My friends, let’s talk about nature, because it’s always a pressing subject but this administration is forcing us to have some very immediate and pressing conversations about the issue. The Trump Administration wants to privatise everything and extract every natural resource in sight, which is super not great for any of us, especially nature. And it’s easy to get caught up in debates about various uses of the public commons — but it’s important to take a step back and talk about nature.
Many on the right believe that nature is something that belongs to people, specifically them. They view the ‘commons’ as a grocery list of things that can be extracted and sold, including timber, minerals, oil, and wildlife. The world is your cash register, dive in with both hands. The US government to some extent supports this, as evidenced by the fact that it leases public lands (‘the commons’) to private companies for profit, whether they’re taking oil and gas, mining, grazing cattle, or felling trees.
This troubles many people because some of these activities are environmentally harmful, and we’d rather not see them furthered and promoted, which is a pretty reasonable concern. We have an obligation to steward and protect the planet for the benefit of future generations. That includes promoting biodiversity, which requires protecting habitats and looking out for fragile species. It also means preventing pollution, and taking steps to prevent or mitigate anthropogenic climate change — even if it was possible to extract oil without disturbing the environment at all, and transport it at zero risk to anyone, it’s still not an acceptable activity because it feeds the destructive thirst for fossil fuels.
Some also argue that the ‘commons’ as a public resource is something everyone should be able to enjoy. When it’s being looted for profit, it’s not a very fun or pleasant place to be. They argue that the ‘commons’ has value not as a pile of natural resources but as a place for recreation and pleasure, and nice views, and lovely things. I definitely sympathise with that, as I like ambling around in the woods and looking at nice things and it’s something I particularly like to do when traveling, as it gives me delightful insights into the natural environment in places that are nothing like the one where I am from.
This is a fundamentally human-orientated view, though. It still maintains that the ‘commons’ is there for us to use, albeit in different ways, and some promote extraction and exploitation-based uses of nature. Using recreational vehicles, for example. Or hunting. The idea here is that nature has value because people can use it, even if people mean for things other than profit and destroying the environment. Those who argue for protecting the environment are usually taking less of a human-centric point of view, depending on the person and the framing — some very much position this as about protecting the planet for future human generations and protecting humans as a species, though they note that this also benefits other things that live on earth as well.
The thing is, though, that nature has an intrinsic value. Sitting all by itself with no interaction with humans, it has a value. There are places I believe we should protect where I will never go, and where in fact humans should probably be excluded because they aren’t just beautiful, but also fragile and fraught. It pleases me to know that they exist. They have nothing to do with me, or my survival as an individual or species, I’m just glad they’re there. I’m glad we have deep-sea vents with weird creatures at the bottom of the ocean. I’m glad we have vast swaths of wilderness and desert and forest. Their very existence makes me happy. I don’t need to get anything out of them, in the short or long term. I don’t need their resources, I don’t need to visit them, their existence might be immaterial to the planet’s future: I’m still glad they’re there.
And this is something that humans could really do to think about more often. Less self-interest and more a general appreciation of the fact that nature exists, as hokey as it sounds. As soon as I find myself defending nature in terms of what it can do for me, I feel like I’ve lost the battle, by suggesting that nature needs to be defended. And sometimes it does and we need to take that role. Sometimes we need to explain that maintaining nature creates valuable economic and ecological resources, that if we protect a park instead of mining, people will visit and like it and spend money there, that if we make a swath of forest off limits, biodiversity will increase and lots of cool animals and plants will survive when they wouldn’t otherwise.
But sometimes I really relish an opportunity to say that something can exist on its own terms without offering any specific function or benefit. I feel like we don’t do this enough. Who cares if a specific forest is creating habitat or protecting an endangered species or presenting a great place to snowshoe in the winter? Can’t it just, like, be a bunch of trees, hanging out, because trees are nice and we’re glad they exist? Is that really so bad?