Nature is a land for gentlemen

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In his remarkable and impressive description of the Paul Klee’s picture, Walter Benjamin saw in the Angelus Novus the pressure of history in its own occurance. But in Benjamin’s words the Angelus is also something more intriguing. If progress is a reckless and limitless awake ruled by the only law of history ( going ahead in the search for a better time ), progress is an angel with wings turning into dust as well. The contradictions of Benjamin’s idea of progress leads us into the very matrix of Anthropocene. The Age of Men seems to destroy the way the Angelus could look at the past in order to create something new. The fertile continuum between past and future, that dominated both Renaissance and Romanticism, switchs off with the rise of the Modern Age. The idea of progress sabotages legacy as a fondumental construct of the Western thought. We can synthesize the meaning of legacy so: legacy is the awareness of a debt that links a society to its own past. This connection has been fading away till a breaking point: by now, humanity feels free from the means  civilization imposed to the ongoing occuring of history. This is a refusal of debt in the name of a seductive fascination: our wonderful technological tools are going to emancipate us from ecological boundaries human beings have beeen always subdued to.

But, then, who really are we? And why in the last 50 years have we been enough skillful to overcome the carrying capacity of the Planet? For some time, ecologists work to define this ecological impact by reasoning along hypothesis that move the classical environmentalism from a sort of moralism to a more pragmatic view of human footprint starting from the Pleistocene. Recent and accurated data allow us to correctly frame the ecological legacy of our species regards to the present and past fauna; this approach helps reading the future as an array of philosophical questions. Do we leave a patrimony to the next generations? And what does it mean to be responsible for this legacy?

Today we can say legacy in  two ways dialectically related each other. On one side we find our provenance from a past, our being a species and the choices we must cope with in the management of nature called conservation; on the other side we track our refusal, boosted by the trust in the technosphere, of the same process that historically brought us from a before time frame to a now time frame. The fact that from a cultural perspective our being heirs is off hides an even more pervasive problem. This is the post modernist imagination to set human cultures in an out-of-history present, falled in love with itself, that no longer pays attention to the consequences of its doing just because the concept of consequence seems too mild against the mechanical experience of reality supported by global consumerism. Definitely legacy is a rift in the ecological and historical continuum that fixes our current troubles with the biosphere on the educated inability – as Diego Fusaro puts it –  “di pensare il presente come il luogo della storia” (to think the present as the place where history occurs).

Charles Darwin understood what “the present as the place where history occurs” from an environmental point of view is. Evolution is not the simply happening of the speciation, but a never ending and unstoppable process ( till now, see D. Woodruff, Declines of biomes and biotas and the future of evolution, PNAS vol.98 n° 10 , May 2001) that shaped life on Earth. In the Origin, discussing variability and substituting the hypothesis of “centres of creation” with phylogenetic inheritance, Charles Darwin put the concept of ancestor  in front and at the centre of the scientific record of the past. It means that, in Darwin’s thought, like all the other species humans are and settle on the Planet as descendants. In aknowledging descent as the keypoint of evolutionary radiation Darwin made a fundamental revolution for what concerns the once-a-time dominant religious concept of fauna: species belong to a complex, chronological net. And it’s their being-in-time to explain the ecological position one beside each other and, eventually, beside humans. Through the concept of evolutionary ancestor, Darwin insists on the relationship-based feature of life.

So, Telmo Pievani calls it contingency: a crossing of chance, ecological boundaries and defining circumstances – for instance, a huge meteorite crasching into the Planet or, more recently, the exploitation of the fossil net primary production to feed Industrial Revolution – that gives life an unpredictable sound. So, if we look at legacy in evolutionary terms, legacy is the genic flow through generations that make species thrive and change. But today human-triggered extinctions challenges evolution: over time the sixth mass extinction will harm ecosystems trophic structures and alter the evolutionary lineage of most taxa. To say easier, the genetic-evolutionary framework of life we are used to consider effective is in danger due to not linear outcomes of Homo sapiens’ projects, ideas and fantasies. Our Culture openly challenges our belonging to Nature as heirs of a long evolution that links us not only to the Mammal family (we are in by birth), but also our species-relationship with al the other living creatures of the Planet.

