Demythologizing Nature

There are two stories in the current issue of New York Magazine that are of great interest to me, particularly this one by Robert Sullivan, titled, “The Concrete Jungle.” I’m teaching an Advanced Reporting course this Fall at New York University, called Hidden New York: Where the Wild Things Are, and incredibly, Sullivan’s wide-ranging survey of New York City’s abundant ecological diversity appears like a gift-wrapped guidebook in the second week of the semester. My students were supposed to be discovering all this on their own these next ten weeks!

Anyway, I have a longstanding interest in urban ecology. What Sullivan covers in detail for New York magazine is part of a larger subject that I wrote about in an article for Science magazine in 1999. Here’s the thrust of that piece:

Not so long ago, cities held little interest for ecologists; they were mostly places to escape from to study real ecosystems. But in a landmark shift 2 years ago, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, which funds a network of sites in relatively pristine areas in the United States and Antarctica, added two urban LTER sites: Phoenix and Baltimore, Maryland. The deeper scientists dig into the ecology of these cities, the more life they are finding, according to a report on the Phoenix project released this month. “The simple notion that a city diminishes biodiversity is wrong,” says anthropologist Charles Redman of Arizona State University (ASU), co-director of the Phoenix LTER site. The findings have a handful of ecologists arguing that maybe–just maybe–cities aren’t such a blight after all.

That tracks with what Sullivan writes 11 years later in New York Magazine:

…over the last handful of years, as the occasional charismatic megafauna has caused headlines by squatting in Central Park or nesting on Fifth Avenue, scientists and naturalists have discovered something much more fundamental: Nature is prospering in New York. Yes, the otters, minks, bears, and mountain lions have long since disappeared. But nature as a whole””the ecosystem that is the harbor””never went away. In fact””and this may seem implausible””nature is in many ways more plentiful in New York City than it is in the surrounding suburbs and rural counties. New York is again a capital of nature; we are an ecological hot spot.

Does this mean there’s no need for big tracts of unbroken habitat for animals to roam? Of course not. But the idea that ecosystems and wildlife can still flourish in big cities challenges some of our cherished notions of nature. Along those lines, I recently asked my students to read this provocative and highly controversial essay by environmental historian William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” It’s part of a larger, brilliant collection of essays in the book, Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.

Cronon’s essay caused much consternation in environmental circles when it was published in 1995. Prominent environmentalists of the day, such as Dave Foreman and Terry Tempest Williams, attacked it as abstract musings from the Ivory Tower. Others feared it would be seized on by anti-environmentalists in Congress. Some of the criticism of Cronon was quite personal, which stung him, as he believes in the need for wilderness protection. After it became evident that his essay struck a nerve, the journal Environmental History published a roundtable of scholarly perspectives, which includes Cronon’s response to the public reaction.

Just a quick aside: I’m a huge fan of environmental history and a big admirer of Cronon’s work. One of the highlights of my tenure as an Audubon magazine editor was convincing him to write this essay for the magazine in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Finally, on a separate note, the other notable article in this week’s issue of New York magazine is on Jon Stewart. The piece offers much to chew on and discuss, but I’ll save that for another post. In the meantime, let’s just say that the article makes clear that Stewart’s penetrating satire is as relevant as ever. Chris Smith, the author of the profile, also argues that Stewart may be the closest thing America has today to Walter Cronkite.

7 Responses to “Demythologizing Nature”

  1. Marlowe Johnson says:

    thanks for the link to the Stewart piece Keith.  Made my day.  Especially the intro 🙂

  2. keith kloor says:

    Here’s one of the parts that interested me most:
    And he clings to the naiive hope that the legitimate news media will get its act together and become a resolute force for truth and good government. “You have to imagine someone is going to come along in a nonpartisan fashion and create a similarly tenacious organization as Fox,” Stewart says. “There’s got to be a way to translate people’s ability to be titilated into a way to inform them that’s not necessarily PBS. There’s be money in that.”

    He’s obvously being half-serious.  The problem is that the usual means of titilating people would automatically call into question your motives and supposed nonpartisan stance. That’s why  his show succeeds and straight newsreporting fails–at least to engage people. Stewart reveals hypocrisy and crass politics and demogoguery in an entertaining fashion. Neutrality-based journos who really try to be fair and balanced can’t compete with that.

  3. Marlowe Johnson says:

    well it’s also a question of how you define ‘fair and balanced’ isn’t it?  And more to the point,  much of his success is in skewering the MSM for its intellectual laziness and sloppiness (e.g. Ground Zero Mosque).  Rich as the material is from Beck/Limbaugh et al, they are only part of the Daily Show’s recipe…

  4. Stu says:

    Loved the Robert Sullivan article, especially this idea of a mind shift to viewing urban spaces as potentially valuable ecological ones as well. I’ve done a fair bit of work in Melbourne in environmental remediation, mostly in enhancing indigenous biodiversity along city creeks. Have seen some good success stories over the years as communities have gone from viewing their natural spaces as garbage dumps to actively working to protect and enhance these areas, with the effect of seeing the return of many birds and other species. it’s exciting.
    I’ve always had a soft spot for ideas like those of William McDonough, who’s call for a new type of industrialism based around ecological principles and processes could eventually lead us towards a new vision of cities and industrial zones- one whereby all the former visible signs of industry have all but disappeared to be replaced by a much more ‘naturalistic’ type of aesthetic-  one which is working to sustain both industry and ecology. It’s a nice enough thought anyway. 😉

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Stu, here’s a huge env remeditation project that will turn one of New York City’s biggest blights into a new recreational and ecological oasis.

    And yes, McDonough is indeed a visionary.

  6. Stu says:

    Wow! Looks wonderful, a very positive move.

  7. […] students are teaching me many things this semester. They have a class blog that is now a few weeks old, and already I have learned that New Yorkers […]

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