Breath of Clarity

Comment #2 on Evaluating the Implications of Conceptualizing Humans as Part of “Nature”

Original Post by John Glover:

Dr. McPhearson’s statement follows a theme that was prevalent throughout this week’s readings. His main argument is that “there is not an ecosystem on earth that does not have human influence.” Personally, I agree with this statement for several reasons. First, humans have physically altered the majority of the land on the planet as civilization expanded. Humans now control over 75 percent of ice free land through agriculture, mining, industrialization, and urban growth. Just to feed livestock animals, the United States has to use 654 million acres, or over 40 percent of land in the contiguous US (Merrill and Leatherby, 2018). Second, climate change is rapidly altering ecosystems across the planet. Temperatures rising globally could cause coral reefs, which contain up to 20 percent of ocean biodiversity to bleach (Lorber, 2019). Lastly, pollution is now a catastrophic issue for plants and wildlife. Microplastics have become so prevalent that they can be found in even the most remote regions of the world (Visser, 2019). Furthermore, the total weight of human produced technofossils is over 30 trillion tons (Lorber, 2019).

Cronon’s paper from 1996 also argues that humans and nature are deeply connected. Cronon argues that there is no more true wilderness left in the United States, but the public lives with a misguided perception that the lives they live are independent from the effects on nature. Instead, Cronon argues that people need to value nature in their own backyards. They should appreciate the natural resources that are provided form them, such as clean air, water, and soil. Furthermore, citizens should actively work to be stewards of the land and provide for plants and wildlife (Cronon, 1996). I largely agree with the sentiments expressed in Cronon’s paper. One critique I have, however, is that they focus too strongly on urban areas. In order to convert land back towards something resembling its natural state, we need to acknowledge the realities of land use. All of the urban areas in the contiguous US combined only make up 69.4 million acres. This is compared to the 654 million acres used to raise and feed livestock animals (Merril and Leatherby, 2018). Cropland in the US makes up nearly 400 million additional acres. In comparison, park and wilderness areas make up just over 100 million acres in the US (Merril and Leatherby, 2018). Another problem I have with Cronon’s argument is that they want to eliminate the use of the term wilderness altogether. Personally, I think there is a huge benefit to having an idealized vision of what wildlands should look like. If people have something to strive for, then they will work harder to protect natural resources.

Karieva and Marvier take a more holistic approach to their environment in their 2012 paper. Similar to Dr. McPhearson, they argue that “human domination is now so widespread and profound that it can no longer be ignored in any conservation decision” (Karieva and Marvier, 2012). Their arguments differ from Cronon’s because they focus on more diverse human impacts. For example, they discuss how per capita energy use has grown in the US by nearly 400 kilograms of oil per year between 1985 and 2009. Additionally, they address how nearly 40 percent of all of Earth’s ice-free land is being used for pastures to feed animals or croplands to feed people (Karieva and Marvier, 2012). One argument they presented that I found interesting is that there is a decline in environmental support. Gallup surveys showed a decline of support from 61 percent in 1984 to 36 percent in 2011. Karieva and Marvier also mention that children’s books have shown a decrease in representations of nature (Karieva and Marvier, 2012). I am slightly skeptical of this point, and I have reason to begin that this lack of support will change. For one thing, support on environmental issues has a highly partisan divide (Figure 1) (Funk and Hefferon, 2019). Additionally, four out of five parents in America want schools to teach climate change (Kamenetz, 2019). This sentimentality suggests that older generations who have typically been more resistant to climate efforts are starting to come around.

Reference List:

Cronon, William. 1996. “The Trouble With Wilderness, Or Getting Back to the Wrong Kind of Nature.” In William Cronon’s (Ed.) Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 69-90.

Funk, Cary and Hefferon, Meg. 2019. “U.S. Public Views on Climate and Energy.” Pew Research Center. (Links to an external site.)

Kamenetz, Anya. 2019. “Most Teachers Don’t Teach Climate Change; 4 in 5 Parents Wish They Did.” NPR. (Links to an external site.)

Kareiva, Peter and Michele Marvier. 2012. “What is Conservation Science?” BioScience 62 (11): 962-969.

Lorber, Kino. 2019. “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.” Burtynsky, Edward et al. (Directors). Kanopy. Retrieved Nov. 5, 2019. Video, 87 min. (Links to an external site.)

Merrill, Dave and Leatherby, Lauren. 2018. “Here’s How America Uses Its Land.” Bloomberg News. (Links to an external site.)

Visser, Nick. 2019. “Microplastics Have Invaded Some of the Planet’s Most Remote Places.” Huffington Post. (Links to an external site.)

My Comment:

Hi John,

Excellent post! It is quite thorough! It is interesting that children’s books have shown a decrease in representations of nature. I wonder how Karieva and Marvier define and quantify representations of nature in the children’s books. I found a study in which the authors examined a comprehensive sample of children’s books (including school textbooks as well as fictional and natural history storybooks) to assess their role in providing information about local environment and native biodiversity (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). To assess the relevance of books in enhancing or detracting from children’s knowledge about nature in their area, the researches reviewed 1242 children’s books that were marketed in Chile and contained stories based on natural history or presented pictures of planets and animals in wild landscapes (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). They investigated how frequently and in what form local biodiversity and their environments were portrayed in the sampled literature (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). They grouped the sample of books into three non-exclusive categories, depending on whether the storyline included plants, animals, or wild landscapes (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). Books were further divided into two groups, based on whether the plants, animals, or landscapes pictured were native or foreign to Chile (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). They also inspected required-reading textbooks on natural science, which are recommended by the Chilean Ministry of Education for children from preschool to high school (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). In each textbook, they analyzed the specific examples of plants, animals or wild landscapes shown (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). It was intriguing to see the researchers bring up the additional challenge for the media, including publishers, is to find new ways of fostering children’s emotional affinity with nature to complement but not replace the healthy benefits of outdoor experience (Celis-Diez et al. 2016). The authors concluded collaboration among local scientists, publishers, educators, and illustrators should be strongly encouraged to expand the examples of good practices (Celis-Diez et al. 2016).


Celis-Diez, Juan, Javiera Díaz-Forestier, Marcela Márquez-García, Silvia Lazzarino, Ricardo Rozzi and Juan J Armesto. 2016. “Biodiversity knowledge loss in children’s books and textbooks”. Frontiers in Ecology. 14(8): 408-410. (Celis-Diez et al. 2016)