., 1993[Str93]). The passion of modern jeremiads against deforestation  of the Amazonian jungle, extinction of a species without the last rites of a botanist's naming it, and waste surely spring more from ethics  than from worries about portfolio or money. In the modern jeremiads one hears echoes of a Native American prophet who, refusing to till the ground, said, ``You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom?"; in them one glimpses the cosmic trees symbolizing life, youth, immortality, and wisdom from Germanic mythology to Iranian religion (Eliade, 1957,[Eli57] 138, 149).

I stipulate that humanity should spare land for Nature--without further justification.  

next up previous contents index
Next: How Do Five Billion Up: How Much Land Can Previous: Ten Billion People?

Yasuko Kitajima
Thu Jun 19 16:20:56 PDT 1997