Nature may look like a passive and willing supplier of land, resources and life forms, something for people to dominate and use, but longtime environmental activist and author Bill Ashworth, in his new book, “The Monterey List,” says in order to survive climate change, humanity needs to shake hands with the real nature — and soon.
Ashworth says the focus should shift from preservation to sustainability.
“It’s about the greatest good, for the greatest number over the longest period, while understanding that we’re part of nature, not standing outside of it," he says. "Everything that happens to nature happens to us.”
Ashworth is the author of 13 books on the environment over 40 years. A Quaker, he's also a poet, photographer, classical musician and composer and was reference librarian for the Ashland library for 16 years.
His best-seller, “The Late Great Lakes” (1986), examined remote preserves in Michigan and established that toxic PCBs were in all the creatures, so the state’s Isle Royale National Park achieved little in saving endangered species.
“We may think we are manipulating nature,” he says, “but it’s manipulating us — and if we blow it, it will take us out of the picture. We will disappear and life will go on.”
The title of Ashworth’s latest book comes from a list of 110 provocative, often enigmatic aphorisms that attempt to reframe how people see nature and live in it. He scratched them down in a hotel room in Monterey, California, a couple decades ago and he’s been refining them ever since. Here are some:
“The natural environment does not pay attention to human rules,”
“If we don’t control our numbers, nature will,”
“Populations are healthier when they are being culled,”
“There is no such thing as wilderness any more,”
“Life can survive the disruptions caused by humans; humans may not,”
“Unplanned effects may be more important than planned ones.”
The book’s introduction begins: “We face an immense array of problems — global climate change, water and energy shortages, mass extinctions, and the general decay caused by carrying capacity overshoot, to name just a few. Anxieties brought on by these problems have been exploited by politicians who have used them to consolidate power and wealth within a tiny fraction of the population. Many of the protections won in the last century are being rolled back; ideologies have taken hold that threaten, not only our existing environmental regulations, but the very idea of regulation itself.”
Chuckling over his plentiful morning coffee, Ashworth boils it down to the vernacular, noting that something he calls “environmental resistance” is what nature puts up to keep any expanding population (people) under control.
"You can violate natural law but soon it will bite you in the butt,” he says.
Ashworth’s chapters are sweeping koans, or parables, offering subjects for meditation. Some are almost religious tracts, such as “We view nature in largely mythical terms.”
He explains: “Nature is the Other, a lurking presence outside our cities, by turns benign, ominous, suffering, giving, or fighting back. Nature, in this view, is damaged where we have tinkered with it and whole only where we have never trod; we can tame it or leave it alone, ignore it or embrace it, protect it or exploit it, but we cannot be part of it. Nature is nature and humans are humans, as thoroughly cloven from each other as God and Adam after the Fall.”
In the next koan, titled “Our job is neither to preserve nature nor to conquer it, but to reintegrate with it,” Ashworth warns, “The developers and the preservationists are both wrong. Nature is neither an endless cornucopia of resources, nor a sacred precinct. It is not a playground, either for bulldozers or for hiking boots. It is our world. It gave shape to us, and we remain part of it. We really have no choice in the matter: all we can choose is whether or not to recognize the relationship.
“What this means, in a practical sense, is that we must stop trying to dictate terms to nature and begin to listen to it, instead. This is true whether the terms we have been dictating are meant to squeeze profit out of it or to lock it up for its own protection. If we cooperate with nature, we will accomplish much more than if we try to force it to cooperate with us.”
Ashworth defines the goal of sustainability like this: “To create a society that can sustain itself indefinitely, not cradle to grave but cradle to cradle, where all trash becomes feed stock for new resources. We need a realistic course to get there. The hair shirt is not a popular garment. People think it’s going to hurt so they have to be convinced it’s not going to hurt.”
In his own life, he and his wife, Melody, have acted out the shrinking of their carbon footprint, moving from Ashland to simpler Medford, filling their roof with solar panels, getting an electric car (chargeable from solar) — even buying at the big box stores, shopping for what’s made in the valley or, failing that, made somewhere in Oregon or the West Coast.
They don’t fly, which is, by far the most carbon intensive way to go anywhere, he says. He estimates their carbon footprint at half of his neighbors.
Bottom line, he writes, “Growth will cause its own collapse… . There will be an abrupt population decline. A number of possible causes may contribute to that decline, but they will all come down to one thing: people will die.”
Carrying capacity means what population in a certain area can “carry.” He says, “We are already out of our carrying capacity of the planet for our lifestyle. The further out of it we go, the worse the crash is going to be.
“When population grows too much, you run into the wall of environmental resistance, then you have population crash from warfare, starvation, disease, pandemics. Food distribution becomes more difficult.”
The whole point of the book, he notes, is that “if we create a sustainable model of living and control population now, then we can go on indefinitely. But we’re not immune to natural law. Nature bats last.”
The book’s full title is “The Monterey List: Growing toward a sustainable future for ourselves and for the planet.” It’s on Kindle digitally for $12.99. Ashworth's website is www.williamashworth.net/disc.htm.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.