By CAPS Board Member Karen Shragg
Reposted from Rewilding Earth
If I hear one more time that we must change our relationship with the natural world in order to stop our road to extinction, I am going to scream. Our beloved Beatles told us that “all we need is love,” when love is just a missing ingredient to a much longer recipe. We certainly need to operate with more love toward each other and our planet, but there is more than an attitude change and an embrace of trees that needs to be addressed. Something is standing in our way. Something both huge and hugely ignored. Website after well-intended website tells us to all get connected to nature, sing Kumbaya, and all will be better in the world. Nature is a soother, a healer, and a place to come to get grounded, oh yeah and please bring your sustainably harvested yoga mat. Though on the surface this is good advice, it is not and cannot be a complete response to the roaring engine that is becoming our planet’s 6th extinction.
Getting back to nature can mean anything from donning a backpack and heading out into the wilderness, to finding a hiking trail in a local park. The rewards of such endeavors are provably positive, but we cannot escape into the woods and ignore why all of nature is under threat. It is due to our overwhelming presence. Access to nature and the solitude it promises become less and less available to us in this overbuilt and overpopulated country of ours. It’s hard to know what will dismantle the fairytale that spews stories of our inexhaustible resources in the good ole US of A.
Dwindling opportunities to do what is newly referred to as, “forest bathing,” is not due to a lack of interest as much as it is to the way in which our ever-expanding post-industrial society has bulldozed so much of our natural world. Telling people to get out into nature assumes there is nature to ‘get out into’ or that it won’t be full of others trying to do the same once we arrive.
Universally absent from this otherwise noble effort to reconnect us to nature is the fact that US overpopulation has made the ability to find solitude increasingly difficult. While it is clear that we continue to suffer from “nature deficit disorder” as defined in Richard Louv’s book The Last Child in the Woods, nature is hurting more. The natural world needs to be intact in order to operate according to her evolutionary prescription. While being instructed to get out into her beauty we need to pause and examine why our natural world is fragmenting and declining.
To have access to the comfort of a forest, prairie, or marsh is as important as it is rare. I should know. For 28 years I did all I could to help create nature experiences for urban kids and families. Our nature center was so close to an international airport that we had to often wait to interpret the bees, trees, birds, and mammals until the jets passed over. I managed 150 acres sandwiched in between a freeway and a major county road, and yet we did our best to create experiences for our visitors that both increased their knowledge and stewardship toward the natural world. It is a beloved oasis in the midst of an ever-growing city, but the pressure to keep out the noise, invasive species, and litter was, and I am sure continues to be, a never-ending challenge.
I am born, raised, and live in Minnesota. There are 267,000 acres preserved within the lovely 66 state parks in our midwestern state known for our 10,000 lakes. With our current population of 5,640,000, that means that there are only 21 acres per Minnesotan in state parkland. In the last decade, Minnesota grew by 376,412 residents. Our parkland cannot and will not grow to accommodate the potential demand those additional people represent. Not only is the land already spoken for, but the state park system remains grossly underfunded by millions of dollars as it is a poor competitor for funds otherwise demanded for education, transportation, and other human services.
The ‘nature pie’ of all of our parks is getting sliced ever thinner as our population grows. There are 83 million acres of National Park land that the last administration worked hard to destroy with policies that allowed more access to their mineral riches. Those national parks were once in the hands of much better stewards, as the First Nation People never felt compelled to build large visitor centers or pave access roads in them in order to convey their value. Be that as it may, in 1872 there were just under 39 million Americans listed in the US census. Today, in 2021 there are just over 330 million of us. That means that for purposes of illustration, we now have only a quarter of an acre per person in preserved national park land. These statistics may not be a very practical example of how our population growth has undermined our access to nature, but they are ratios that illustrate how we are eating away at nature, its wildlife, and our access to its beauty. It’s great to tell people to get out into nature, but this pandemic has let us know how quickly our parks can be overwhelmed with visitors. The detrimental effects of even well-behaved visitors in such high numbers meant overcrowded experiences for those who just wanted to commune and get away from CNN for a while. It also meant more trash and not so well-behaved visitors.
