Monday, April 21, 2008

On ethics, and why we should teach kids outdoors

At times, a person can become jaded, believing that public pleas for individual self-restraint and responsibility are akin to yelling into the hurricane. And people all too often choose to act in manners which harm others. James Madison's Federalist Paper #51, ("if men were angels...") goes to the heart of the beauty and difficulty of government arising out of libertarian foundations of utter equality and therefore democratic rule, and this is especially appropriate as one reads into "government" the idea of governing as limiting.

Madison's concern was with the excesses of government arising out of human flaws, while trying to convince a skeptical audience of its need. However, there exists in a democratic republic the temptation, over time, to abrogate our responsibilities to a few representatives. Add to this our conception of the letter of the law (that if the law doesn't say we can't, then we can), and people begin to equate the law with ethics. Throw us into a gigantic, overpowering free market that encourages excess, and, as players in a system where a small group is thought to make the ethical decisions for everybody, most come to believe that they are always to try to acquire as much as absolutely possible, even if this means bending the spirit of the law.

But ethics are inherently personal, individual decisions in the moment, far more often than codified laws. In the US, for the most part, laws are created as ways to keep people from occasional lapses in personal judgment. We come to general consensus about the direction of the law through democratic representation, arising out of some social agreements of right and wrong. But when people are not directly involved in these decisions, we tend to reverse the concepts and place the law as the ethical limit, rather than ethics determining the nature and extent of laws. This is true with people in general, and especially true with children, who do not have the authority to exercise their own rights.

But exercising ethical decisions is powerful. People take an honest look at their responsibility, and understand their power, when they have an ethical choice unbounded by the law or other people's perceptions of them. Too infrequently in our daily lives are we given opportunities for true, immediate ethical decisions; most are made for us. Outdoor experiences, however, often provide chances for real ethical decisions, because they give us a place where our actions have repercussions, and they are real, physical decisions in the moment.

Outdoor experiences cut to the heart of ethical conduct at the personal level. Environmental laws exist, of course, but since the reason for getting into the outdoors for many people includes a measure of solitude and quiet, law enforcement is greatly diminished. Oftentimes, people come upon ethical decisions while hiking, camping, and fishing. Damaging trails by cutting up switchbacks, taking threatened or endangered plant species, or feeding the animals are all decisions with an ethical bent, and the right decisions often require a sensitivity to a place, not just a love for the environment. Hunting is a particularly amazing activity with regards to the number and depth of ethical decisions that must be decided by the individual, while no one else is looking.

For those unfamiliar with hunting, and for those who believe the act of hunting is inherently unethical, this last comment may sound absurd. I'll address those reactions in future posts, but for now, (and especially for those of you who hunt) I want to use this idea simply as a suggestion for teaching ethics. Take a kid to the outdoors, teach them to be stewards of a place, not just of the "environment". Teach them the value and power of particular animals and plants, not just of "nature". And teach them that they have tremendous power and responsibility as humans. But don't always tell them, or these decisions become as rote as the letter of the law. Ethics are dead if they are not lived, personal experiences.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Sierra Club makes an interesting move

I just read over at the Hog Blog that the Sierra Club has a new website up for hunters and fishermen, I poked around it a bit, and I'm impressed with the level of outreach the Club is taking to get sportsmen and women on board.

My own conservation ethic, and ultimately, the reason I write this blog, is due to growing up hunting and fishing. I have always hunted and fished, since before I can remember. My Dad took me out fishing on the Sacramento Delta for bluegill, crappie and the occassional bass, and when I was old enough, I was given a bb gun and later, a shotgun. Today I hunt and fish as much as I can.
This is an ethical decision, as well as a decision based (potentially) on my primal subconscious, and it was a question I asked myself years ago as an ethical question: Should I hunt and fish, or should I abstain? I answered this question in the affirmative, and over time I have come to agree more and more strongly with the decision to kill and eat wild animals. In time on this blog, I'll explain more and more why I hunt and fish and encourage others to do so, as well. Among other reasons, I feel I must take some responsibility for my presence on this Earth, I feel that by supplementing our diets with wild game and fish we lessen our needs for industrial agriculture, I feel I have learned infinitely more about ecosystems and the interconnectedness of flora and fauna.

I also feel I have learned infinitely more by interacting with the wild, by being a part of the wild, than I would have if I had only visited and observed the wild from time to time. It's this connection that makes conservationism, or whatever you want to name it, a personal calling for me. I don't have to anthropomorphize nature or animals to feel closer to or understand it all, I get to actually be a part of it all. I get to be a small part, rather than build things up or dumb things down to my level.

