Remove People from Nature? Human Beings are Not a Problem

The Masaai, a pastoral people, were removed from their traditional lands in the Serengeti by British colonialists, largely in order to reserve the land for big game hunting and tourism. The Masaai are resisting similar removal practices by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments.

By Chris Tei, originally published on Socialist Action

We don’t need to be removed from nature. We need to radically change the way we relate to it.

Capitalism’s endless pursuit of profits for the few continues to destroy the ecosystems upon which human beings base our very existence. And while one political wing of the capitalist class ceaselessly denies climate change, those capitalist politicians who do acknowledge the science make attempts to shift blame for it away from themselves. Misanthropic explanations for the state of the world, holding all humans to account for our original sin of being human, help reduce the risk that the exploiters will have to answer for the unique crisis that they have created.

Foremost among these misanthropic explanations of climate change is populationism, which holds that the growing population is responsible. In the words of Ian Angus and Simon Butler, who have worked diligently on refuting this idea,

“populationist policies focus on symptoms, not causes. Worse, they shift the blame for climate change, and the burden for stopping it, onto the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.”[1]

This perspective is, rather unfortunately, popular on both the left and right. And if we assume that our nature, as a species, is inherently harmful, we will inevitably push for policies that are harmful to humans.

Empty half the Earth?

Kim Stanley Robinson recently contributed a piece to the Guardian with the provocative title and call to action, “Empty half the Earth of its humans. It’s the only way to save the planet.”[2]

Robinson is a science fiction novelist, and this writer is a huge fan of his work. His books combine hard science, involving an immense amount of personal research, with speculation about the social and political ramifications of developments such as climate change and planetary colonization. He tells stories of future histories and addresses how the oppressive institutions of our present day might evolve, be challenged, or even be eliminated.

A lot of popular science fiction imagines how the world will only get worse for humanity, but Robinson very consciously does something different:

“Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.”[3]

Robinson therefore assigns a great deal of importance to the work of imagining a more progressive future. “I do consider my books to be a political work. It seems to me that the more stories out there that encourage these kinds of actions, then the better off people would be.[4] From his books and his personal activism, it’s clear that Robinson has an affinity for liberation movements, the political left, and of course climate justice.

His call to action is to “leave about half the Earth’s surface mostly free of humans, so wild plants and animals can live there unimpeded as they did for so long before humans arrived.” How this is to be accomplished is left somewhat to the imagination, although he appears to favor “repricing” and perhaps new cultural and legal frameworks that would govern threatened areas:

“Many villages now have populations of under a thousand, and continue to shrink as most of the young people leave. If these places were redefined (and repriced) as becoming usefully empty, there would be caretaker work for some, gamekeeper work for others, and the rest could go to the cities and get into the main swing of things.”

Anyone who finds this notion to be obvious, that humans must be removed from the land to save the environment, and specifically the world’s biodiversity, would be wise to look at indigenous political movements around the Earth. In 2016, during the Native American-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the Standing Rock encampment was visited by indigenous activists from Latin America who came to express their solidarity. A Sarayaku activist named Nina Gualinga, who has been a leader in her people’s fight to keep the Ecuadoran government from allowing oil drilling on their ancestral lands, illustrated in remarkable terms the outsized role that native peoples have played in preserving the global environment:

“The statistics say that we are 4 percent of the world’s population but we are protecting more than 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.”[5]

The conclusion we should draw is clear: to preserve the world’s biodiversity, it is also necessary for us to support the indigenous in their struggle for self-determination and, importantly, lend our assistance to prevent any effort to remove them from the lands they inhabit.

Yet this is, in effect, the opposite of what Robinson calls for. It’s not at all obvious that humans need to be removed from the land to preserve biodiversity. It’s certainly not true of indigenous people, who are the vanguard of movements for environmental justice in the world. And while it’s true that sensitive ecosystems should be removed of industrial agriculture companies, logging companies, and oil extraction companies, those profit-making entities are not the result of an essential “human nature.” They result from a social system directed toward the accumulation of private profit, something that is neither eternal nor predetermined by our biology. It is capitalism that we need to remove, not people.

“Half-Earth”

The inspiration for Robinson’s piece was Edward O. Wilson’s book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.” Wilson is the world’s leading expert on ants, but for many critics he is more well-known for the biological determinism of his “sociobiology” idea.

In 1975, a group of scientists responded to Wilson’s ideas of sociobiology, saying that he offered up a “particular theory about human nature, which has no scientific support.” They explained that views of biological determinism similar to Wilson’s become fashionable from time to time, not because of their scientific validity, but because of their usefulness to those in power:

“The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.” [6]

In “Half-Earth,” Wilson continues to paint humanity with broad strokes, and insist that most of our behavior is biologically determined. In his view we were driven by our genetics to multiply and strain the Earth’s resources “like a hostile race of aliens.”[7]

When speaking on social issues, his used of the pronoun “we” shows that he has no understanding of class. He wonders how humans can be so knowledgeable yet make decisions against our own interests.[8] Indeed, his explanation of capitalist society’s negative impact on the planet is that it is “largely due to the excess of the many quotidian activities we perform just to get on with our personal lives. Those activities have made us the most destructive species in the history of life.”[9] Thus, responsibility for the negative effects of industry is shared equally among the members of our species, even those who, due to the class divisions in society, have no decision-making power.

He devotes woefully little of his book to his actual proposal. How it could be enacted, whether enforced by state repression or encouraged by Robinson’s “pricing”, or both, is left to the imagination. Wilson just wants us to know it should be done.

