14 Aug 2012

Obfuscation and Illusion

Colorado Conjectures (continued)
The Grand Canyon is extreme in many ways - the magnitude, the space - but also extreme in the domination of a packaged pictorial 'view'; the 'picture postcard'. For most visitors, the iconic images are familiar before their arrival; and the main focus of the on-site encounter is the photo-op. For some, no doubt, the on-site visual experience is a disappointment when compared to the pre-packaged representations. The sense of the 'sublime' has already, and in a piecemeal way, been undermined by  thousands of published photographic images.

"Bread and Circuses" (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses)
In the aftermath of Olympic fever (in the UK at least), it is worth pondering on the age-old role of such games in distracting and mollifying the masses, keeping people in their place and enabling the status-quo (inequality, opulence and boundless acquisition) to continue unabated. Religion plays a similar role, and with its decline there has been a replacement by consumerism, a shopping-based materialism, which again obfuscates the reality of manipulation and control. We live in an era not of crude control of the masses, but of subtle, soporific smoke-screens. Tourism too is part of this - the packaging of places as iconic sites; the inflation of the desire-satisfaction loop into an endless spiral of obfuscation and hype.

At the Grand Canyon, the superficial visual 'satisfaction' can, I believe, leave much of the story untold. Behind the scenes, the true reality is not merely visual; it is material; it is water; it is uranium; it is concrete. The water of the Colorado River is appropriated by industry and by cities. In this manner the populace is willingly implicated. Despite the valiant efforts of John Wesley Powell, and many others after him, powerful vested interests have pillaged the natural resources and tamed - indeed sucked dry - this huge river system. The symbolism of the 'smoke screen' is particularly apt in the context of the Canyon as the 'view' is frequently obscured by a dense and deep layer of hazy smoke, drifting in from surrounding industrial complexes. The illusion of the pristine natural landscape is punctured.

There is a history in many countries - but especially in the US - of a confluence of the aims/objectives of both the military-industrial oligarchy and the 'green' environment-naturalist movement. Both of these - from very different motivations - see the value in carving out and protecting tracts of 'wilderness'. On the one hand this serves to prop up the illusion peddled to the masses that the biosphere is not really being destroyed, and that all is fundamentally okay. On the other (green) hand, the aim of the Sierra Club and others is - naturally - to protect as much as possible of pristine land from the encroachment and ravages of civilisation. The motivations differ, but the aims are the same.` Part of this confluence of is that both proponents have a desire to proffer a 'natural' environment untainted by human influence; a 'leave-no-trace' version of a wilderness.. This is part of a shared ideology; the existence of human settlement, culture, tradition etc often being air-brushed out, to produce a blot-free landscape. So the well-meaning are co-opted, and a 'leave-no-trace' ethos becomes part of the smoke-screen.
I quote here - at length - from a 2009 paper:

"Yet, as a practical environmental ethic, Leave No Trace disguises much about human relationships with non-human nature....Historians, geographers, philosophers, and anthropologists have argued that the representation of parks and wilderness areas as pristine nature erases their human histories, and prevents people from understanding how these landscapes have developed over time through complex human–environment interactions. They also contend that the notion of parks and wilderness areas as islands of nature obscures their spatial connections with the surrounding landscape. According to the historian William Cronon, this view of wilderness as pure and isolated has encouraged preservationists to fetishize remote parks and wilderness areas instead of working to improve the urban and suburban environments in which most Americans actually live. These scholarly critiques suggest the need for a new environmental ethic that builds on the successes of the Leave No Trace program, but goes beyond its current, self-imposed limitations....
...Leave No Trace focuses on the immediate, local impacts of recreational use while ignoring larger issues of change over time and connections through space. These are, essentially, problems of scale. Leave No Trace fails to promote the kind of multi-scale, ‘think globally, act locally’, environmental ethic that has become commonplace within North American environmental discourse. This is particularly important during a time when the same outdoor recreation industry that helped to create the Leave No Trace program, also participates in global circuits of capital, with social and ecological consequences extending far beyond the wilderness boundary....
...For Cronon, the notion that wilderness areas have somehow avoided the long sweep of human history, and can be shielded in perpetuity from human influence, is a fantasy. All landscapes now designated as parks or wildernesses were once sites of human habitation and productive labor. 
...when proponents of Leave No Trace construct wilderness areas as pristine and timeless natural lands, where recreation is the only legitimate activity, they obfuscate the changes occurring in the landscape, and they discount the possibility of an effective response. Parks and wilderness areas will continue to change in the future, as they have throughout history. Only the collective power of democratic governance—with participation by individuals, NGOs, public agencies, and private firms—can foster the long-range planning and adaptive management necessary to meet these challenges.
...As an environmental ethic, Leave No Trace offers a code of conduct calibrated to the particular, limited, and arbitrary geographic scale of parks and wilderness areas....The maps of contemporary parks and wilderness areas represent political histories of conflict and compromise, not the unalienable boundaries between nature and culture. In order to garner political support and comply with the language of the Wilderness Act, however, preservationists must engage in a process of purification. They downplay the existence of blemishes (human histories) in the wilderness landscape—such as tire tracks, stone walls, and radio towers—and they emphasize the threats coming from the surrounding environment. Most wilderness activists are aware that the areas they seek to protect are not islands. And yet, the notion of parks and wilderness areas as islands of nature surrounded by a sea of development has served as an evocative metaphor for their cause."

In the case of the Grand Canyon/Colorado River, the Bureau of Reclamation, the dam builders, the mining industry, even the tourist industry (and its associated transport/fuel/carbon impacts) all have an enormous 'trace' - visible, material and otherwise. In the tourist/back-packer experience there is a willingness - or even a desire - to be deceived, to embrace the illusion. Such is the human condition? In a way this is also true of the nearby 'Hoover Dam Experience'. Here, I found the narrative to be largely one of technical conquest and human endeavour, skating over the cost in lives and the ecological devastation downstream in the (once) huge delta area at the Sea of Cortez. This is landscape design on a vast scale. To even begin an ecological rebalancing calls for vision and imagination on an equally vast scale, and an erosion of the polarity between pristine wilderness and 'sacrificial' (dammed, drowned, degraded...) lands.

In contrast, the philosophy of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve approach is one of accommodating and balancing human and non-human 'ecologies'. The UNESCO approach has limitations however, in its insistence on a demarcated, mapped area, generally excluding 'what lies beyond' from attention and protection:

"'New Ecology' highlights environmental complexity; it acknowledges the role of a variety of factors - regional biogeography, environmental heterogeneity, and differential migration capacities among organisms - in shaping biodiversity; and it insists that designers of biosphere reserves accommodate these factors." Karl S. Zimmerer