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The Post Carbon Reader Series: Culture and Behavior

Remapping Relationships: Humans in Nature

By Gloria Flora

About the Author

Gloria Flora is founder and director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, an organization dedicated to the sustainability of public lands and of the plants, animals, and communities that depend on them. In her twenty-two-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, she became nationally known for her leadership in ecosystem management and for her courageous principled stands: As supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in north-central Montana, she made a landmark decision to prohibit natural-gas leasing along the 356,000-acre Rocky Mountain Front. Flora is a Fellow of Post Carbon Institute.

Post Carbon Institute 2010 613 4th Street, Suite 208 Santa Rosa, California 95404 USA

This publication is an excerpted chapter from The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Centurys Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010). For other book excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing visit


Little will change until we apprehend why humans resist altering practices that degrade our life-supporting natural systems.
The depth and breadth of science in the disciplines of natural systems and ecology form an impressive knowledge base. And theres little dispute that natural systems and their resources provide fundamental human needs: air, water, food, shelter. Such clear understanding should allow for effective decisions and rapid response to threats to our environment. Yet, repeatedly, societies have enacted policiesand not only tolerated but encouraged actions and choicesthat have directly and indirectly damaged ecosystems, the atmosphere, and, in turn, human health. Understanding why we act against our own best interests becomes more and more critical as the impacts of global climate change and unsustainable use of finite resources literally put the survival of millions of species at risk. The mounting and interrelated calamities of a carbonladen atmosphere and fossil-fuel depletionchaotic temperatures and weather, melting ice fields and permafrost, rising sea levels, square miles of forest leveled to access and squeeze oil out of tar sands and shale are well documented. The profound effects on people, plants, and landscapes are no longer speculative theory but reality. Proposals for mitigation and adaptation solutions and innovations abound as small factions scramble to protect the very systems that sustain life. But largescale, definitive action and coordinated responses have yet to solidify. Even benign proposals are challenged and rebuffed. Our erstwhile leaders perfect their sound

bites to play to their basebut do nothing of substance to avoid offense to their corporate sponsors. Resolution of this impasse between science, knowledge, and action requires urgent attention. But little will change until we apprehend why humans, particularly in advanced societies, resist altering these practices that degrade our life-supporting natural systems. The disconnection between humans and their environment lies at the heart of the problem.

Backcasting for Answers

There is no question that as humans evolved, the natural world provided for every physical need: water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and tools. But nature also satisfied deeper needs and desires. For millennia, the beauty and mystery of the land have drawn people, enticed them into its unknown corners, enchanted them, challenged them, and bestowed a sense of freedom. Whether by dint of necessity or by choice, people gravitated to particular landscapes. Once a community of people came to know and understand the plants, animals, resources, and seasons of a particular locale, a whole body of profound place-based knowledge and wisdom developed. That wisdom of place was passed to and enhanced by each successive generation. Those possessing the keenest knowledge of place were revered.



Aboriginal societies evolved complex ceremony, story, and social hierarchies based on natural features and phenomena and their understanding of them. Thus a spiritual dependency evolved along with their physical dependency on nature. A right relationship with the land was expected and honored, not only because it formed the basis of well-defined social mores, but also because it meant the difference between living and dying. Violations of moral code by transgressions against nature invited natural disaster and social disgrace. Granted, the lands character, allure, and abundance fomented cultural attachment, but in addition, the meaning derived from events and experiences (their ancestors and their own) that played across its vast canvas knit societies to place with interlocked stitches. Historically, landscapes called home have elicited in the human spirit an attachment so strong people will fight and die to protect them. The motherland, sandwiched right in there between God and family. These utilitarian and spiritual relationships between place and people have profound, palpable outcomes on ecosystems and landscapes.

inexplicable reasons but we know in our heart we belong. Or our sense of place can arise from long familiarity and the continuity of tradition; identification with a culture typically implies identification with place. The details that allow us to know and recognize cultures are inextricably linked to landscapes because the formative norms of these cultures have all been deeply informed by place. For example, the subject matter and media of art reflect placethink sand paintings, tapa cloth, and Thomas Moran. Ethnic clothing expresses a practical, yet aesthetic, response to place in its material, style, and drapeBedouin robes, Eskimo parkas, and grass skirts. Native housing, perhaps the most biomimetic response to landscape and climate, repeats locale in siting, design, and materials. Dynamically responsive to its surroundings, traditional architecture is a model of efficiency and elegancethick adobe walls, steep thatched roofs, tipis, and igloos. Daily activities resonate with seasons and landscape. The times to hunt, fish, gather, plant, rest, and travel for millennia have been syncopated with the rhythms of placebuffalo migration, salmon runs, snow for the dogsleds. Ceremonies have grown from respect and gratitude for bounty of the land, the elements that define its character, and the processes that mark the passage of time in place, be it corn or kava, the solstice or rainy season.