Aknowledging the place, the range, the language we are born from is to build up providing-sense connections. Since they explain why we work in a certain way, these links give meaning to what we are: the bond with the past enhances life because it reproduces the flow of life. In other words, legacy is a tale and this tale is the very opposite of the technological hic et nunc merely focused on the economic use of the biosphere. The experience of this providing-sense connections is now getting dull and the immediate consequence of it is our increasing difficulty in grasping the ecological crisis as a crisis of reality. Paul Salopek explains it at best:

“We all walk through the geography of time. Time pools deeply in some valleys. It hurtles like a torrent along certain roads. I am surprised we all absorb this temporal sorcery routinely, as a matter of course”. But natural history and evolutionary biology too put us on the same path in the effort to comprehend the life processes. Out of this vision of the living – the Origin of the Species itself unfolds it – the other species cannot survive but as gadget at disposal of the diverse exploitations humans are akin to concede. And this risk, the concrete risk to confine animal presence in a gadget (in Jacques Lacan’s word), is a danger beside extinction risk. It’s a culture-related risk that shows in which extent the eclipse of biodiversity is as much an idea as an ecological process.

So we can say legacy in the sense of phylogenesis, belonging, connection, species -relation, tale or narrative. But the consumistic society persists with the rethoric of self made man addicted to the addiction that success smiles only to those who pursue their own program with no regards to the Other. Past is an annoying issue if you are concentrated on setting up a reality that reflects your own goals. Recently, an Italian tv advertising spot showed a girl seeking for a new smartphone; she walks around in a natural history museum, among Jurassik fossils, saying “Past is already passed away”. The complete ignorance of the screenplay – the total dna on the Planet is just the same of the Jurassik – expressed the contemporary contempt for what came before us. Today, advanced societies don’t know what to do with past, including the developing countries which like better Burberry and Chanel than their own forests. In Vietnam, the project of a natural history museum in Hanoi  to assess the faunistic richness of the country before it goes lost for ever, shows, in a Nietzschian way, the effort to put the biological patrimony in the idea of nation. An effort that is lilleraly a race against time. But currently media don’t speak about legacy. Limited to be a specimen, legacy has no place in the social and political debate. The mainstream thought is “straordinariamente aperto alle differenze, ma definitivamente chiuso alle aporie” (extraordinary open to the difference, but absolutely closed to aporia), while it’s the aporia – in Hegel’s sense – to enlight where we head to under the pressure of the ecological and environmental  conditions we all depend on.

Recently in Italy the Lacanian psychoanalysis has faced the legacy construct by working out Lacan’s ideas about “the name of the Father” to explain the ongoing “eclipse of the Father”. Father (in Lacan’s view, a crucial factor of the becoming-adult-process) is not only law or prescription or sanction or rules; Father is also the landscape/mindset from which people come: the context that shape how human beings can encompass and enterprise life. So, in a psychoanalytic framework, the debate is not only: how can we be fathers? But also: how can we be sons? Actually, we’re heirs of something when we accept to have an origin and assume the task of doing something good of it in a creative way. Just this second question – how can we be sons? – brings us into the very core of the issue. The contemporary sentiment of a total freedom ( the myth of the self made man ) from the “past” cultural forms shows a real affinity with our attitude in the ecological crisis. We demand to be cutt off from the evolutionary, ecological chemical, physical boundaries of the Planet.

Leaning to the Lacanian psychonalytic paradigma ( how can we be son for our fathers?) we can deeply investigate the dilemma that today pervades the debate on conservation: which kind of Planet should we leave to the next generations ? And first of all, which tasks should we assume to keep safe the biological patrimony ? Legacy construct is a symptom of the ecological crisis.

