What is the fundamental relationship between Homo sapiens and our environment? Western environmentalism has long suffered from an implicit Malthusianism that casts humans as intruders upon a harmonious and static thing called “nature.”
This worldview has driven much of conservationism. It is at the heart of the concern with “overpopulation.” It lurks within the common left anxiety about “development” and “growth.” And it is found in the “jobs vs. environment” debate.
The truth is, we are not intruders. In reality, humans have always been an environment-making species. In fact, every species is.
What we call “nature” or “the environment” is ultimately just the sum total of layer upon layer of organism-environment interactions. Thus it is dynamic, not static. Every organism interacts with, and impacts, its environment. At the same time, every organism is always also part of the external environment of all other organisms.
Environment making is what life forms do. Bees need flowers from which to collect nectar and pollen; in the process of their foraging, bees pollinate flowering plants, helping them reproduce and spread. Thus, bees are central to producing a habitat that produces bees.
To survive, beavers need beaver ponds. But they do not find their niche habitat — they make it by compulsive dam building. When beavers build, they also destroy. In areas they flood, previously established plant communities drown — including, on occasion, bee habitat.
Marx saw human labor as an organic part of this larger ecological drama. In Capital vol. 1, he famously noted that: “Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature … he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.”
In other words, through labor, we make environments and regulate our place within the metabolism of Earth’s ecology.
Ten years later, in his essay “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” Friedrich Engels would deepen the ecological understanding of human labor as part of an always-dynamic environment. For Engels, human labor became an evolutionary force. Homo sapiens, Engels argued, were evolutionarily speaking produced by human labor. For Engels, human “labor,” as opposed to animal effort, only began once humans started making and using tools.
In Engels’ supposition, human labor produced greater cooperation between individuals and thus gave rise to language. Or, as Engels put it: “men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed.”
For context, we now know that at about 3 million years ago Australopithecus started using stone tools. Then at about 1.5 million years ago, Homo erectus added control of fire to the repertoire. Homo sapiens domesticated dogs around 20,000 years ago. And agriculture is, maximum, only 10,000 years old.
Anticipating current cutting-edge scholarship by more than a century, Engels also noted the central role of fire within human evolution and environment making. Mastery of fire, noted Engels, led to cooking, which in turn led to profound physical transformations in the human body. Cooking, as Engels put it, “shortened the digestive process, as it provided the mouth with food already as it were semi-digested.” More efficient digestion fed more nourishment to the ever-enlarging brain and allowed the digestive track to shorten, which facilitated a more upright posture.
Just as our ancient ancestors “learned to consume everything edible” thanks to the technology of fire management, Engels noted that fire allowed humans “to live in any climate” and thus “spread over the whole of the habitable world.” The further afield early humans moved, the more technology they created and used, the more environments they helped shape.
Recent science and environmental history have confirmed the importance of the human-fire relationship that the amateur Engels noted long ago. Stephen J. Pyne, the dean of fire studies, tells us, “there are no known peoples,” except some Inuit and Yupik of the icebound far north, “who do not burn routinely” parts of their landscapes.
All over the world, foragers have, Pyne explains, “recognized that berries, mushrooms, bracken, edible tubers … flourished best on burned ground …. Hunters saw that evening torches froze deer and geese, that flames could drive ungulates, that the fresh growth sprouting on old burns drew grazers.” In short, people used fire to create and manage life-rich habitats.
In the American Northeast, indigenous peoples regularly burned the landscape to create meadows and the “edge habitat” preferred by deer. On the Great Plains, humans’ laboring with fire helped create the vast buffalo herds. As environmental historian Geoff Cunfer has written, over hundreds of years of spring and fall burning, “Indians reworked the plains landscape … converting millions of acres of forest to prairie.” This “increased bison populations to all-time highs, estimated at twenty-nine million by 1700.”
That fecund human-produced ecology was, as we know, brutally ripped to pieces when a very different property and labor regime arrived with capitalism and European colonization. The buffalo collapse began shortly after 1870 when innovations in leather tanning made super-heavy bison hides usable as industrial power-transmission belts. Before electrical machinery, factories moved power from a central source, like a coal-fired steam engine or waterwheel, to workstations by means of leather belts attached to spinning wheels and pulleys — like the fan belt in an automobile engine.
After 1870, commercial bison hunting exploded, and buffalo populations began to collapse. Under pressure to open Western lands for development, the federal government began a renewed campaign of military subjugation. The US military protected and assisted the commercial buffalo hunters so as to starve the Plains Indians into submission.
