Commencement ceremonies at Regis University over the first weekend in May signaled a new chapter for all of our graduating students, but also gave faculty members an opportunity to reflect on the prior academic year before diving headlong into a summer dedicated to scholarly pursuits and relaxation. As I look back on the 2017-2018 academic year, I realized that an anecdote about an eye-opening experience with students may have some meaning for those of us engaged in regenerative development.
During the Fall 2017 semester, I taught a section of RCC200: Writing Analytically to our incoming first-year students. This course is a writing course where students critically engage scholarly sources to support their own written arguments. Each RCC200 professor selects a theme within which they teach writing, and I entitled my course “The Urban Jungle: The Search for Wilderness in Cities.” During the course, I wanted students to rigorously define “nature” in urban settings using scholarly sources as their guideposts.
The main source we used in the class was After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedediah Purdy. Briefly, Purdy argues that the American view of “nature” has evolved over the course of the nation’s history, and that this evolving view has shaped the nation’s environmental policies. Purdy outlines four main “visions” of nature that color current thinking about what “nature” is: the providential, the romantic, the utilitarian and the ecological. The providential vision is very much in line with westward expansion of the frontier and Manifest Destiny, where settlers saw nature as something to be usurped and tamed. Purdy then contrasts the romantic view espoused by John Muir and Henry David Thoreau with the utilitarian view of Gifford Pinchot. Essentially, Muir and Thoreau argued that nature was a “wilderness” remote from human influence where individuals should seek solace and inspiration, while Pinchot argued that nature provided resources (e.g., timber, livestock, minerals) that must be expertly managed for human consumption. Finally, Purdy describes the advent of an ecological view with Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” which describes nature as an interconnected system whose connections humans have a responsibility to protect and maintain (see Cath Kleier’s blog post: The Importance of Connections and Redundancy in Ecosystems).
I see interconnectedness between humans and ecosystems in cities, not just in remote areas.
You are probably unsurprised that, as an ecologist, my own view of nature is very much in line with that of the ecological vision, but I arrived at that view through my own contemplative experiences outdoors which are certainly in line with a romantic view of nature. However, unlike Muir and Thoreau I see interconnectedness between humans and ecosystems in cities, not just in remote areas. Whether that be the large influx of Canadian geese to our urban parks, the hum of dragonflies patrolling a stormwater detention pond or the lone tree on a street median, I focus on those ecological connections. In that sense, I very much agree with William Cronon’s argument from a 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” that we should “abandon the dualism that sees the tree in the garden as artificial—completely fallen and unnatural—and the tree in the wilderness as natural—completely pristine and wild. Both trees in some ultimate sense are wild; both in a practical sense now depend on our management and care.”
But what did my students think? While reading Purdy’s book and many of the primary sources I described above, I asked students to visit an urban natural area (e.g., a city park, nature reserve, the zoo) and record their observations about the area they visited. After a few visits and rounds of observations, I asked my students to write a brief paper describing how they would define nature in the city. I fully expected students to see the interconnectedness among humans and nature that I see when I visit our city parks. I was quite mistaken! Very few of them seized upon these ecological connections, rather most wrote about how parks serve as an oasis from the stress of the daily grind in the city, or how parks serve a utilitarian purpose for exercise, dog walking and the like. Some even remarked on the conflicts between these goals; how can an area meant for use by humans simultaneously serve as an isolated retreat or a place where other species might thrive?
This story highlights how individual perceptions shape definitions of “natural capital”.
The dissonance I experienced between my own views and my students’ was quite eye-opening. But through this experience, I took away much more from reading After Nature. I realized that my own view of nature had colored how I saw these urban spaces, and that was the precise argument Purdy had made all along, albeit at a much broader scale. I feel regenerative development practitioners could take away meaning from this story too. Specifically, this story highlights how individual perceptions shape definitions of “natural capital,” and the need to foster stakeholder dialogue about these definitions during the process. So, as summer begins, I encourage you to experience nature in the city, and more importantly to think about what you see and why you see it.
(header image of Denver skyline courtesy of Pixabay.com)
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