In this defining moment to be decisive it’s not only the idea of “nature” but also the idea of “wild nature” (wilderness). The today-nature is not a matter of fact, but a product historically determined. From the XVIII century the Western philosphy shaped the figure of Nature as “wonderful awe” and “endless ecstasy” with a strong influence on how complex societies learnt to look at habitat and ecosystems while Industrial Revolution restricted and harm the space of Nature. Melancholy and nostalgia for a vibrant disappearing world in opposition to urbanization and machine-civilization, worked as humus for the arise of the American environmentalism, that in the last 1980s became the green counsciousness of the world. By no means this environmentalism finds its reasons in political and civic issues not limited to the United States. These issues wrote the terms of the diagnosis, the subsequent psychological reaction and eventually the wished solutions: a religious discourse about Nature (Pope Francis’ Encyclica is a recent example), anti-Modernism (some attribute it to de-growth and Serge Latouche), critics of the civilization, the escape from history to an utopic Eden or to a not-in-history-present (this mood develops into a self oriented knee-jerk responses, for instance in the emotion-driven wave of indignation on social media following the death of Cecil the Lion), the escape of ecological responsibility.

The turning point in the still functioning Romantic idea of Nature arrived with the Earth Summit in Rio (1992): Nature has an economic value, a neutral word for ecosystem services, that are, once more, an Orwellian word to fix and exploit the chain of life. Since then Nature is no longer Nature, anyway you want see it, because yet absorbed in the economic and financial Capital Nature is a hunting field for business. But in the meanwhile Nature had ceased to be Hemingway’s African savannah and Muir’s Serra. Nature is no more an untamed and infinite landscape, but a mosaic of reserves or national parks – of course, absolutely magnificient – that have the daunting task to keep biodiversity from the human, limitless siege. And if you take a look to the fees of the most fanstatic providers of safari in Botswana – where there’re the last enormous wild areas of the continent: Makkadikadi Salt Pans, Okawango Delta and Kgalagadi (tranfrontier with South Africa) – you can realize how much true was the dark prophecy of Thoreau: “But possibily the day will come when it (the land, cit.) will be partioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a gew will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trapassing on some gentlemen’s ground”.

National parks are far from expressing our attitude to conservation: they show how much hard is for us to put legacy into the real word. One of the hypotheis we’ll try to discuss in the present essay is that, using philosophically the legacy construct, the design of national parks dismiss legacy just because they confine wildlife in a protected dimension cut and sewed on our own desires. In her novel The Round House, Louise Erdrich descerned this dire nuance (how places historically determined and planned are teemed with a discomforting sense of guilt and open bills) telling the mental attitude of a young Ojibwe who visits a native cemetery in North Dakota where most of his ancestors rest in peace: “And so to be afraid of entering by night was to fear not the loving ancestors who lay buried, but the gut kick of our history, which I was bracing to absorb. The old cemetery was filled with its complications”. That is, “The imperative of land, its peculiar magnetism cannot be ignored”. National parks are full of our complications. They embody the way we psychologically manage wildness: confining, keeping constraint, repressing, taming, controlling. Making hostages.

So, in our present day the paradigma of Nature implies new questions: biological and evolutionary legacy (defined by the limits of protected areas), phylogenesis (our cultural awareness to be a species among species in an evolutionary not static process) and the capitalistic framework critically challenged or paradoxically embraced by the Ecomodernist Outlook.

Today, the paradigma where we think of Nature includes new open questions: biological and evolutionary inheritance on the basis of the limits of protected areas, philogenesis, that is our increasing awareness to be a part of the history of Earth, and eventually the critics to the economic, capitalistic system that has reduced Nature to a market trade. Georgina Mace explained on Nature how the idea of conservation has changed over the last decades. Before 1960s conservation was essentially “nature for itself” with a specific focus on wilderness as pristine, untamed and unsettled room. From the beginning of 1970s to the 1980s, the expanding impacts of human activities (habitat distruction, overexploitation, invasive species) shifted to a vision “nature despite people”. During this time, concepts like “minimum vital population” became relevant. At the beginning of 1990s, not last thanks to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, it was clear that pressure on habitat was global: extinction processes accelerated. Ecosystems services (nature’s benefits) are not replaceable by technology and habitat management, ecologists insisted, must be integrated. But people too can no longer be put outside species and habitat administration. This is the “nature for people” (shared human-nature environment) approach, that considers human beings an important part of Nature even where Nature is at risk. But this idea of conservation does not fulfil the meaning of wild places and species. Recently, it has been assumed that exploiting Nature is related also to cultural mindsets, because our use of faunas and natural resources lay on symbolic figures, ancestral backgrounds and certain forms of civilization. “Current conservation science and practice includes all four framings, sometimes in mutually supportive implementations”, Mace writes. Anyway, extinction drivers such a hunting in protecting areas (bushmeat) in Africa and Asia, or the biopolitical exploitation of entire species (African lions, for instance, bred to be shot dead for trophy), or the fashion of luxury wild pets (Orangutans, slow Loris) or the huge bird species trade in Indonesia show us that biodiversity crisis keeps massive and pervasive cultural features.

