Beware of Eco-Metaphors That Overstay Their Welcome

Can allegiance to outdated environmental metaphors unwittingly contribute to undue politicization of the issues? Is Easter Island an apt metaphor for the ‘whole Earth’?

What is the biggest cause of oversimplified or flat-out erroneous public understanding of environmental and climate issues?

Many blame the politicization of science, or misrepresentation of science in the mass media. Others cite low rates of science literacy.

No doubt, those and more contribute to our low-wattage debates on everything from climate change and endangered species to nuclear power and genetic engineering. There is, however, one common denominator in much environmental discourse: the faulty, one-size-fits-all metaphor.

Commentary
Many of these over-used metaphors stick around long after their shelf life has expired. For example, biologist John Kricher has recently chronicled how the balance of nature paradigm is “ecology’s enduring myth,” picking up where ecologist Daniel Botkin left off in his classic 1990 book, Discordant Harmonies, in which he wrote:

“The potential for us to make progress with environmental issues is limited by the basic assumptions that we make about nature, the unspoken, often recognized perspective from which we view our environment.”

A similar challenge to the notion of pristine nature, a key tenet of environmentalism for many decades, was laid out by historian William Cronon in his provocative 1995 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting back to the wrong nature.” Like Botkin and Kricher, Cronon noted the unfortunate implications of a dualistic mindset that until recently has framed environmental ideology:

“If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall.”

The emergence of urban ecology as a relatively new subdiscipline, along with a greater appreciation for the resilience and importance of urban ecosystems, suggests that our attitudes about nature are maturing.

But just as this paradigm shift is taking place, a new, simplistic ecological metaphor — Easter Island as poster child for eco-collapse — has taken hold in the public consciousness. Unfortunately, this metaphor is the flipside of western romanticization of Native American cultures that supposedly lived in harmony with nature. With Easter Island, instead, we have the story of an indigenous people (Polynesian settlers) who deforested a “pristine tropical island” after the population grew beyond its means, setting in motion a chain of events that destroyed the island’s ecology and native culture.

This story was popularized by Jared Diamond in his 2005 bestseller, Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. With scientists increasingly warning of global ecosystems pushed to their breaking points, Easter Island has come to serve as cautionary lesson for our times.

Diamond accents this point in his book:

“When the Easter Islanders got into their difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, or to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our future.”

Perhaps. But in recent years, Diamond’s Easter Island narrative has been vigorously challenged by scholars who contend that the real story is a great deal more complex than many of us have been led to believe.

Last week, the environmental writer Mark Lynas wrote a synopsis of this evidence, which drew a nearly instant rebuttal from Diamond. In the comment thread, iconic environmentalist Stewart Brand shows up and, while trying to avoid taking sides, offers this nugget:

“My own sense as a onetime ecologist is that we over interpret remote island events in whole-Earth terms.”

But precisely because of the way Easter Island’s history has been interpreted and invested with powerful symbolic meaning, we may see this debate over scholarly evidence harden into entrenched positions, as has happened with aspects of the climate debate. Because of legitimate concerns about climate tipping points and ecological thresholds, some will feel compelled to defend what may well be an inaccurate metaphor.

But the history of eco-metaphors thus far suggests they are similar to prehistoric island societies: they rise and fall over time.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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8 Responses to Beware of Eco-Metaphors That Overstay Their Welcome

  1. Nice essay and interesting discussion. Easter Island is interesting because we can fill in much of the drama.

    I prefer the Titanic disaster as metaphor – Worlds greatest metaphor hits iceberg, sinks. Then the question is: where are we? Of course we are still hitting the iceberg, the ship is listing.

    Are we climbing into the life boats now? Remember that the lights remained on even as the ship slipped below the waves. There are not enough lifeboats.

    or – another pop metaphor: We have jumped out of the airplane and we are trying to knit a parachute on the way down.

  2. Alexander Harvey says:

    I must wonder whether we are to be trusted still with metaphor. A powerful means of communication that commonly relies on substitution of a concise meaningful falsehood for a complex concept. We confuse metaphor with truth at our peril.

    In terms of metaphor: the insight from the Easter Island parable lies not in historical truth but in the communication of ideas, showing that it is but a parable does not invalidate a concept any more than showing that a Samaritan did not really pass that day. As a parable, Easter Island lacks Utopia Island’s obvious and eponymous non-existence, and is hostage to truth. In due time it may become a parable for insufficient falsehood in metaphor.

    The notion that the Balance of Nature metaphor conveyed stasis or approximation to a unique equilibrium yet is and was so blatantly untrue on inspection, must show that an error was with the beholder. It is literally a case of what were they thinking.

    This is the greater problem, the failure to recognise metaphor, to have insufficient worldly reference to comprehend what is being communicated as opposed to what is being said. To reconise a truth conveyed by way of illustrative falsehood.

    I believe we are currently committing such failure in great measure with metaphors for what it is to be human. Believing obviously false nuggets describe our richness. The acceptance of strangely narrow models of the individual as small thin meanly endowed agent. A substitution of fictionalised concision for truth lends a power to metaphor that must not be taken as fact.