There is a link between human health and biodiversity. And, of course, there are complexities to ecosystems, involving the participation of countless species, which make our existence possible. We are, therefore, self-interested to protect Earth’s biodiversity. So, while it may indeed be necessary for that purpose to create new protected areas, it’s not obvious at all that masses of people will need to be removed to do so.

We should be asking, first and foremost, who specifically would be removed from the land if Wilson’s dream becomes reality. And given the proximity of many indigenous peoples to threatened ecosystems, it’s clear that they would be uniquely impacted by Wilson’s proposal.

Conservation and expulsion

The proposal to empty half the Earth of people would have an enormous impact, and it would be naïve to think it could be enacted without causing a great deal of suffering. In fact, there is already a long history of much smaller conservation projects leading to forced expulsions, violence, and the shredding of native people’s rights.

The creation of nearly all of the world’s national parks involved expulsions of indigenous people. These areas of the world are now, ironically, considered to be the closest examples of “pristine” nature, of “wilderness,” and of the true nature that existed before human despoilment. In reality, they stand as examples of ecosystems that have never existed in such a people-less state. And the sudden departure of humans from ecosystems where they lived for thousands of years led to rather serious ecological problems.

Though Serengeti National Park is known to many as a pristine and people-less wilderness, the Masaai people called it home for thousands of years before they were evicted by the British colonial government. The Masaai leader Kissale Ole Serupe remembers it thusly: “The Brits razed our houses to the ground… we did not dare to fight back.”

And though the stated purpose for removing people was to protect wildlife, in actuality the Masaai were responsible for the survival of the great Serengeti herds. With their abrupt departure from the land, poachers found it much easier to hunt and kill animals such as elephants and rhinos. Their numbers dwindled.

“I am surprised by the accusations against us,” said Lomayani Ole Pose. “Had it not been for our ancestor and us, these wild animals would not be here. Despite these facts, we are still being demonized.”[10]

Stories like this abound. Even the creation of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, involved the expulsion and destruction of land-use rights for native Crow, Shoshone, and Bannock. Glacier National Park was created with the expulsion of Blackfeet, Yosemite with the expulsion of Yosemite Indians, and Grand Canyon with the expulsion of Havasupai. When Havasupai gained part of their land back from the government in the 1970s, they did so despite many self-avowed conservationists, who fought against it.[11]

At worst, the dispossession of native peoples for conservation purposes was based on an intentional erasure of native history and claims to the land. At best, it was based on a flawed definition of nature, which holds that it is exogenous to human beings. Indigenous people have played a crucial role in the maintenance of their native lands, such as in fire management and the protection of wildlife. In fact, they often see their fight for sovereignty as being directly aligned with the need for conservation.

Conclusion

Misanthropic views about humanity have the real potential of precluding the solidarity we should be building to address climate change. There’s little hope for that kind of solidarity if people in the industrialized countries accept the nonsense that poor women in the underdeveloped world are to blame for the crisis for having too many children. And there’s little hope for it if the basic rights of indigenous people are opposed by conservationists asserting the superiority of their own demands regarding their lands.

We want a revolution in our relationship to the environment, and that is something that can only come about with a revolution in our relationship to each other. Che Guevara once said,

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

The misanthropy at the root of populationism, as well as Wilson’s view that we need to remove people from the land, is not one that holds great love for humanity. If it doesn’t entail outright hatred for our species, it certainly entails great fear and suspicion of one another.

This is not the compass that points us in the correct direction. Solidarity is the answer to alienation. We need to build broad movements to address our collective material and ecological interests.

And ultimately, the source of humanity’s destructive behavior is the system that directs all of society’s productive power toward the accumulation of profits for a tiny minority. Only socialism can redirect our collective labor toward the fulfillment of all human needs, including the need to preserve the Earth’s delicate ecosystems.

[1] Angus, Ian, and Simon Butler. Too Many People? : Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis: 4.

[2] Robinson, Kim Stanley. “Empty half the Earth of its humans. It’s the only way to save the planet.” The Guardian, US edition, 20 Mar. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/20/save-the-planet-half-earth-kim-stanley-robinson.

[3] Bisson, Terry. “Galileo’s Dream: A Q&A with Kim Stanley Robinson.” Shareable, 4 Nov. 2009, https://www.shareable.net/blog/galileos-dream-a-qa-with-kim-stanley-robinson.

[4] Smith, Jeremy. “The Ambiguous Utopian.” January Magazine, Jul. 2002, http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/ksrobinson.html.

[5]Jaffe, Sarah. “Standing Firm at Standing Rock: Why the Struggle is Bigger Than One Pipeline.” Bill Moyers & Company, 28 Sept. 2016, http://billmoyers.com/story/standing-firm-standing-rock-pipeline-protesters-will-not-moved.

[6] Allen, Elizabeth, Barbara Beckwith, Jon Beckwith, et al. “Against ‘Sociobiology.’” The New York Review of Books, 13 Nov. 1975, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/11/13/against-sociobiology/.

[7] Wilson, Edward O. “Half-Earth : Our Planet’s Fight for Life.” Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2016: 81.

[8] Ibid, 167.

[9] Ibid, 63.

[10] Interviews in “A Place Without People.” Directed by Andreas Apostolidis. Quebec: Films Transit International, 2011.

[11] Spence, Mark David. “Dispossessing the Wilderness : Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks.” Oxford University Press, 1999.


Chris Tei

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