What We (Don’t) Take Into Account

Taylor, his mom (who is visiting for the holidays) and I went to the Portland Art Museum. We didn’t get to go as long as we would have liked, since the snow and ice caused an early shutdown of the museum. However, we did go in long enough to see the Wild Beauty exhibit, a collection of over 200 photos of the Columbia River Gorge from the 19th and 20th centuries.

At first glance, the photos are indeed lovely. I spent a lot of time looking at Carleton Watkins’ work from the 1860s. However, as I got into more recent photos, it was clear how much “progress” had been made, and how the landscape was being changed. I’m not the only one who noted the loss of Celilo Falls, one of the most notable natural phenomena destroyed by the damming of the Columbia River. While sonar images show that the falls technically still exist, I would be skeptical if someone told me that removing the dams would reveal the same Celilo Falls structure that was there prior to the flooding. Certainly the ecosystem wouldn’t be anywhere near the same.

This got me into a line of thought that’s been nibbling at the edges of my consciousness for a while now. Looking at what some of my favorite places looked like 150 years ago, and realizing just how much has changed since then, got me thinking about shifting baseline syndrome. People often think of environmental issues in terms of returning things maybe to the way they were when the environmentalists were children, or perhaps maybe the time of their parents. Yet they have no idea.

This (from CarletonWatkins.org) is what Multnomah Falls looked like when Watkins took a photo of it in the 1860s:

This (photo by Marc Chamberlain) is what it looks like today:

Big difference. According to the exhibit literature, Watkins’ picture was the first one to get that exact angle of both parts of the Falls, because the forest around it was so dense–he actually had to cut down a small tree to get a better shot. Now there are tourists everywhere, and I don’t think I’d drink the water, either. One could point to the fact that modern technology has made it possible for people, like me, and like the tourists, have access to such a beautiful place. But what have we lost in the process?

Multnomah Falls is about thirty miles east of Portland. I-84 cuts right along the Columbia River, and the old Columbia River Highway parallels it and goes straight to the Falls. How many places had to be disrupted or destroyed for these two highways to go in, and for all the communities that sprang up around them to grow into the near-countless acreages of pavement and subdivisions that used to be forests and plains? What did we lose in order to be able to get to the Falls? If we still had those places, would we have to trek thirty miles or more to get to the wilderness?

Now, I am not a complete and total neo-Luddite. As I sit here, typing away on my laptop, in a nice warm home securely insulated from the freezing cold and snow outside, I am quite grateful for many of the creations of the human mind. Same goes for my car, and the public transit system, and the boots that I stomp around in the snow in. I admit it–I like my comfort.

However, I can’t help but think of the price of this comfort. It’s not the fact that we have these things–it’s the mindset that guided us through making them happen in the first place, and the attitudes with which we made them manifest. Specifically, I look at how completely anthropocentric and arrogant humanity has been in its lack of regard for other living beings since the rise of agriculture. The vast majority of technological advances have been made without taking into account the potential negative effects on other living beings and the ecosystem as a whole. We have only very recently in our history even begun to understand what a mistake that has been.

When humans come up with an idea for a new innovation, the only concerns taken into account are those of humans. Often it’s not even all of humanity. Look at sweat shops, for example–the needs of the humans who are stuck working there aren’t taken into account, not to the extent they should be. And that’s not even including the resources and pollution involved in making that pair of Nikes.

It’s been that way for thousands of years. Our technology has either been actively antagonistic towards Nature (things to kill dangerous predators, things to poison vermin, etc.) or passively antagonistic (pollution, disruptions of migration routes, etc.). We’ve never, until recently, considered the price other living beings, human and otherwise, have had to pay for our conveniences. We haven’t thought about extinctions due to massive habitat loss, or how killing off the top-level predators in an ecosystem can throw it out of balance to a serious degree, or how our effluvia can make the water undrinkable for the people downstream. We’ve simply let our excitement over the newest shiny object blind us to any killjoys.

