There Are No Pure Environments

Will Sarvis
4 min readDec 7, 2022

The great writer John Mortimer’s most famous fictional character was Horace Rumpole, a British barrister. In one story, Rumpole warns his son about the preoccupation with purity in the United States. “Be careful of living in America,” he wrote, “The purity! The terrible determination not to adulterate anything!”

Upon seeing this Oregon photograph, some Americans would call it an interesting example of the semi-arid western United States. But if they discovered that it was a human-made gravel pit (which it actually is), they would immediately dismiss it as “defiled,” even if the “environmental impact” (especially erosion) were identical. (author’s photo, near Coburg, Oregon, 2022).

One manifestation of this purity preoccupation shows up daily in American discussions about the environment. It is ironic, considering no environment is “pure;” i.e., free of human influence (according to the misanthropic environmental philosophy I have described before). The purity focus is indeed an American cultural trait. Why is this?

Perhaps early Euroamericans thought they had entered a “pure” land, unaware of how aboriginal people had profoundly altered the environment for millennia before their arrival, through anthropogenic fire alone (and many other practices, like stampeding buffalo herds over cliffs). North America was replete with enormous human influences well before even the Vikings arrived (preceding Columbus by centuries). To offer but one example, the Anasazi structural remains in Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) may well represent the most sophisticated and elaborate prehistoric calendar in the world. The buildings represent an extraordinary, knowledge of the cosmos, including the metonic cycle of the moon.

Another source of American environmental puritanism may well have stemmed from Calvinism itself, that great misanthropic version of Protestant Christianity that was and is so influential in the United States. This is basically the “fire and brimstone” version of Protestantism that includes a near-certainty that most of humanity is bound for hell. The environmental version of this is how we are supposedly bound for environmental catastrophe because we are inherently a naughty species who are committing the green version of “sin.” Green Calvinism is the term I use to describe the followers of this philosophy.

I prefer a philanthropic version of environmentalism in which humanity embraces its stewardship role with as much care and wisdom as we can muster. Philanthropic environmentalism includes recognizing and separating (as much as possible) politicized science from its more detached cousin. Philanthropic environmentalism also tries to distinguish philosophical values from scientific facts. Easier said than done, on both counts.

Adding humanity to nature potentially creates a distinct worldview that differs markedly from misanthropic environmentalism. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) registers remarkable human-made landscapes as heritage sites, including the former slate mining site of Snowdonia in northwest Wales. Among its heritage sites, Unesco recognizes “natural sites” (like the Great Barrier Reef or Yosemite), “cultural sites” (like Stonehenge or the Great Wall of China), and mixtures of the two (like Machu Picchu or Mont Perdu in the Pyrénées).

Slate quarry in Bethesda, Wales, near the Snowdonia Unesco Heritage site. If you never knew that these cliffs reflected intense, industrial era human activity, would they be less picturesque? (Library of Congress photograph, ca. 1895).
“Natural” landscape in contemporary western Utah. If this vista reflected mining instead of geology, would it suddenly become ugly? (author’s photo, 2006).

There are innumerable examples of small, human-altered areas that could take the Unesco approach. For example, the Delta Ponds in Eugene, Oregon, are the result of old and abandoned gravel pits that the neighboring Willamette River later flooded. Instead of a “scarred” environment, pro-green folk have ironically embraced the ponds because they serve as habitat for fish, fowl, and other species associated with the riverine and pond environments. And yet the city has only built rudimentary trails around the area to accommodate hikers and birdwatchers, as if it were a “natural” area not to be disturbed.

Above and below, Delta Ponds in Eugene, Oregon. Other than basic footpaths and a few interpretive signs, the City of Eugene has more or less maintained a hands-off approach to stewarding these abandoned gravel pits, as if they represented a “pristine” area free of intensive human activity, when they actually reflect the opposite. (author’s photos, 2022).

The Delta Ponds would likely look much different in Japan or China, where they have long traditions of merging humanity and nature in famous Asian landscape gardens. Instead of merely leaving the gravel pits alone, they would likely add pagodas, temples, tea houses, and other structures on the already-artificial islands, along with connecting footbridges, and the classic sorts of silvicultural and horticultural cultivation (and rock gardens) that make Asian gardens so very appealing. If we treated the Delta Ponds or other such sites this way, they would become the best of all worlds: aesthetically wonderful and (no matter how accidentally) ecologically helpful for species we value. Then, in their own modest ways, these places would become more like a Unesco Heritage site.

“Heritage” might be the key word here. When it comes to philanthropic environmentalism, certainly heritage seems like a better fit than “purity.” The purity mentality can blind us to how humanity has already altered environments, sometimes many decades or even centuries ago. But it can also blind us to the environmental possibilities of those already-altered places, and how we might discover stewardship possibilities that bring out the best in our scientific knowledge, aesthetic sensibilities, and philosophical values.

Copyright © 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

REFERENCES

Anon., “Wales’ Slate Landscape Wins World Heritage Status,” BBC News (July 29, 2021).

Shepard Krech, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (NY: W.W. Norton, 1999).

“Rumple and the Honourable Member,” located in John Mortimer, The First Rumpole Omnibus (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), edited quote from text on page 103.

Anna Sofaer, dir., The Mystery of Chaco Canyon (Bullfrog Films, 1999). Astonishing documentary film!

Unesco World Heritage Convention, “The Criteria for Selection,” https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/

--

--

Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.