Sense of Place and Cultural identity

The intrinsic connection people feel to the landscapes they love is rightly called sense of place. Sense of place encompasses ones holistic interpretation of a landscape. We synthesize this meaning from symbols, values, feelings, events, and our knowledge of the land. We layer aesthetics, personal experiences, and cultural activitiesas well as social, political, and economic attributesover the biological and physical setting. Sense of place then speaks to the unique sum of values that individuals, communities, and societies ascribe to their landscape and their relationship with it. And woe be it to anyone who attempts to violate or discount peoples sense of place. Recognition of sense of place may strike some like the proverbial thunderbolt; we fall in love with a place for


Thus, throughout history, people aligned their lives, communities, and customs intimately and intensely with place: as the source of all sustenance and as the framework of their culture.

alienated societies spill into air and oceans that know no boundaries. Indeed, nature and functioning ecosystems, when thought of at all, are seen as luxuries or impositions: Wilderness is a place for the elite to frolic while sporting expensive clothing and equipment, and open space is idle space. Likewise, protection of the quality and quantity of water in a stream can be accepted as long as it doesnt cost money or hinder the pursuit of money. And wildlife can be toleratedwith the exception of large predatorsuntil it stands in the way of development, often called progress but more accurately, habitat demolition. But progress, while bringing longer human lives and amazing technologies, has come at a very high price. Few want to see or talk about that itemized bill. Government, heavily influenced by industry through lobbying and campaign financing, is reticent to lead in the conservation of natural resources and landscapes, its official responsibility to sustain the values of public land and the commons of air and water. Elected officials do not want to alarm or upset the populace, or take an unpopular position that may compromise their reelection or subsequent careers as corporate lobbyists. Industry wants a steadily increasing cash flow sans environmental regulation. Values-based nongovernmental organizations, with limited resources, focus on a particular issue or campaign. Media chase market share with simplified controversy, infotainment, and a torrent of advertising. And consumers want low prices and wide variety with no impediments to unrestrained consumption. A plethora of tools exists to shift, defer, extend, redefine, or obfuscate monetary debt. Yet the natural debt does not play by those rules and is going to be called in soon, in the form of rising prices for fossil energy, lack of water to share between all users, and collapse of ecosystems from shocks, such as massive die-off of forests, plankton, and coral.

evolution Away from Nature

Its baffling why, in so short a time, the value of human dependence on and relationship with landscapes has been dismissed in the formation of public policy, implementation of management activities, and societal choices. Of course, science has disabused us of such beliefs as that human malfeasance directly causes tornadoes or solar eclipses. But it remains immutable that our water, air, food, and the basis for most of our shelter and medicine still come directly from nature. Terrifyingly, policy-makers excise sense of place and respect for the environment from their decisions and scorn the small voices speaking for such values. It seems that the more a society sees itself as cerebral, with clever technological and material innovations, the more its bonds with, and recognition of, the significance of natural processes and ecosystems recede. The ability to create artificial environments (air conditioning, heating, lighting) and chemically alter natural materials (processed food, plastic) perhaps gives the illusion that humans are capable of meeting their needs with minimal inputs from nature. The flawed logic suggests that if humans are only tangentially dependent on the natural world, functioning ecosystems lose importance. This chasm between humans and nature has widened to the point, especially in developed countries, where ubiquitous pollution and extirpation of species are commonplaceaccepted by the masses as a nominal required consequence of economic growth. The conveniences of a modern country insulate people; even the most basic needs of water, food, and energy are delivered from a supply chain so long and convoluted that consumers do not associate them with the natural world. Sadly, the deleterious effects on nature of those



The rejuvenation and inspiration that nature provides to the human spirit are as important as what its material flows supply to the human body.
Perhaps the only hope to find the will and way to implement meaningful solutions to these dilemmas like climate disruptionand the severe perturbations in natural systems it createsis to reestablish, that is to say, rebalance, the relationship of humans with their landscapes. If we reunderstand humans as part of natural systems, physically and energetically, we then can hope that caring for and sustaining those systems will become a welcome imperative rather than a burdensome imposition. One place to begin is to remember that the rejuvenation and inspiration that nature provides to the human spirit are as important as what its material flows supply to the human body. Understanding where we are now is essential as we map where we need to go. less fossil fuel, but because it may mean changing habits and reducing consumption of all goods we fear doing it. So blame is cast out the front door, generally in the direction of corporations and Middle Eastern countriesand we continue, out the back door, to demand that those dealers feed our addiction. And just as deftly, the Petroleum Age has slid us into increasingly severe global dichotomies: excess and scarcity, keen intellect and mass ignorance, high-tech comfort and knife-edge survival. And we apprehend the dichotomies. In journalism, news reports and data, formerly complementary, now compete. In discourse, the line between opinion and fact is blurry, with many people getting off the logic train when they find the station attractivethat is, compatible with their lifeviewrather than riding the train to its conclusion. In politics, the gulf between stated intent and actual purpose gapes into a black maw. Who can forget the proposed Clear Skies Act designed to waive regulations on air pollution? Likewise with the land, we find that our conveniently separate venues for organizing mass consumption established dichotomies that used to provide such comfort and suretyhave become murky. We live Here. We get our goods, like oil and cheap gadgets, from Over There, and Away is where things go when we dont want them anymore.

