Environmentalism’s Original Sin

In 2007 the National Audubon Society, one of the leading environmental organizations in the United States, issued a report headlined “Common Birds in Decline.” Based on statistical analysis of 40 years of bird population data, it announced “the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds.”

The story attracted wide press coverage. “Spreading suburbs and large-scale farming are contributing to a precipitous decline in once common meadow birds,” began a New York Times story. An accompanying editorial lamented, “We somehow trusted that all the innocent little birds were here to stay. What they actually need to survive, it turns out, is a landscape that is less intensely human.” A letter to the editor predicted that the deadly pattern will continue “as long as we ask the earth to support too many people.”

Few commentators bothered to study the study itself. Had they done so, they might have noticed that among 309 bird species for which statistically meaningful trends could be established from data in two population surveys, birds showing a “large increase” exceeded those showing a “large decrease.” Forty-one species recorded a large increase in both surveys; only twelve saw a large decrease.

Looking at the data on individual species, reported in an appendix, readers would have found that one species registering a large increase was the bald eagle, until recently classified as endangered in the lower 48 states. The eagle's numbers rebounded after the 1972 ban on use of the pesticide DDT. Another rapidly increasing species is the wild turkey, driven to extinction in many northeastern states more than a century ago by forest clearing for agriculture. It has returned as abandonment of farms led to forest regrowth. In both cases, the comebacks were actively abetted by private and governmental restoration initiatives.

Of the species that registered significant declines, many are birds of open habitats – meadows, pastures, and early successional forests – habitats that were created and sustained by farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries on lands that have now reverted to forest.

So the take-home messages from the Audubon study could have been:

  • more bird species in the United States are increasing in population than decreasing;
  • efforts to protect and restore threatened species have scored major successes; and
  • many of the species whose numbers are declining depend on human-created habitats that are disappearing.

The relationship between non-industrial agriculture and biodiversity is not unique to birds in the northeastern US For example, in a recent study in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico, published in “Global Environmental Change”, University of Manitoba researchers James Robson and Fikret Berkes found that widespread abandonment of traditional milpa agriculture is leading to “localised declines in biodiversity, despite (or because of) extensive forest resurgence.”

The American writer Wallace Stegner once noted that when facts enter “the maw of that great machine that at once creates and obeys public opinion,” they often come out as something else. “Ideas,” he wrote, “are like dye thrown into moving water.”

A powerful current in American environmentalism maintains that Humans are Bad for Nature. It is a belief that took hold with the closing of the frontier in the late 19th century, but its roots can be traced to early European settlers' misperception of North America as a pristine wilderness, and perhaps even further back to the Christian doctrine of “original sin.”

The mission of environmentalists, in this story, is to preach self-restraint in a valiant effort to curb our ecological footprint and limit our misdeeds so as to remain within Nature's capacity for forgiveness.

Absent from this narrative are the ways that humans can and do have positive impacts on the environment. Call it our ecological handprint. It can be seen in the diverse habitats created and sustained by non-industrial agriculture. It can be seen in the co-evolutionary processes by which humans domesticated plants and animals, originating the species on which we depend today for most of our food. It can be seen in the ecological restoration that brought the return of the wild turkey and bald eagle.

Hellfire and brimstone may be effective for garnering media attention and procuring donations from the faithful and fearful. But original-sin environmentalism not only rests on a selective reading of our past. It also has led to a political dead end. When the choice is framed as Humans versus Nature, it turns out that most people will choose Humans. If environmentalism is to win the future, we must move beyond this false dichotomy.