Demythologizing Nature

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSep 17, 2010 9:27 PM


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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.

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