Hopefully, Sierra Club's efforts will pay off for the Sierra Club, for hunters, and most importantly, for the wild. I think that the Sierra Club can benefit from hunters' perspectives. I also think that many hunters can benefit from the Sierra Club. I do know that polarized politics will keep many gun owners away from the Sierra Club for reasons outside of the environment, and that will be unfortunate.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Should people interact with nature? Or should we just let it be?

Oftentimes this is a sincere question from people. Many people nowdays limit their outdoor activities to recreation and more passive pursuits. As our population has become urbanized or, worse yet, suburbanized, we lose a connection to the wildness of outside. With no consistent interaction with the wild, people become less and less familiar with the realities of nature, and their impacts upon it. Once luxuries, current physical accommodations like air conditioning and water are now commonplace, and people spend less and less time in variable conditions. Consider the typical day in the life of an American:

Wake up in a comfortable bed, under covers, in a room set to 65-72 degrees. Get up, walk to the water dispensor, drink cold water. Set the coffee pot, and soon have nice, warm coffee. Put some bread in a toaster. Get ready for the day of work or at school by showering in water set at 95-100, nice and warm. Get dressed, open the door to your garage (which may be 30-70 degrees or so), get in your car, turn on the heater, and soon, you are on your way to work. Park, jump out and walk inside to your climate-controlled workplace, typically set to 68-72 degrees, with air filters.

The average person must spend a good 2 minutes, tops, in a typical workday, actually outside under the sun, or in the rain, or feeling the wind. Any variation in temperature of ten to fifteen degrees, and we scurry inside. It is easy to feel completely separate from "nature".

No wonder people can feel as if the question above is a legitimate one. Alas, it is not: The word "should" implies a choice, and we have none. We, as physical beings, always must interact with nature. We just, unfortunately, don't always have to consider it.

Take the above typical day. Where is this house where the person awakes? What lives under it? In the same room as the person? Would the outside temperature be the same without the asphalt roads and rooftops? Where does this person's water originate? Was it shipped? Piped? Sucked out of the ground directly below the house? How does this impact local flora and fauna? The neighbor's water? And where does the shower water go? Does the soap impact? What of the waterfowl living in the spray fields where the water goes to be treated? What traveled across the road, or fed on last night's roadkill? How many bugs did the car kill? Would these have fed other wildlife? What is the workplace standing on? Where was its energy produced? The questions are nearly infinite.

Should implies a choice. We always interact with nature, as we are a part of nature, as we are a grand and powerful aspect of nature. We cannot abstain from our interactions, therefore we have no ethical obligation to not interact. We cannot "leave no trace."

So now we are faced with an ethical dilemma. Our actions have consequences; how do we therefore act most appropriately toward nature? We are never blameless, and so we are left with a mature responsibility, not a doe-eyed innocence, nor romanticism. We don't even necessarily have to minimize impact. Impact is not in and of itself a bad thing. But, what types of impacts are best?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Just diving right in...

There seems to be a problem with discourse about the environment these days, born of polarized politics, the onslaught of irony and technology, historical foundations of race, class, religion, gender and place, and the urbanization and suburbanization of our nation. The very words used to describe humans' actions in this world are hijacked by political innuendo, religious and social connotations.

Our current social climate places strict constraints on the nature of people's views about the environment. We are forced into one of a few rigid schools of thought, and we are often bound by other political affiliations that have little to do with nature's reality. One school of thought believes in the environment effectively as a stand-alone entity, where people can and should "leave no trace", where animals have rights akin to the political rights of people, where humans presence is almost always a sin. Another camp believes in humanity's divine right to dominion over nature, its flora and fauna to be processed and managed into usable products and services for people, its threats to be completely eliminated. A third camp sees the environment as a medium through which one class' excesses and hatred are borne by an underclass, in the form of air and water pollution, toxic wastes, landfills and ports.

But, by far the largest group are those who know little and therefore care little for whatever the environment may be. To them, it is a place beyond them, one they may visit to look at from time to time for entertainment, like a theme park or the mall, or perhaps the best analogy, a television set. It has no real value to them beyond this. They never feel an interactive attachment to this place; it is "outside", it is somewhere they go to see, not some place in which they live.

This was not always so. From the turn of the century through to the early 60's, there grew an amazing, nuanced, clear-eyed view of the environment and humanity's place in it. At the same time the masses marched toward the suburbs, and automated production developed near-unimaginable (and unmanageable) capacities, a small, thoughtful group of people struggled to understand and develop an ethic towards nature. These observations, set down through the writings and actions of people like George Grinnell, Aldo Leopold, and Margaret and Olaus Murie, illuminate truths about humanity in nature, our creations of illusions like "urban" and "rural", the profound interconnectedness of our actions and places.

This blog will attempt to be one small voice for continuing the tradition of honestly looking at humanity's place in the physical world, and our responsibilities toward it.