Apprehending Apprehension
The Petroleum Age has greased our feet (bottoms?) and slid us right into the Age of Apprehension. To apprehend means both to understand and to anticipate with fear. By now, most people understand that we have a societal addiction to oil, especially cheap oil. Weve built our American culture on and around inexpensive, high-quality energy. Collectively, we fear what its doing to our national security, the climate, and the land, yet that angst is subsumed by the fear of withdrawal from our oil addiction. There is no lack of consensus that we need to use


Like our addiction to oil, that stuff we accumulate so voraciously serves as metaphors for what we really want: freedom, comfort, happiness, beauty, security, respect, and love. But reality is clear. The degree to which we use these addictions as substitutes for what we really want is directly proportional to the loss of the same for others Over There. The more we indulge our drive to consume and thus to feel good Here, the more compromised are the land and its people Over There even if Over There is just across a state line or a North American countrys border. We have learned hard lessons that there is no Away, that vast unseen place to dispose of unwanted or ignored consequences of consumption. Nothing in nature disappears or goes Away, it is just relocated, perhaps in a different form, but it will reappear again, fouling the air, water, food, soil, and shelter for all species, including humans. This self-induced delusion of separate places on one planet has led to social schizophrenia and divisiveness. We want more and more stuff from Over There, while we try to throw more and more stuff Away. But that pesky junk keeps showing up Here. Unwanted stuff and pesky junk from Over There is coming Here, too, instead of staying Away where its supposed to. People from Over There try to follow their good stuff Here because theyre running out of it Over There and we seem to be pretty intent on getting all of it Here. But we clearly dont want the people from Over There Here. They should all just stay Away. In our madness, weve failed to see that Here, Over There, and Away are simply one place with interchangeable names. Intellectually we know that the consequences of how we treat the atmosphere, the land, each other, and other species are inescapable; those consequences are all Here, its all connected, and its making us crazy. Just two hundred years ago in the United States, if you couldnt identify sources for water, food, clothing, shelter, energy, and medicine from your immediate

landscape, you died. Now, insulated by economics, technology, and social hierarchy, our contact with this chain of sustenance is infrequent and random. Almost none of us know exactly and precisely where our most basic needs come from. Weve abrogated our personal responsibilities by delegating someone Over There to find, extract, and send our sustenance to us. At least now we argue that things should be harvested and produced sustainably. But if we know neither the source nor the producers, then how do we know if they are sustainable? Fossil fuels are a stunning examplewe continue to use them as if they were cheap and abundant, when in reality they are priceless and diminishing fast. And yet, no people called Leaders are telling us to stop doing this to ourselves and landscapes everywhere. Actually, theyre encouraging our delusions by devising even more ways to wring something out of the people and environment Over There. No wonder were crazy. Resolution of these dichotomies and our addiction to consumption prompts some vital questions. Can we remap our understanding and appreciation of the world so that Here, Over There, and Away reveal themselves as one? Can we use the power of the land to knit dichotomies of polity and place into meaningful balance? Can conservation and restoration of place become a universal language between cultures and generations?



land as Touchstone
The answers may well be found in exploring and rebuilding the human relationship to landscapes. As stated earlier, the rejuvenation and inspiration that nature provides to the human spirit are as important as what its physical dimensions supply to the human body. Land can become our touchstone; its the place we understand, an anchor as we try to remain sane and connected in a maelstrom of change. Perhaps if we can truly understand what we want and need from landscapes, we will treat them differently. These landscapes arent just a picturesque backdrop for personal dramas and triumphs or something to buy and sell to finance lifestyles. Landscapes are not just the storehouse of goods and services to keep us happy. This way of thinking disconnects and dislocates us physically and psychologically. Landscapes do provide the stuff of lifeclean air, clean water, carbon sequestrationbut what people really want from landscapes are the rejuvenation and inspiration from experience and relationship, food for the soul. This is particularly true of open spaces and undeveloped lands, where we can create memories and gather our stories. Landscapes allow us to experience history, the people and animals who walked this way before us, and to contribute to our collective legacy in walking those same paths. We get to experience solitude in nature, scaling ourselves within the larger world, finding and exploring lifes meaning through natures metaphors and relationships between the land and its inhabitants. Nature stands as the original house of worship providing succor and spiritual sustenance as we contemplate our connectedness to and interdependence on the wonders and mysteries of the web of life. We revel in the beauty of natural landscapes. Though protecting natural beauty has been routinely dismissed as softheaded or economically onerous, beauty has incalculable worth. Perhaps subtle aspects may be in the eye of the beholder, but look at the value and power that

