The cult of pristine wilderness is a cultural construction, and a relatively new one,” writes reporter Emma Marris in her new book-length essay, Rambunctious Garden. Contrary to environmentalists who seek to restore or conserve “pristine” enclaves of nature from human encroachment, Marris argues that nature is everywhere, from the barren Arctic to the birds in a suburban backyard. Nowhere is nature static and unaltered by human beings; ecosystems are plastic, constantly changing and adapting to new conditions, and to the activities of different plants and animals. This constant flux in the earth’s rambunctious ecosystems ought to give us pause when considering the impact that Homo sapiens, the gardening animal, has had on the environment, both before and after the advent of modern technology and industry.
If man is nature’s gardener in Marris’s work, for climate-change activist Mark Lynas we are even more: his book’s eponymous God species. Lynas is concerned with solving the large-scale man-made ecological problems that he believes pose a serious threat to the planet’s future. But his argument is unorthodox. “Until now, environmentalism has been mostly about reducing our interference with nature,” he writes. “My thesis is the reverse: playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humans unwittingly deploying our newfound powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris.”
Marris and Lynas are both voices in a growing chorus of environmentalists who acknowledge an important and active role for human beings, and seek to solve environmental problems not simply by restraining human activity but rather by harnessing human innovation and creativity. By dispelling the myth of the “pristine wilderness” and recognizing the role that man has played in shaping the natural world for millennia, Marris forces the environmental movement to articulate more sensible aims than recreating a simulacrum of ecosystems that purportedly existed prior to the advent of industrial civilization…