    Alex

  3. Jarmo says:

    I agree with Keith. A curious paradox has been created. Nowadays the greens are mostly city people who are of the opinion that living in the city is the green thing to do. They chastise the people living in the countryside for “destroying the environment” to earn a living but seem to forget whose needs the mines, forest clearings and farms in the end serve. The feel-good factor that seems to arise from the fact that somebody unseen else kills the animals whose meat you eat, plows the fields whose produce you consume or fell a tree to make the paper you wipe your butt with is abundant nowadays.

    Easter Island is a unique place on Earth in the sense that its small size and remoteness deny the courses of action human populations elsewhere have resorted to in similar situations. Military historians have argued that it is an example of a culture where warfare got out of control and caused destruction of culture.

    In my opinion Jared Diamond conveniently forgets some the lessons he preached in his earlier book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, which aimed to answer why some peoples have been more successful than others in the history of the world. Some of the preconditions of success he postulated were size, both in terms of populations and areas suitable for cultivation, and resources (edible plants, game, domesticable animals etc.). Easter islanders developed an astonishing culture within the limited resources of their island. The problems they had are also known among other cultures without their limitations.

    Diamond also mentioned isolated cultures that were perfectly adapted to the meagre provisions of their environment and living in harmony, such as the hunter-gatherer Moriori on Chatham Islands. However, he used them as an example of dangers of isolation: their peaceful society was wiped out by their warlike Maori cousins who invaded once they heard about this island with peaceful people.

    Perhaps Diamond’s logic is that only primitives can adapt? The san, the aborigines in Australia? Or that we can learn about the ultimate nature of human civilization by studying its failures?

  4. Lewis Deane says:

    An interesting article. However, I note you don’t actually examine and challenge any of these ‘eco metaphors’ but merely various interlocuters’ versions of them. Let us ‘challenge’ the idea of ‘nature’ (as human beings have been doing for 250000 years, first, by ploughing it!) as a Stoics fantasy of a sacrosanct nullity! Nature nor the climate, can never be pristine nor have ‘we’ dirty humans been dropped into it and begun to expand like a vicious oil stain, ‘upon the waters’. We are nature – for good or worse. So, the reason why, if, we damage ourselves and the ‘world’, is because we hate ourselves and the world. So called nihilism. But it is ourselves and our garden to mess up.
    I would say, have faith in ‘nature’, in yourself that is, we will repair and improve on any damage ‘we’ might have done. Were is your famous American optimism? Or do you insist that, along with Krugman et al, that should be ‘infamous’? Surely not!

  5. Alexander Harvey says:

    Jarmo,

    You have reminded me of the myth of the noble savage, in particular the San. This has now been much revised and perhaps their less noble aspects over emphasised.

    They became well adapted to the Kalahari and their tracking skills are legendary. Legendary does not imply that they are better than those of the Herero, Dama, Nama, or Himba to their west.

    The Himba seemed to displace them as the noble savage of choice in post apartheid Namibia, less westernised and more stereotypically primitive in their red ochred semi-nudity.

    Another regional myth was the “All things bright and beautiful” world view that Smuts wove together to make Holism, which has many of the static aspects of the Balance of Nature myth.

    “The rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his gate,
    God made them high and lowly,
    And ordered their estate.”

    Each playing their part in the greater whole. The myth of the natural dominion of the White Man, burden or not, and thttp://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2011/09/beware-of-eco-metaphors/he poor man under all.

    Out there in the Kalahari and Namib, it may be possible to breath in the myths of the noble savage, balance of nature, wilderness, the sublime, collapse, supremacy, holism, heimat, terra nullius, all with one breath in a graveyard of eugenics and genocide.

    Myths and their metaphors don’t write themselves, they are conjured up to serve a purpose, they are not neutral but biased, highly charged, and political.

    Alex

    • Alexander Harvey says:

      Keith,

      Could you fix the corruption, the paragraph should read:

      Each playing their part in the greater whole. The myth of the natural dominion of the White Man, burden or not, and the poor man under all.

      Thanks

      Alex

  6. Michael Ioffe says:

    Instead to reevaluate science of climate change and free it from politic, author use methaphor to help wrong science.
    Tell to Copernicus, Newton, Faradey… that their visions opose 99.999…% of scientists.
    Imagine that they will afraid to use their discaveries.
    In science of climate change it is enough to have 98% of scientist to declare: Debate is over.
    It is enough for mass media, our Government and Universities.
    If somebody do not believe in declaration of 98% of scientists, use methafor to ridicule him.
    It is shame for science of climate change, mass media, which support their mistakes.
    Wake up, look on properties of water, please.
    It is science for 6 grade kids.

  7. Toby says:

    The ideal of the “noble savage” goes all the way back to Rousseau and the Enightenment, so nothing particular to debunk there.

    The North American Plains Indians may not have been the eco-warrior fantasy of Greenpeace, but it does not mitigate the fact that their lands were stolen several times over. And the Spaniards may have been morally superior to the human-sacrificing Aztecs, but the small-pox that ravaged North and South America in the decades of the Spanish colonization was a horrible visitation on the mainly innocent.

    I love a good debunking as much as anyone, but beware of just replacing old myths with new ones, equally shaped to a political objective. Metaphors are ok, but limited, and are not science. From my own reading on the subject, Diamond got it mainly right on the Easter Island pre-European collapse, his viewpoint is supported by many archaeologists and is based on firm evidence.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DBTtC4J0OY