I live adjacent to some curated wilderness and parkland, through which I can walk to a number of destinations – whether cafes, the grocery store, or my local library. When the weather permits, these walks are a high point of my day. And so it was that earlier this week I had been on just such a walk to my local library for some good old fashioned research, this time on the potentially dry and academic topics of economics and economic history.
The Dewey Decimal system puts economics over in the 330s, so it was a little surprising to see a book on conservation there (conservation’s normally a tiny subsection of the 630s) in the form of Bram Buscher and Robert Fletchers’ The Conservation Revolution. Reading it though*, you can see why: Despite being wholly concerned with the topic of the conservation of nature (the subtitle is Radical ideas for saving nature beyond the Anthropocene) it found its way into the economics section for good reason: It’s central premise is that conservation and economics are inextricably linked simply because wealth and capital growth are inextricably linked with the notion that the world in which we live is itself a form of capital on which we can draw.
While this might read like anti-capitalist Bolshevik fundamentalism, and certainly the Revolution of its title prompts a leaning in that direction, there is less a well fleshed out guide or manifesto for revolution in here. Rather, the book’s push feels more nuanced: The authors seem less inclined towards an institutionalised, regulated system of balancing nature and human wellbeing, and more inclined to revolutionising the notion of conservation in the first place. Rather than choosing between various forms of mainstream and alternate conservation (ranging from cherry picking nature areas when it’s commercially expedient to setting aside vast wilderness reserves and leaving them untended on the assumption that the way that we found them was the natural optimum and human involvement is by nature harmful) they encourage another option, one in which humanity is directly in touch with nature and no longer separated from it.
I’m not a big reader of academic papers, but there are some thought provoking quotes in here. Ivan Illich appears to have been one of several significant influences in their work, the authors drawing on his philosophy in forming their proposal of a conservation which is not merely one-sided in its exploitation. I quite liked this quote:
The richer we get in a consumer society, the more acutely we become aware of how many grades of value – of both leisure and labour – we have climbed. The higher we are on the pyramid, the less likely we are to give up time to simple idleness and to apparently nonproductive pursuits. The joy of listening to the neighbourhood finch is easily overshadowed by stereophonic recordings of “Bird Songs of the World”, the walk through the park downgraded by preparations for a packaged bird-watching tour in the jungle.Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality
While I did read a few other books on economics during my session, I find myself resonating with the sentiment in this. I could have driven the car to the library, perhaps listening to a classical composer’s orchestral expression of the emotion when encountering the forces of nature in the seasons, the Alps or the Hebrides, or I could get out there, leave the headphones off, and get in tune with it myself.
Another book I worked through at the same time was Fred Schwed Jr’s Where Are the Customer’s Yachts?. Its introduction by Jason Zweig, while reflecting on the effect of bull markets on Wall Street on its denizens, includes this illustration:
Late one evening in January 2000, I left my office at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and got into a taxi. The driver pulled forward, and we waited for the traffic light to change. Moments later, four young men in matching power ties and power suits came striding powerfully right into the street. One of them rapped on the driver’s window. The cabbie opened it a few inches, and the whiz kid barked, “We’re going to 49th and Park” – just four blocks and a few minutes’ walk across town. “I already have a fare,” answered the taxi driver, hooking his thumb toward me in the back seat. “Throw him out,” said the hotshot, “and we’ll give you a hundred bucks.” He wasn’t kidding: Reaching in through the window, he shoved a $100 bill in the taxi driver’s face. “I can’t do that,” protested the cabbie, pushing the money away. The light changed, my cabbie shut the window, and we sped away from the scene like two maidens escaping the tent of Attila the Hun.Jason Zweig, in introduction to Fred Schwed Jr’s Where Are the Customer’s Yachts?
The grind to climb grades of value is always there, waiting to eat us up, and eager to turn us into the sort of person that would “rather fork over $100 and shaft a stranger than go to the bother of walking four city blocks” to quote Zweig’s later assessment. Or, in my case, waiting for me to burn more liquid fossils, dump waste into the atmosphere, and leave local nature paths untrodden, rather than simply walk those few extra minutes and stay in touch with the world around me.
Maybe I’ll see you out there?
* always on the lookout for a serendipitous confluence of events, I’m not one to turn away the unexpected when it crops up in the middle of something else.