The seriousness of the current situation ( in the last four decades we lost 50% of the all vertebrates) forces not only to re-think Nature, but also the role of Nature in defining our own identity as Homo sapiens. The environmentalist discourse is, then, no longer focused on what is wilderness, but also on legacy. Here historic and evolutionary identity of Homo sapiens, and the ways we are changing life on Earth for ever, overlap. This is why the Romantic origin of our idea of Nature, and wilderness too, deserves a more particular attention. In dialectic terms, wilderness as a cultural construct (“the full continuum or a natural landscape that is also cultural”, wrote William Cronon) is an unreversable movement, embedded in the historic process of the Industrial Revolution. But Romanticism-created Nature, today we can see it, had the advantage to think the Planet as a whole: the ousia (substance) of our experience of the world.

According to Romanticism, world – res extensa – displayed its own reason to be there. So, before an astoninshing mountain landscape human being did not cutt himself off from the Planet. Sublime itself was an experience of reality (in Agamben’s sense). Right here we can detect the reasons why Romantics talked about the Weltseele (soul of the world): Sublime was the bond among creatures. Today, the paradigma is quite different: the gadget has taken the place of experience. The gadget turns Nature into tourism and profit, by enhancing the entertainment and showing in on Facebook. But if everything is a gadget, anything survives to be elaborated and then inherited because a gadget is by definition an enjoyment restricted to the only present. Gadget produce consumption, not experience. And the great national parks live this dilemma. It’s here that legacy issue is hottest.

It’s widely accepted that protected areas, even if they play a crucial conservation role, will be not sufficient over time, and on a global scale, to garantee the survival of the most of species. The current extinction rate is 100 times higher than the background extinction rate with which species normally melt into the abyss of time. But some other data are more significant: 85% of reserves has lost their sorrounding forests that worked as buffer zones against threats like poaching, illegal logging, expanding crops. On the table there’s now the urgency of “working out a new way of thinking about the management of our rural and peri-urban landscape” because “protecting areas are like mirrors redflecting the health of their immediate surroundings”. In the last only three decades in the protected area the number of old-growth trees has plummeted, and this is a global trend. Conservation, today, involves the importance of funding a balance between human needs and biodiversity protection. Conservation must be shared with people who effectivly live in and around reserves and protected areas (people and nature approach). But this is not the entire picture. In Africa are under construction or planned 33 “massive development corridors”, infrastructure units to improve goods movements and trade back and forth commercial hubs on the coast: one big road and sometimes a pipeline or an electric line. These corridors will pass through 400 protected areas: they seriously impact on almost 2000 wild reserves.

But ecosystem services – calculated and defined as renewable economic capital – don’t reflect the intrinsic value of both the species and their habitat. Rather, they are an agenda to profit from nature. Engaging local communities in conservation just within the hot spost marked a step up toward  a more inclusive environmental justice. Anyway it has not been particularly successful in facing the crisis. Furthermore, programm such as REDD + has not reversed habitat overexploitation. International commitment in tackling the crisis, riassumed in the Aichi Targets, is undoubtful, but the crisis itself is characterized by the restless human pressure and subsequent decline of most species. Extinction risk calculated and classified by IUCN red List for more than 70.000 species (plants, vetebrates and invertebrates) still remains a ubiquitous threat in comparison with the success of strategies under way. And they do not really impress the public in the developed countries. At the contrary, giving an economic value ( a plus valure in Marx’s sense) to plants and animals makes stronger our reluctance to provide agency and legitimacy to the other species we coexhist with. According to a research of WildCru at Oxford University, nearly no one of the passionate supporters of Cecil The Lion on Facebook knew the real condition of African savannah. They ignored that Panthera leo is at risk of extinction. The increasing costs of patrolling big African parks against gangs of well equipped poachers tell us that Nature is no longer a patrimony taken for granted; Nature is a good to defend on the basis of specific cultural and political choices. So, what should we protect? And why?

