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Reflecting at leisure on who we are and where we live

by Stephen Hesse

My day job as a professor in Japan offers precious few chances to take a step back from work and give the old brain a bit of free rein. But August is one such golden opportunity.

This year, as usual, I have been visiting family in Massachusetts and spending time on the rugged North Atlantic coast of Maine. Now I have joined up with a group of Japanese students who have come over to Boston University for a program of English study, volunteering and service learning, meaning they are learning about the work of nonprofit organisations helping others by participating in their activities.

Last Sunday was warm and breezy in Boston, and while ruminating on this column I sat on the greenway in the center of picturesque Commonwealth Avenue that heads west out of the city center tracking the Charles River that lies a few blocks to its north.

There wasn’t much traffic on the avenue, making it a perfect setting to ponder the past few weeks as affluent-looking folk strolled by beneath the massive sweetgum, ash and oak trees that overarch the mall. Otherwise, there were only joggers to distract me — along with dog-walkers, couples hand in hand, Red Sox fans heading to Fenway Park for a game against the Yankees (Boston lost, 9-6) and a scholarly looking pair debating the pros and cons of organized religion.

The peace and quiet brought to mind one of the few bits of English Lit study I still recall, William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1800), where he speaks of poetry arising from “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

But the thoughts that tumbled through my mind in the tranquil park were a jumble of pleasure and discord; a mixture of vacation reminiscences and the dissonance between our many pressing environmental challenges and humanity’s apparently willful refusal to make the changes necessary.

(Yes, the environmental impacts of my own long-haul air travel were part of the mix.)

While in Maine, I had turned off a side road onto a narrow drive as I tried to find a quiet cove that I remembered from an earlier visit. As I came up over a rise and headed down toward the ocean I surprised two young deer, bucks with 10-point antlers still covered in velvet.

The deer froze for a moment, but soon turned back to eating fruit off a gnarled apple tree beside the drive that led to a small farm overlooking the water.

Seeing wildlife of any sort thrills me, and I have never seen two young bucks together. But their nonchalance brought to mind talk I had heard about rising deer numbers in the area that have led to increasing incidents of Lyme disease caused by a bacteria that deer ticks carry. Several friends and my son have been sickened by tick bites, and without treatment the disease can cause severe illness and even death.

Conservation conundrums such as this, which have arisen when a traditional symbol of the wilderness has come to be perceived as a pest, are often caused by inappropriate or ignorant human efforts to protect a species. And generally, there is no easy solution.

Encountering the young bucks had also brought to mind two American authors whose essays on conservation had become part of my vacation reading purely by accident: Wendell Berry (1934-) and Donella Meadows (1941-2001).

Visiting the Blue Hill Books store in the small coastal Maine town of Blue Hill, I sat down in one of its many cubicle-like sections surrounded by shelves of books. I’m not sure what method the owners follow in organizing and displaying their books, but the layout of the small two-story white building with a neat colonnaded porch appears maze-like, with chairs here and there in among the alcoves. No matter where I sit I always find something that catches my interest.

This time my attention was at once drawn to a row of books by Berry, a writer I have always meant to delve into more deeply. Scanning the volumes, I chose a collection of essays with the edgy title “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.”

For those unfamiliar with Berry, Wikipedia describes him as a “novelist, poet, public intellectual, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer.” In his nonfiction works he touches on themes of rural communities, sustainability, economics and the environment — to name just a few.

Berry, who turned 79 this month, is a prolific writer, and whether you agree with him or not his prose is engagingly concise and forthright. I immediately remembered how much I like his style.

While the essay that gives the book its title has the catchiest name, the piece that caught my attention was the fourth in the collection of 10, titled “Conservation is Good Work” (1991).

With deer in mind, I began reading the first paragraph: “There are, as nearly as I can make out, three kinds of conservation currently operating. The first is the preservation of places that are grandly wild or ‘scenic’ or in some other way spectacular. The second is what is called ‘conservation of natural resources’ — that is, of the things of nature that we intend to use: soil, water, timber, and minerals. The third is what you might call industrial troubleshooting: the attempt to limit or stop or remedy the most flagrant abuses of the industrial system. All three kinds of conservation are inadequate, both separately and together.”