we ascribe to place and people who are deemed beautiful. A home with a view demands a much higher price than one without. A person with a beautiful spouse or car raises their social standing simply through the acts of association with or possession of beauty. Works of art, deemed beautiful, can fetch millions and have elaborate buildings built to display and protect them. The resort towns of renown are in beautiful natural settings and you pay through the nose just to visit. Simply put, beauty translates to wealth and favor. Natural beauty in and of itself attracts humans with irresistible force and inspires the spirit to incalculable heights. When one lists the artistic works inspired by nature, one lists the rich pinnacles of human accomplishment and the motives behind much landscape conservation: in this country alone, the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, the prose of Wallace Stegner, the photography of Ansel Adams, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and the music of Paul Winter.

The Challenge
Regardless of culture or location, these themesthe value of nature for life-sustaining ecosystem services, inspiration, and identityremain timeless and universal. We need to grasp this universality as a common point from which to launch serious discussions and negotiations on how we preserve this lifeline, these natural landscapes that sustain us. But what does that require of us? Lets use Mexico as an example. We in the United States are a society that consumes five times more energy per capita than our neighbor to the south. We can demonstrate our concern for their landscapes if we stop exporting our demands, pollution, and water scarcity across the border and begin respecting our common resources. A simple step is reducing our consumption of energy, water, and products whose manufacture pollutes and compromises the health of people and ecosystems.



Despite an outcry that this will reduce their export revenues, this is a pay-me-now or pay-me-a-lot-morelater situation. For example, the precipitous decline in Mexican oil-field production suggests that what little fossil fuels Mexico has left might be better used to provide for its domestic energy needs for five times longer than it will fulfill ours. To run out of oil in Mexico would mean no income from exports and higher expenditures for imports just to meet domestic energy needs. In desperate situations like that, the quality of landscapes is a low priority. Conversely, a slow descent to less fossil energy, on both sides of the border, will allow communities to assess what they really need. And what we really need are thriving, functioning local landscapes that provide sustenance for physical and psychological comfort and security. Indeed, remapping our relationship with our landscapes is key to responding to the serious calamities that confront us. Resilience in the face of social upheaval resulting from peaking supplies of traditional energy and climate disruption requires that we protect our landscapes and ensure that the services they provide are sustained. And this will lead to resolution of the deeper chaos of dichotomies, providing protection for the higher values engendered by the human relationship to landscapesrespect; thoughtful design; meaningful discourse; longevity of view; and sustainable, intentional action. We can do this and be better for it, come what may. And its essential that we act now; the unraveling is well under way.



Photo Credits
Page 2, Yosemite Valley cbna K moore. Page 5, iStock, Harbour diego Cervo. images marked c are under a Creative Commons license. See

Cover art by mike King. design by Sean mcGuire. layout by Clare Rhinelander.


The Post carbon reader

Managing the 21st Centurys Sustainability Crises
edited by richard heinberg and daniel lerch
In the 20th century, cheap and abundant energy brought previously unimaginable advances in health, wealth, and technology, and fed an explosion in population and consumption. But this growth came at an incredible cost. Climate change, peak oil, freshwater depletion, species extinction, and a host of economic and social problems now challenge us as never before. The Post Carbon Reader features articles by some of the worlds most provocative thinkers on the key drivers shaping this new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and systems resilience. This unprecedented collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandaryas well as the most promising responses. The Post Carbon Reader is a valuable resource for policymakers, college classrooms, and concerned citizens. richard heinberg is Senior Fellow in Residence at Post Carbon Institute and the author of nine books, including The Partys Over and Peak Everything. daniel lerch is the author of Post Carbon Cities.
Published by Watershed Media PUBLISHED FALL 2010 544 pages, 6 x 9, 4 b/w photographs, 26 line illustrations $21.95 paper 978-0-9709500-6-2

To order online: For a 20% discounT use This source code: 10M9071 (please enter this code in the special instructions box.)