A few years ago the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut discussed the end of the admiration for the past among young generations in a series of radio broadcast. He investigated the evident detachment in the French society between the traditional republican models – with their civilian and political intensity – and the social tissue, unemployed, muslim or French-born. All these categories of young people feels as archeological specimen, for instance, Victor Hugo and De Gaulle and Racine. Finkielkraut’s guests sew, day by day, a stunning dialogue – because of the quite open and grim topics discussed – on the fact that the misunderstanding of legacy has triggered a drying-process of both the critical thought and the principle of reality. The crossing points with the cultural characteristics of the ecological crisis are astonishing.

The historian Pierre Nora describes the eclipse of legacy in this way: “C’è una sorta di solidarietà tra passato e avvenire. Gli schemi di intelligibilità del passato erano funzione della prescienza o del presentimento che si aveva dell’avvenire. Potevano quindi essere gli schemi della restaurazione, quelli del progresso o quelli della rivoluzione. Questi tre schemi di intelligibilità del passato sono diventati tutti ampiamente caduchi” (There’s a sort of solidarity between past and future. Once the cognitive assumptions and structures engaged in our understanding of the past were function of the awareness that it would be a future. These structures could be restoration, progress or revolution. Today these three constructs are totally over ).

The semiologist Paul Thibaud agrees: “Oggi l’avvenire è ciò che difendiamo contro il passato. Il paradosso del nostro tempo è che faccia a faccia con il passato c’è un certo rifiuto del debito” (Today the future is what we defend against the past. The paradox of our age is that it’s the refusal of debt to face past ). And Pierre Nora: “Si può parlare di una crisi della filiazione. Abbiamo la sensazione di essere brutalmente tagliati fuori e separati dal passato. Forse non c’è mai stata una rottura simile nella storia dell’umanità, salvo al momento del Rinascimento o della fine dell’Antichità. Un tempo sapevamo di chi eravamo figli, mentre oggi siamo figli di tutto e di nessuno” ( We can talk about a crisis of the being-born-from. We feel to be brutally cut off from the past. Maybe never existed before such a break in the human history but in the Renaissance or at the end of Antiquity. Once we knew of whom we were sons, but now we are sons of anyone and nobody ).

Then Pierre Nora insists that memory is not simply a record, but “disputa simbolica e valorizzazione di simboli” (symbolic dispute and the effort to give a value to symbols themselves). And Finkielkraut adds: “Credo si potrebbe tornare ancora una volta a Renan per chiarire ulteriormente la distinzione tra nazione storica e nazione memoriale. Eredità e progetto nel contempo, la prima associa alla presenza del passato (avere fatto grandi cose insieme) alla preoccupazione dell’avvenire (volerne fare ancora). La seconda disattiva l’eredità rendendo il passato al passato e ostentandolo come puro spettacolo” ( I think we should once more come back to Renan in order to better clarify what marks the difference between history-based nation and memory-oriented nation. At the same time legacy and project, the first one unifies the presence of the past – had doing good and fair together – with the concern for the future – willing to do well again. In the second one legacy is disactivated : past is past and it’s useful only as a show ).

So, show against legacy.

Biodiversity on stage is the rift within the ongoing crisis. Since it engages governements, stakeholders and people who spend thousands of dollars to visit African or North American wilderness, it is of enormous relevance. Biodiversity on stage ices wildlife into the present day, breaking the links with the ecological landscape where big games survive. In recent years African safari industry has been building on social networks a gigantic picture of wildlife as live, anthropocenic, phantasmagoric entertainement. It’s a symbolic translation that shows how consumerism has eroded our possibiliy of experiencing reality. Actually the picture of wildlife show suggested by social media hides a distorsion, that is the camouflage of the real, organic beauty of species. In the daily discourse African faunas are beautiful because they’re magnificent, mighty, majestic and elegant. Elephants and big cats act as stewards of this “demand for beauty” that satisfies tourism industry and that imposes, for instance, to pay very little attention to wild dogs or civets or golden cat or kudu.

