Many geographers and other thinkers have searched for metaphors to encourage sustainability on a changing planet. The first of these metaphors was coined by geographer Neil Smith. He believed that people and environment are always transforming one another, and that, given the industrious nature of people, we have to think of nature as something ‘produced’.
It is important to understand that when Neil Smith talks of nature being produced, he doesn’t mean that people can simply invent whatever kind of nature they choose or that mastering nature is possible.
Instead, it means that whatever people did in their work and labor, engagement with nature is inevitable. Whether it was farming, or crafting tools, or making art, or anything else, people are always producing nature.
Thus, the question for Smith, then, isn’t to choose whether or not to produce nature, but instead, to debate what kinds of nature we want to produce and what kinds of people we want to become in the process. This, he insists, allows us to accept, in his words, ‘the inevitability and creativity of the social relationship with nature’.
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Having said this, Smith also warns that just because we’re in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean that our driving is especially good. We’ve must avoid what he describes as triumphalist stories about our relationship to nature as we are never fully in control.
Clearly, our influence impacts the Earth in different ways, and subsequently the kinds of nature we produce. Among these, the global economy plays a pivotal role. It presents very strong incentives, and they’re not always good ones. According to Smith, those influences are the ones that lead us to make bad choices.
Creating the Environment According to Emma Marris
In another effort to design a new or better metaphor, journalist, Emma Marris, follows a very similar line of thinking. In her wonderful book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, she surveys the many intentionally and accidentally created environments that we see all around the world.
She concludes that people and nonhumans, such as birds and plants, are always creating the environment together.
On one occasion she describes the Sandhill Cranes gathering on the Platte River of Nebraska. She notes the landscape into which the birds are descending and where they will glean resources along their long migration from north to south and back. She points out that, it is in this context that the artificial product of modern agriculture—irrigation, comes into play.
These cranes are known to migrate up to 10,000 miles on a round trip. And every February and April, more than a half million stop in Nebraska and feast on the remains of man-made cornfields. Does this make it a counterfeit she asks herself?
In response, she says,
Nope. Not in my opinion. Humans and birds have collaborated to create this beauty. This conscious and responsible and joyful cohabitation is the future of our planet, our vibrant, thriving, rambunctious garden.
Needless to say, just like Smith, Marris also refuses to accept that the Anthropocene is a sign of decay or defeat. She insists, instead, that we have to think about crafting new futures, living with other species on the planet.
Another case in point is the case of the Pacific flyway. This is a stretch of wetlands following the coast of California that connects Baja Mexico to the far reaches of Canada.
The Pacific Flyway
Along the Pacific flyway, flocks of ducks and geese, and millions of waterfowl, make their way every year, north to south, in ongoing cycles of migration.
Many of the wetlands that are crucial to the Pacific flyway have been dramatically altered by agriculture, which draws on these landscapes for irrigation. In an effort to conserve the flyway in the face of human impacts, conservationists went to great lengths to create refuges; these are areas where the birds could land, and rest, and replenish, and fly onwards.
However, as geographer Robert Wilson demonstrates in his book Seeking Refuge,
The migratory birds who were supposed to be taking advantage of these refuges refused to fully cooperate. The blurry lines between private land, and suburban land, and farmland, and refuges, they weren’t fully respected by these gregarious and unruly animals. They wouldn’t play by the rules. And this led to a century of conflicts. Managers sought to herd the birds into their proper natural place, and farmers and other landowners often harassed and conflicted with the migrants. More problematic still, the toxic emissions from the agricultural production that come in the form of pesticides and nutrients created further threats to the birds on their migration.
Creating New Ecologies
What Wilson concludes is that people and birds have interacted to create new ecologies in which both seek to thrive. Yet, because partitioning the places of people and the places of birds is not always possible, ongoing conflicts emerge from these effort to conserve the flyway. That’s just how it is.
Thus, as Neil Smith and Emma Marris might predict, the question is not whether we can go back to a natural system for migration. This was precisely what managers attempted to do, but with frustrated results. The question is, instead, how to produce an environmental matrix in which farmers, suburbanites, and birds can share the land?
Common Questions about Producing Nature
When Neil Smith talks of nature being produced, it means that whatever people did in their work and labor, engagement with nature is inevitable. Whether it was farming, or crafting tools, or making art, or anything else, people are always producing nature.
The question for Neil Smith is to debate what kinds of nature we want to produce and what kinds of people we want to become in the process.
In an effort to conserve the Pacific flyway in the face of human impacts, conservationists went to great lengths to create refuges.