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Nurturing Nature

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
August 13, 2023

Nature as we know it depends on public administration. The natural world obviously existed before humans organized into modern governance structures; it predates humanity itself, and will survive—even thrive—beyond our moment in the grand scheme of the universe. Our experience in nature, however, relies on public policy and collective action to protect, to admire and to coexist on the Earth. 

Human beings have now indelibly shaped the features of our planet. It is not just modern agriculture, industrialization, climate change and the externalities of contemporary life that have altered the structure and processes of nature. Back in 1848 George Perkins Marsh, one of the earliest environmentalists in American history, declared, “whereas [others] think the earth made man, man in fact made the earth.”  In his 1995 book Nature’s Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management, Stephen Budiansky wrote, “Everything that I might plausibly passed off as an example of nature raw, pure, and untamed, was, in truth, the work of civilized man.” 

There is virtue in leaving the wilderness to its own devices, in protecting nature from the negative consequences of the technological development of our species. As Joni Mitchell famously sang in “Big Yellow Taxi,” “They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum, And then they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em, […] They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” In an age in which we are experiencing the vexing global commons problem of carbon dioxide emissions, where the only directly unexplored frontiers are at the depths of the ocean and outer space, it is ever more conspicuous that no facet of our world is untouched by humankind. Despite our infrastructure, omnipresence and insatiable desire for convenient places to leave our automobile, we have fortunately not paved over the entirety of paradise for parking lots.       

Niagara Falls is a gorgeous feature of the environment, but the scenery one experiences when visiting is a vision of Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous landscape architect responsible for New York’s Central Park. The pre-colonial and even early-colonial people who ventured the future borderlands of the United States and Canada encountered a natural wonder, but it is not the same sight as my trip there was this summer. The modern development of a vista is not in and of itself problematic. The world is changing and evolving, but it must respect the past, present and future. The beauty of Niagara Falls today is not just the preserved falls themselves, but the shared wonderment of visitors from all over the world.     

The responsible policy now is to maintain what previous generations established at Niagara Falls. The Maid of the Mist boat tours ferrying tourists to the sprays at the bottom of the falls have become part of the aesthetic for decades. Although it is unseen, the boats now have electric motors, with electrification one of many mechanisms towards a cleaner future that can maintain our environment. We are not going to restore the natural world to its pristine state of one thousand years ago and that need not be a societal goal, but we can enhance our surroundings in an ecologically conscious and beneficial manner going forward.

Stewardship remains at the forefront of environmental collective action. To preserve and protect often requires direct management on our part. To leave nature to its own devices amidst our dominant presence can be deleterious. For example, maintenance of an orderly and beautiful forest in a city such as Atlanta requires removal of invasive plants such as kudzu, a non-native species introduced to the region by people to limit erosion that went on to become “the plant that ate the South.” Kudzu may not be pavement in paradise, but not everything that is green belongs in the local woods. Fortunately, volunteers such as myself, through the non-profit organization Trees Atlanta, work hard on restoration in our “city in the forest.”

Policymakers and organizations need to have missions and visions to support and protect the human-impacted natural world. This requires scientific expertise to best serve the needs of the environment and the public interest. It also requires flexibility. There is not one ideal to nature, but there are shared values to understand and implement. Perhaps most importantly, these efforts depend on financial resources. While many of the benefits of our natural world are non-monetary and imprecise to quantify, the costs of preventing environmental deterioration are clear burdens. The will to invest and innovate needs to come from all stakeholders. We can assess responsibility for our past ecological challenges, but going forward leaders and citizens need to carefully manage our role in nurturing nature now and into the future.    

Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a public policy practitioner and Trees Atlanta volunteer in Atlanta, Georgia.  Dr. Deitchman’s email address is [email protected] and he is on Twitter (for now) @Deitchman.  

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