Those young bucks don’t fit neatly into any of Berry’s three classifications, but protection of Maine’s scenic woodlands and the wild species that inhabit them are certainly peripherally related to the first.

More important, and disturbing, is that Berry’s assessment remains true nearly a quarter of a century after he penned that essay. Nationally and internationally, our conservation efforts remain shockingly inadequate.

Another observation of his that struck me personally as a professor of environmental policy was how out of touch we are with the real nature of things, both literally and figuratively: “The realization that we ourselves, in our daily economic life, are causing the problems we are trying to solve ought to show us the inadequacy of the language we are using to talk about our connections to the world. The idea that we live in something called ‘the environment,’ for instance, is utterly preposterous.”

Berry continues, explaining the dichotomy that has come to dominate our view of who we are and where we live: ” ‘Environment’ means that which surrounds or encircles us; it means a world separate from ourselves, outside us. The real state of things, of course, is far more complex and intimate and interesting than that. The world that environs us, that is around us, is also within us. We are made of it; we eat, drink, and breathe it; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.”

This observation of his strikes a particular chord because, each year, I find that only a small number of my students quickly grasp the notion that humans and ecosystems interpenetrate — the latter being a term sometimes used in Buddhism to convey the interplay of the spiritual and the earthly worlds such that they are inseparable and fully encompass each other. Here I think it captures the essence of human and ecosystem interplay.

I have always wondered if the Japanese social concept of soto and uchi, which delineates the less important that is outside (soto) from the inherently more important that is inside, plays a role in my students’ view that while nature and the environment are soto, humans are uchi.

So, in a slightly perverse way, I was relieved to find Berry frustrated by the same perceptions. It also confirmed for me that any education curricula that do not emphasize this dynamic synthesis of humans and their world are doing young people, and their future, a tragic disservice.

I cannot do Berry justice in a brief summary of his suggestions and conclusions, but he does believe that until we take up informed, responsible and comprehensive conservation at the community level, we will never be able to conserve our planet. With which I heartily agree.

The second author I immediately alerted to upon seeing some books by her in the Blue Hill store was Meadows, whose work I have respected for decades.

A prolific writer, Meadows was, in her all-too-short life, widely honored and critically acclaimed for her essays on systems thinking and sustainability. She taught environmental studies at Dartmouth College, a famed Ivy League seat of learning in New Hampshire, and was the founder of the Donella Meadows Institute.

Amazon calls Meadows “a pioneering environmental scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time … one of the world’s foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential ‘Limits to Growth’ ” — a controversial examination of economic and population growth in a world of finite resources published in 1972.

In the face of considerable criticism, Meadows’ team of authors updated and fine-tuned their research in two later books, “Beyond the Limits” and “Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update.”

In a similar way to Berry, one of Meadows’ key concerns was the conservation of biological diversity, including genetic, species and ecosystem diversity. Also like Berry, she was not optimistic.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from her 1989 essay, “What is Biodiversity and Why Should We Care?,” that I have loved ever since I first read them — not only for their poetry, but their honesty: “Biodiversity cannot be maintained by protecting a few favorite species in a zoo. Nor by preserving a few greenbelts or even large national parks. Biodiversity can maintain itself, however, without human attention or expense, without zookeepers, park rangers, foresters or refrigerated gene banks. All it needs is to be left alone.

“It is not being left alone, of course, which is why biological impoverishment has become a problem of global dimensions. There is hardly a place left on earth where people do not log, pave, spray, drain, flood, graze, fish, plow, burn, drill, spill or dump.”

In the same essay, Meadows, like Berry, urges humans to become responsible and informed stewards of our world.

“To maintain our planet and our lives … control yourselves. Control your numbers. Control your greed. See yourselves as what you are, part of an interdependent biological community, the most intelligent part, though you don’t often act that way. Act that way. Do so either out of a moral respect for something wonderful that you did not create and do not understand, or out of a practical interest in your own survival.”

As the young Maine bucks reminded me, conservation can be tricky. It is, however, the most important challenge humanity will ever face.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and associate director of Chuo’s International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com.