Humans love superlatives. The biggest, the oldest, the best, or in some cases, the only. It’s not hard to understand why we flock to places that hold superlative treasures, why we protect unique examples of nature’s beauty – deepest canyons, tallest trees, best views, most endangered animals. But is that enough?
I recently came across a story describing how students from the University of Utah are cataloging the locations and unique characteristics of stone arches that, if legal challenges fail, will lie outside the borders of the possibly-soon-to-be-reduced Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. On some level, this effort can be viewed as a protest – an attempt to catalog special places that will no longer rest on Federal land and subject to the minimal protections Monument status affords. There’s a subtext behind the effort that speaks to the uncertain future of places under private ownership, or mining claims, and an effort to highlight reasons other than Native American archaeology to consider protecting the region.
I’ll admit I was drawn in – I like unique natural beauty as much as, maybe more than, the average guy – and I learned some things about the arches in question as well: for example, the realization that these stone structures vibrate, moving enough that they can actually be “heard” once sped up into human-audible frequencies. Again, it’s a noble attempt to teach, to highlight uniqueness, to point out fragility, the need to protect.
On another level though, I couldn’t help thinking about how this focus on arches is emblematic of our human myopia, and perhaps a symptom of how we got into this mess in the first place.
I’m not going to delve into the Bears Ears debate here – the issues are complex, and touch conservation, economic output, archaeology, ancestral heritage for Native Americans, and many other nuanced issues that are more properly debated by those locals whose lives are directly affected. But I will suggest that our focus on the iconic, like the arches, is part of our problem.
I don’t mean to romanticize nature at the expense of human need – we’re animals too, after all, driven by the need to prosper, to grow, to reproduce. But our relationship with nature has tended to be one of exploitation, up until the point we find something unique. It has largely been a case of using what we can, and only recognizing the impact in retrospect. The unique, iconic, superlative places that get our respect and awe are the exception, rather than the rule – and those places, ironically, are in increasing danger of being loved to death.
Historically, much of this attitude toward natural resources can be chalked up to ignorance and naiveté. Forests and fisheries were once vast enough as to seem inexhaustible, and the side effects of our industrialization were minor, or simply not understood. Or, we ignored it, assuming anything negative would be minor, temporary. As our population, and the attendant demand of that population, has exploded, so has our impact. Our scientific and technological advancements have made clear the magnitude of our impact – though many continue to ignore it.
Modern society treats nature with a double-edged sword. On one hand, our withdrawal into places of our own manufacture does reduce impact on a localized scale. Economies of production reduce land-use for agriculture, and technological advances allow us to reduce our dependence on depletable resources. On the other hand, our withdrawal from nature, as individuals, makes us less aware of our individual contributions to its demise. The side effects of mono-culture and agricultural chemicals are a distant worry if my veggies are fresh and cheap at the supermarket, my garbage is neatly trucked out of sight to a consolidated landfill, my choices are more easily driven by impact to wallet than invisible impact to an ecology I can’t and don’t see. No single raindrop believes it is responsible for the flood.
So yes, it would be a shame to lose the arches, and it IS important to protect iconic places – and on many levels I applaud the efforts of the University to both record and advertise their existence. But I contend that we need to think more broadly, and we need to do a better job of considering our relationship with nature on a grand scale. We need to respect the little things as much as the grand, and learn not to take the mundane for granted. Our current approach labels the natural world according to a sliding scale of importance, with things that are useful to us treated as exploitable, things we don’t directly utilize (including most wildlife) as expendable, and only the monumental things worthy of respect. We should appreciate the arches, but also respect the little things too – the lizards, the sagebrush, the crickets, even the cleanliness of the air and water that has carved the rock for eons. If we all learned to tread softly, to act selflessly, to encourage and support those things that respect and protect our collective home, then our focused effort on protecting the big unique things would instead be a natural side effect of a healthier relationship with the planet.
If we are not capable of standing up and taking notice of the little things, and focus all our energies on the unique, we will ultimately lose everything.
Get Out There
Get Out There