Debating Burns’ thesis on national parks’ value

Posted Oct. 26, 2009, at 7:50 p.m.

Living on the doorstep of Acadia National Park, my family hardly needs to be reminded that national parks are a good idea. But are they America’s best idea, as Ken Burns’ PBS documentary suggests?

Scott Klinger and Rebecca Adamson of the First People’s Alliance challenge Burns’ unequivocal enthusiasm. They credit Burns for acknowledging the violence against first peoples that stains the history of our parks. But for them the problem with the parks endures.

The annihilation of a people was accompanied by a war on worldviews. We suffer from the consequences of that war. Klinger and Adamson contrast “a worldview that holds People as intricately within and part of nature versus a worldview that holds nature as a place to visit separate from People. This dichotomous worldview is dangerously out of balance. Belief that there is some land that we exploit and other land which we insist remain pristine, is rapidly extinguishing the beliefs of the land’s previous caretakers, who saw all land as sacred and thereby worthy of protection. From the Indigenous paradigm of protection and production, production and protection, evolved complex conservation regimes whereby you protected the land because it produced for you and it produced for you because you protected it. This is in stark contrast to the practice of protecting small plots of land, while removing the vast rest from protection, a paradigm which has led to the unprotected earth shutting down its productive capacity.”

Many Americans seem to harbor a schizophrenic understanding of nature. The parks provide an opportunity for communion with the permanent harmonies of a redemptive nature. Nature outside the parks, however, is regarded as fully controllable and endlessly exploitable for our purposes. In life outside the parks Americans appear hardly ready to concede that the economic growth machine should stop. Within the limits of currently cramped budgets, consumers will maintain their quest for the latest video game, cell phone or automobile.

But do we derive comfort and happiness from this ceaseless exploitation of the natural world? Our garbage tells an interesting story. A recent case study of New York City garbage points out 4,385,000 tons a year “is gathered by collection trucks which crush it into compact piles. It is then taken to a transfer station and from there either to an incinerator where it will be burned, releasing cancer-causing dioxins into the air, or more likely to a landfill where it will decompose into a hazardous brew that leaches liquid waste and releases landfill gases.

Many of the goods we so badly crave we often hardly even get to know. “Organic still fresh fruits and vegetables, fancy olive breads, cured meats, bagels, doughnuts and other delectables, still sealed in non-biodegradable packaging and more durable goods like books, clothes, toys, furniture and electronic items in near perfect condition.”

Critics of this endless spiral of material goods are often derided as elitists seeking to impose an austere lifestyle. Yet survey research consistently shows that once minimal needs are met, increased affluence does not correlate with greater happiness. Perhaps the real elitists are the ad executives who spend so much of our money to seduce even the youngest children into a life of consumption, or the corporate CEOs who won’t allow us to trade future gains in productivity for more time off rather than higher salaries.

Perhaps we might come to regard nature as evolving, mysterious, pluripotential. We are only one of its surprises. Neither its master nor the servant of some static natural harmony, humans have evolved a capacity to interact with organic and even inorganic nature in ways that enhance culture and nature. Some, though not all, indigenous spiritualities embodied such understandings and are a modern lesson.

Klinger and Adamson properly endorse recent trends in Canada and Australia to “inhabited parks, where the traditional protection-production can flourish, is spreading.” They also advocate “protecting inhabited areas not now legally protected from unbridled development.” Protection can include architecture that reveals our connections to natural surroundings. (Think Frank Lloyd Wright, for example.) Protection also entails free time that opens us to deeper reflections on our evolving states of mind and land use policies that build in preservation of and access to many splendid vistas still to be found in much of our nation.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at jbuell@acadia.net.

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