In other words, human labor can have life-encouraging effects, or it can do the exact opposite, depending on how labor and production are organized. Under capitalism, too much of our effort destroys the metabolic processes of Earth’s ecology. But under more egalitarian arrangements, human labor serves to increase life.
Restorative Environment Making
Even today, under the constraints of capitalist competition and state subsidies for fossil fuels, there are examples of human environment making that is sustainable and restorative.
An impressive example is the Veta la Palma fish farm in southern Spain. Set in a restored estuary wetland not far from where the Guadalquivir River meets the sea, Veta la Palma occupies 11,000 hectares that had long ago been converted to rice fields. The area was re-flooded when new Spanish environmental laws shutdown the rice operation. The owners, a large family-controlled rice seed producer, converted the fields back into wetlands and now harvest 1,200 tons of sea bass, bream, grey mullet, and shrimp from it each year.
The fish are not “wild”; they are hatchery-bred and stock gated pools. They mostly eat naturally occurring organisms, though some fish feed — free of dioxin, antibiotics, and GMOs — is also applied. This is the one weak link because too much in fish feed pellets — other fish, corn, soy — is often not sustainably produced.
However, there are now major, very sustainable, insect-based protein operations supplying fish feed. A common input for such commercial-scale entomophagy (insect eating) is the ground-up and desiccated larvae of the ecologically low-impact black soldier fly.
In creating this fish farm, people have also recreated habitat. More than two hundred species of migratory birds, many endangered, use Veta la Palma as a migratory way station. In the process, birds eat an estimated 20 percent of the fish raised.
Another positive example of modern, human environment making is the massive reforestation of Niger’s Sahel that has occurred over the last thirty years. The transformation was triggered by policy changes that encourage farmers to nurture the growth of trees (both planted and naturally occurring) by allowing farmers to use those same trees. Old laws dating to French colonialism had made trees the property of the state which, perversely, caused farmers to get rid of saplings that sprouted in their fields. Increased tree cover has increased soil moisture and significantly boosted crop yields.
There are also older and persisting models of sustainable production that we can preserve and emulate. In China, the Hani of Yunnan Province in Southern China have farmed rice in terraced paddies on the slopes of the Ailao Mountains for 1,300 years straight. The rice paddies are fed by water flowing from protected forests on the mountaintops and the silt carried by the water, plus the presence of ducks, fish, and cattle in the paddies during various points in the crop cycle, creates a sustainable pest and soil management system.
No Retreat From Constant Change
In the face of terrible environmental transformations such as the buffalo slaughter or climate change, it is easy to forget that environmental change is not always bad.
Earth’s ecology is, in fact, always changing and has always been dynamic. Our species has played both sustainable and unsustainable roles in this history. If Earth’s ecology never suffered disruptions and destruction, there would be less, not more, biodiversity.
At issue is what scientists call “ecological succession” — the pattern by which one “ecological community” arises only to give way to another. At each stage, established organisms change the local environment, creating conditions that allow a different ecological community to emerge.
In temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, succession often runs as follows: grasses and other herbaceous plants populate barren ground, they grow and die, and thus build up the soil. Richer soil invites small bushes and trees. Fast-growing evergreen trees dominate while shade-tolerant deciduous trees develop in the understory. Soon the shade-intolerant evergreens die out as the larger deciduous trees begin to overshadow them.
If this process of succession were allowed to climax and was never disrupted, the planet would be dominated by dark, quiet, forests, full of mature trees. But the road to climax is always interrupted by hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, landslides, pests, and fires — including those started by you-know-who: humans. A steady rhythm of disruption is always resetting the clock and thus creating a greater variety of habitats and life.
The larger point is this: we cannot retreat from our role as environment makers. Humans have always been remaking “nature.” Today, we do so as reckless, marauding somnambulants. But this is not inevitable or “natural.”
Petroleum-based capitalist environment-making is set to destroy us and perhaps all life on Earth. Alternatively, we can become self-conscious, cooperative, solidaristic, life-producing and -enhancing, environment makers. In the age of climate crisis, we need to embrace that role on a planetary scale.
What we will not do, because we cannot, is retreat from something called “nature.” So, while the Green New Deal is about policy, it also relates to our deeper mission as an environment-making species. We cannot “tread lightly on the Earth,” but we can pull back from the brink of extinction and remake and restore the planet.