Humans are encroaching everywhere. No mountainside or ocean view seems to be off-limits to population-driven development. Suburbs are sprawling over precious farmland and high rises are becoming the norm. Land near our parks of all types is in high demand. Increased noise, traffic, and commercial development soon follows, further diminishing the park’s value to longtime residents and wildlife. In order to be great stewards of the land, in order to accomplish the praise-worthy efforts of NGO’s like the Rewilding Institute, we need to have a more forgiving ratio between humans and the natural world. We can only do that by paying attention to where growth comes from and realizing the detrimental effects of our continued growth in a country with more than double the population nature can afford.
Nature doesn’t care whether we grow by births or immigration. Nature doesn’t care where anyone comes from, what language they speak or whether they are skilled or unskilled workers. Nature only cares about total numbers of this bipedal hominid which has overwhelmed its position as top predator on the food chain of life. Those numbers, 330,000,000 and counting, spell out overpopulation inspired-OVERSHOOT in America in capital letters. The challenge is that if we really wish to awaken an enlightened re-embrace of the natural world, we can start by singing Kumbaya but must not end there. We need to continue care about policies and support funding for our precious park lands but we cannot stop there either. We have to care about limiting how many are going to be demanding to use them.
If we were growing mostly by total fertility rate per woman in the US then that is where most of our efforts should be. We could, and still should, become better at funding education, woman’s health, and policies that encourage small families. Alas, it is not where most of our growth is coming from. According to a recent research study conducted by scientist Dr. Leon Kolankiewicz (“Population Growth and the Diminishing Natural State of Arizona“), the biggest reason for that state’s population growth was federal immigration policies forcing the loss of 1.1 million acres. Yes, as unpopular as that will seem to today’s myopic public discourse, it remains undeniably true.
According to Pew Research Center, “The arrival of new immigrants and the births of their children and grandchildren account for 55% of the U.S. population increase from 193 million in 1965 to 324 million today. The new Pew Research Center projections also show that the nation is projected to grow to 441 million in 2065 and that 88% of the increase is linked to future immigrants and their descendants.” Those numbers should give us great pause without allowing any hatred in our hearts. Remember that nature doesn’t recognize our differences, but she does count our feet.
We are indeed growing mostly by immigration in the US, and while many activists have written about how the US is already exhausting its many natural and human resources, I wish to add nature’s voice to the mix.
Ironically, Democrats and Republicans act in opposing ways when it comes to protecting park land. Democrats are pretty good at park land preservation policies and consistently get higher ratings than Republicans from groups like the League of Conservation Voters. Republicans get very poor ratings on their policies toward our national park lands. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, in 2017, under the Trump Administration, the Department of the Interior was told to review and repeal the standards that protected oil and gas drilling inside parks like the Everglades, Grand Teton, and Mesa Verde.
On the other hand, when it comes to controlling the increase in US population which comes from immigration, Democrats get failing grades. Democrats need to get all of their good conservation grades from protective regulations against mining, because when their constituents hear about border restrictions they are reminded of the xenophobic rhetoric of Republican administrations. It is political quicksand for Democrats to even come to the table to discuss the many benefits of going back to the legal immigration allowed back when my grandparents came here from Russia in the 1920s. Most of my relatives came to our shores just after the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, which set an immigrant quota at 3 percent of the number of immigrants in the 1910 census (about 358,000.) While these laws were more about controlling ethnicities and not preserving our parks, we can and need to change our motives for revisiting and creating new morally improved immigration laws.
We now seem trapped in a no-win scenario where on the one hand we want to keep America a country built on immigrants and to honor those who want to be united with their families. On the other hand, a flood of new immigrants to already overcrowded cities will immediately increase both their carbon footprint as well as the number of feet who will be wanting someday to have access the respite offered by park land. We want to protect our parks from drilling but not from the number of visitors? In 2020, the National Park Service saw 90 million less visitors due to the pandemic, but they still welcomed a whopping 237 million people.
So if we continue to grow in numbers as many in power seem to see as the only politically correct thing to do, the new trend of nature bathing will have to be as virtual as our ubiquitous zoom calls, because we are running out of nature to bathe in just when we’ve rediscovered its value.