But wildlife is not beautiful because of its perfection, Charles Darwin himself understood. Wild species, at the contrary, are beautiful because they wear the scars of life: hard times, rentless movement, danger, risk, unsuccessful hunt, struggle for survival, sun and rain. Since legacy is wrinkle, scar and indelible mark, biodiversity on stage is a denial of inheritance. The show cancels the proceding of time in space. To have an idea of the real beauty, we can examine a video posted on Istangram by Great Plains Conservation and filmed on 10th June 2016 in Zarafa, Selinda Reserve, Botswana. Some subadult lions slowly walk in the hot day. The lions, as yellow as the dried grass of the bush, go further along a line nearly graspable, under a turquoise sky, heading toward something that exists but that you cannot see. And the fact is that you cannot catch their goal by a Nikon camera: it’s the genetic inscription of African faunas, and lions too. This goal is not on sale or on trade. It’s a rough state-of-being, not domesticated; it’s the unpredictable, not negotiable sign of life. This kind of beauty is miles away from the daily discourse, that limits wildlife to a natural show filtrated by social networks and perfectly fitting with Heidegger’s Gestell.

Legacy puts events, circumstances and ideas in a logical sequence.

Finkielkraut: “Contro l’invenzione dell’uomo, bisogna, sulla scorta di Hans Jonas, difendere ostinatamente l’idea che l’uomo è da scoprire e che il passato ci deve aiutare. Non si tratta dunque di essere nietzschiani, ma di essere presenti all’appuntamento e di non sbagliarsi di battaglia”. ( Against the idea of a self-created human being, we must, on the behalf of Hans Jonas, obstinately difend the principle that humans is an in-fieri creature and that past can help us. It’s not a matter of being Nietzsche’s supporters: we must attend the date and don’t miss the battle ).

Attending the date is the responsibility we owe to the present situation. We must be active observer. Saying “yes of course” to the question posed by the erosion of the biosphere opens to the possibility of change and an original thought. The new thinking requires to go out from renounce-annihilated schemes or religious utopias or moralistic escapes. The fact is that the Planet itself questions us about the present and the past. From an ecological and environmental point od view, the hot now is not, therefore, the hyper-investment of the present ( related to nichilism and moralism), but ( as psychoanalysis puts it) a staying-into-facts in a narrative way. “We are guardians, not masters”, said the Italian Art historian Tomaso Montanari, and, more, “Monuments, unreplaceable store of life and future”. Animals and habitats are our living monuments: like the most spectaculat Italian square and churches and pictures, they display our link with the past but determin our possibility to make future in a living way.

Attending our times means to head to what Americans, looking at Y2Y project (its goal is to connect in an unique continental unit all national parks on the geographic line Yellowstone-Yukon) call “the geography of hope” rather than to escamotages modulated on porofit and designed on hidden biopolitical matrix. But legacy, it’s better to speak it up, has nothing to do with repetition or slavish emulation or the illusion to come back to a pristine natural state where it will be no longer hard to coexihist with puma on the Rockie Mountains or lions in the Tsavo. Legacy is to be aware of what is history, it’s an active construct and not passive one. Legacy is to take the measures of the distance we’ve beyond just to sketch a new present as a place of new chances. Experiencing legacy, then, is to experience the Planet going in research for means, not gadgets. In this perspective, as much fossils as live animals are witnesses and clues of a wider ecosystem where natural history crosses Culture. In Freud’s terms, this kind of open horizon overcomes the malancholic regret (no renounce of the object, oxidized denial of mourning) and the romantic contemplation (deadly adhesion to the lost object). The contemporary task is to explore the deep ecological links that connects us to the chain of life. Definetely legacy looks like dew on an old Mopani at early morning. It belongs to the past night but it helps facing the right now beginning hot day.

 

 

 

 

 

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