Alice Outwater apparently and I would very much like to see a world in which beavers dammed streams across North America, old-growth forests reclaimed vast tracts across the continent, rivers and streams were restored to their natural meanderings, prairie dogs helped to maintain natural grasslands that bison would graze upon, mussels and alligators were plentiful, and humans did not dump so many pollutants into the air and the water.[1] But complexity theory informs us that the whole of a system does not equal the sum of its parts; that there are unexpected losses and unexpected gains from that sum, which we call emergent properties; and that when positive (destabilizing) feedback occurs, we should look for the possible establishment of new systems with new equilibriums sustained by negative (stabilizing) feedback.[2] Outwater’s approach subtracts the factors listed and adds modern fertilizer and pesticide-intensive agriculture, domesticated livestock, cities, industry, water treatment, and sewage treatment. As such her solution appears to be a restoration of a natural solution that predates modern transportation, infrastructure, and not only a population that is much larger than the indigenous pre-contact population (whose size can only be guessed at) but an increasingly urban and suburban population who often professes admiration for wilderness but is aghast when mountain lions and coyotes forage in their communities or when wolves are thought to kill sheep. I can only wish that Outwater was correct; surely even the malarial swamps of Iowa and Illinois were less hazardous than are Chicago politics today.

Outwater begins to grasp the cultural difficulties as she documents how the fur trade decimated the beaver population, how North American Indians were readily enticed into participation in this trade in exchange for European technology, and how the European American civilization viewed “[w]ilderness . . . as mysterious and frightening,”[3] indeed as Timothy Beal might suggest, as a monstrous “other” to be suppressed through technology.[4] But Outwater also inadequately expresses the assumptions of the European American civilization which imposed itself upon North America and which appeared to view its resources as infinite and as existing for human exploitation, assumptions which would surely need to change if there is to be any hope of a restoration of a verdant paradise in which all living things, not just humans and domesticated animals, can have access to the clean water we all depend upon. Further, in her advocacy of buffalo meat over beef, she neglects that a world population rapidly approaching 7 billion[5] and facing climate change needs to consume less meat rather than different meat.[6]

So even as Outwater has meticulously described a number of ways in which European settlement has altered the ecological system as it relates to water, she has not described a system humans can realistically aspire to that is healthy for humans and other living things. Her picture is partial in that while she describes the myriad impacts when a culture that radically privileges—even worships—technology[7] displaces an indigenous one, she barely examines the cultural values that have proven so detrimental to our world.

As I read Outwater’s work, I found myself wanting an exploration of the hierarchical notion of “natural” and “moral” order that places humans over nature, and how that fits in with other aspects of hierarchy;[8] and attention to how an economic system that privileges competition over cooperation might manifest in a race to destroy the environment. And finally, if disease is indeed such a major factor in decimating indigenous populations and reducing their will to resist modern encroachments as Outwater (and others) suggest, what can it be that the bacteria Fritjof Capra credits for having repeatedly adapted to metabolize toxins, for playing crucial roles in natural systems at all levels, and for providing negative (stabilizing) feedback for earth’s ecosystem are up to?[9]

  1. [1]Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Basic, 1996).
  2. [2] Fritjof Capra, Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1991); and Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  3. [3]Outwater, p. 36.
  4. [4] Timothy K. Beal, Religion and Its Monsters (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  5. [5] Population Reference Bureau. http://prb.org/
  6. [6]Cornell University, “Diet With A Little Meat Uses Less Land Than Many Vegetarian Diets,” ScienceDaily, October 10 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071008130203.htm; University of Chicago. “Study: Vegan Diets Healthier For Planet, People Than Meat Diets,” ScienceDaily, April 14, 2006. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060414012755.htm
  7. [7] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1992).
  8. [8]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  9. [9]Capra, Web of Life.

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