By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Yesterday I talked to M. Sanjayan, Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy, about one of his mentors, Michael Soule.  Back in the 70s, Soule, who was Paul Ehrlich’s first graduate student and a population biologist, had the insight that landscapes increasingly fragmented by human incursion would sooner rather than later lead to inbreeding depression among species and then, in short order, extinction.

There were others involved, of course, but Soule led the call to action and founded conservation biology, a new science to deal with the crisis.  He also founded a nonprofit the mission of which is to link protected landscapes and so physically ameliorate the fragmentation.

I had been reading Reinventing Nature?:  Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction, which Soule co-edited with Gary Lease in 1995; the volume of essays was instigated by a conference at UC Irvine, hotbed of deconstruction, which was set to address “the forces of cultural construction” in forming our ideas of nature. In Soule’s essay he writes:  “When I discovered that social critics were deconstructing both nature and wilderness, even questioning their existence and essential reality, I wondered how and why.”  Indeed.  Bring on the Roland Barthes, I love reading that stuff, but it gets extremely cloying and practically stupid when biological processes are thrown against the screen of human relativism. 

What could be more arrogant, and also, more destructive — placing nature at some sort of remove from ourselves makes it that much easier to treat it as a commodity.

Soule founded what is now the Wildlands Network based on “Deep Ecology,” a philosophy articulated by Arne Naess, which argues that nature has a right to exist unmolested by us, just because it does exist.  While Soule avers that you can’t save nature without addressing people, because “it’s all one system,” yet he does feel people should stay out of cores of wilderness so it can do it’s own thing without our interference.  Sanjayan credits Soule with teaching him that “empathy” needs to imbue the dialogue about nature, and true to the political position of the Nature Conservancy for which he works, Sanjayan promotes sitting down at the table with people with whom you disagree, and listening to them.  In general Soule retains a more staunch position about just doing the right thing by nature whether people want to or not.  Enough listening to people already – we’re losing land and species fast.

Sanjayan describes his job as that of a “story teller,” and he’s a great messenger, not only in his charm and ebullience, but also in his ethnicity, something that is hardly ever seen in conservation, which tends to be very white.  Especially in the upper ranks, it is almost entirely male.  As quipped in an Outside Magazine article about Sanjayan, we wouldn’t need conservation if it weren’t for white males.  And back to the deconstructionists, who after all are about taking apart received hegemonies, we have all become colonialists when it comes to nature, taking it, controlling it, pretty much mindlessly consuming it until it ain’t no more.  What we should be deconstructing isn’t nature, but ourselves.

Leave a Reply