I don’t want us to not have technology. I want us to rethink technology, and how we make it happen. The fact that our first awkward steps towards green energy, despite all their flaws, have gained at least some success show that if we applied ourselves to that as much as we did to fossil fuels, there’s a good chance we’d end up with much cleaner options. The same goes for more efficient distribution channels for various goods, better building methods, the publishing industry, and just about any other form of technology you can think of. There are (or can be, if we apply ourselves) better ways to do things, ways that do take our impact into account–but we’re not used to implementing them. We say “Yes, we’ll work to make the next line greener”. Why didn’t we take the time to do it with this one? Or the previous? Or the one before that? And here we see the pattern that’s been replicated for thousands of years–putting profit and convenience first, and then allowing them to blind us to anything else, regardless of promises and lip service to the contrary.

If this means that we have to work harder and longer to perfect something that in the long run can be affordable, effective, and as low-impact as possible, so be it. We’ve seen what doing a half-assed job of something results in. It’s not just sloppy–it’s unethical. As Stan Lee originally wrote, “With great power there must also come great responsibility”. I don’t want us, as a species, to be powerless; I want us to continue to develop that power. But I do want us to take full responsibility for our power, and use that going forward. And that includes all the effects of our actions, not just the ones we find it convenient to note, or only the ones that affect our own species, or our own nation or other in-group–or, most selfishly, only ourselves.

We are not isolated beings.

We are part of a system. We are part of many systems, interconnected and interdependent. Let’s take each action with that in hand.

3 thoughts on “What We (Don’t) Take Into Account

  1. While I agree with your main point – that humanity needs to take more responsibility for the consequences of its actions – I think that in the longer view there’s reason for hope.

    The thing is, evolutionarily speaking, there’s nothing especially rapacious about humanity. All organisms (that we know of, anyway) grow to fill the carrying capacity of their environment, outstrip it, wreak havoc, and die back as the environment adjusts. We’re not even the first to cause global-scale changes: that honor goes to the oxygen-excreting bacteria billions of years ago that pooped out enough of the then-toxic gas to fundamentally destroy life as they knew it and give rise to life as we now know it.

    The key is that we can’t use this an an excuse to keep doing what we’re doing. The fact we *can* see the consequences of our actions enough to want to change them is tremendous: it puts us at the border between mere intelligence and actual sapience. We have to strive toward that goal and take that next step toward truly becoming stewards of our own ecosystem.

    But it’s also nice not to lose sight of the fact that we’ve made great progress just too get this far. We’re bucking evolution just to even conceive of a better way to live.

  2. I cannot recommend Richard White’s book The Organic Machine enough to you – and anyone else interested in the history of the Columbia river, and/or changing ideas about the relationships between people, nature, and technology/work. It’s pretty short and academic in tone without being too dense or boring (which trust me, is no small feat for a work concerned with things like dams and industrial technology). White is one of my favorite historians and I think you’ll really like his approach.

  3. I’ve been pondering some of these same issues over the last few days. My partner and I took a quick getaway to the mountains. We went there for the natural beauty and the quiet. But as more people go for those same reasons, homes and roads are built, and we lose the very thing we sought in the first place. There are steps being taken to preserve certain areas and to build or expand while making as little impact as possible. You can see a real difference between construction, say, 30 years ago and what’s going on today. But still, we humans always have an impact. Wouldn’t the most favorable impact been none at all? I don’t know.

    And one of my neighbors has taken to putting out corn to attract the deer that roam our area. He says he likes to see the deer. While I share his appreciation for the local critters, I don’t think it’s wise to lure them so close to his house. Not far away is quite a bit of traffic on a very busy road, and I’m afraid the deer will move that direction and be killed. Only a few nights ago, I almost hit 2 deer on our road while driving to my house, and they rarely go to that area. But they were leaving my neighbor’s yard—full on corn, no doubt.

    We are certainly all connected, often in ways we don’t realize. I may say something to my neighbor to discourage the use of corn. It would be sad and ironic to know he attracted those deer only to lure them into harm’s way. You’d think he would understand this connection, but I’ve found some people just aren’t aware.

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