Climbing Down the Mountain and Into the Ruckus – A Newer Environmentalism

by Liam Heneghan

Like many environmental researchers I started my career looking for nature in its purest, rawest form.  I thought I had found that in the 1980s in the Irish National Parks: in Killarney, Glenveagh, Wicklow and Connemara.  From the vantage point of these remote, lonely and, yes, very rainy parts of Ireland, all other Irish landscapes looked to be pretty thin ecological broth.  These other places – cities, towns, suburbs, farmland – were not the places in which nature, as I understood that word back then, could thrive; they was certainly not the places where a youngster looking for a experience of the wild should waste his time.

What I found in these National Parks was not, of course, wilderness in an unblemished sense.  Though terms like “pristine wilderness” pepper the promotional literature of the Parks, nevertheless, these are cultural landscapes in which people had lived, lands that previous generations had worked – timber was selectively removed from the forests, there is evidence of small scale mining strewn about the woods in Killarney, livestock was (and in some cases still is) still grazed on the mountainsides.  A walk along the deserted Old Kenmare Road in Killarney National Park is made lonelier and more poignant still by the presence of so-called lazy beds, where potato had been grown before the Irish Great Famine in the 1840s.  This is a park where the ghosts have just recently set aside their implements and they are no less interesting, it seems to me, because of their spectral qualities.

Irish National Parks are magnificent and are crucial to Ireland’s conservation efforts – there is no doubt about their significance; they are good for critters, and they are calming and fortifying to the burdened minds of their visitors.  To remind ourselves that there is tension between the history of these delightful places and the way in which we incline to talk about them is a commonplace observation these days.  I remind us of this not to score a cheeky point, and to diminish their appeal.   I do so, rather, to cultivate a readiness to join in a call-to-arms for founding environmental thought  in the ambiguous, messy ruckus where we do most of our living, rather than, as we have done in the past, in thoughts of purity, wilderness, remoteness, where the frisson of inhospitably tells us we can visit but do not belong.

What does would environmentalism be like if it started with an honest recognition that we live in a world that is largely designed, managed, and worked-over; that it is designed, managed and worked over even where this is done in a deficient mode – that is, where our design is to not-design etc?  Our wildernesses, such as they are, are scrupulously planned unplanned places.

We have a sense of what this environmentalism looks like already.  Urban ecology, restoration ecology, ecological economics, environmental justice movements, urban agriculture, social ecological systems research, to name just a few newish sub-disciplines, seem to found their work on a set of premises that have little to do with remoteness, austerity, or chilly mountain fastnesses.  So what are these newer themes and movements about?  In a large part this is what we plan to explore in these posts in the coming months.  The posts attempt both a presentation of ideas about environmentalism that starts with a fondness for the ruckus of human life and at the same time sympathetically critiques these emerging ideas.

The Institute for Nature and Culture, the group sponsoring this group blog, was created by DePaul University to foster collaboration among the disciplines and among researchers, conservation practitioners and the general public on behalf of our environmental future.  Building on widely respected programs in Environmental Science, Urban Ecology and Public Policy, and Geography and reflecting the University’s long-standing commitment to the Chicago community, the Institute is a response both to what we regard as a crisis of vision and leadership within environmentalism and to the opportunities represented by the emerging disciplines of urban ecology and environmental restoration pioneered in the Chicago metropolitan area.  That is, we are interested in promoting and reflecting on precisely the sorts of environmental approaches that break with an older view of how we should think about and act in and on nature.

We shall discuss our ongoing projects in the natural and social sciences, and our newer initiatives in the arts and humanities.  We will also host guest blogs from other DePaul initiatives that are building in a similar direct to ours. Does this add up to some greater whole?  Maybe.  We shall see.

Launching in Nov 2011

Over the coming weeks this site will feature a half-dozen writers or so posting on an emerging vision for the future of environmental thought and action.  Restoration ecologists, ecological economists, poets, urbanists, climate change policy experts, sustainability advocates, urban agriculturalists, soil scientists.  Their assignment has been for each of them to post once a month on topics that relate to the mission of the INC.  We would love for you to visit us regularly and to contribute to the conversation.  As the blog evolves we will recruit additional contributors.  Let the games begin.  First posts will be in the first week of November 2011.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Climbing Down the Mountain and Into the Ruckus – A Newer Environmentalism

  1. Domenico D'Alessandro

    Liam – this is a great initiative. How does one become a member of the blogging team? I am interested in cotributing.

  2. Thanks Domenico. We’ll get this really up and running between now and the end of the year and once we know what we are doing here having guest blogger, such as your good self, would be great!

  3. Christine Skolnik

    Liam,
    I’m moved by your vision of ghosts in the landscape and the memory of the Irish Great Famine. What traces will we leave for future generations? What stranger is hungry today because of our peculiar priorities? And (I’ve changed my take on this) how can we address climate change denial without legitimizing it?

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