Beauty or disaster? The paradox of environmental attitudes


The barren hills catching the gold of the morning sun looked like a distant painting rather than real life.

Did not see any wildlife on the barren cliffs, which were devoid of vegetation except for a scatter of occasional small bushes and trees, probably less than 10 per acre.

The area could have been a case study for an agriculture course on the many facets of erosion. Still, the scene was strangely beautiful, especially as the soils exposed to sparse vegetation revealed their layered colors at dusk.

The austere panorama made one think of a paradox of environmental attitudes. Suppose the South Dakota Badlands I was in were a consequence of human development and forest land degradation rather than the result of millions of years of natural processes? Would we find beauty in the same panorama? Would we have made it a national park?

When I first saw the Badlands, similar-looking habitats came to mind, namely Copper Hill, Tennessee, and the unrecovered surface mines of the Appalachian Mountains. Like the barren land caused by surface mining, Copper Hill is considered an environmental disaster. Over the course of several years, native vegetation was lost by hundreds of acres due to fumes from copper smelting operations.

The Badlands, Appalachian surface mines and Copper Hill have many visible similarities. Yet only one is considered magnificent. The other two are considered environmental embarrassments.

I contend that if the fumes from volcanic activity had created the desolate view of Copper Hill, our attitude would be different. Copper Hill could be a popular tourist spot, like Devastation Trail in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

What if a poorly planned farming project had been responsible for the Badlands? Instead of a national park, it would surely be a prime example of disastrous human intervention.

Consider clearcutting, a lumber industry practice that removes all trees from an area before planting any crop trees.

I was leading a tour group from a national conservation society through an area of ​​public land managed by the US Forest Service. This particular group was quite frank about clearcutting, calling it a shameful practice that should be banned.

We walked through a heavily forested section and emerged to see hundreds of acres in front of us devoid of any trees. Several members of the group immediately began to dispute that such a practice was allowed on public land. Some wanted to stop and take pictures as proof of the devastation that could be caused by the clearcut, a clear indictment of the USFS ‘mismanagement.

I let them rant a bit before pointing out something they didn’t know about the treeless expanse. This whole section of forest had been razed a few weeks earlier not by a logging operation but by a force of nature: a tornado.

Why do we judge habitats modified by natural events differently from similar human-made situations? Why do we have two different views on eroded habitats like the Badlands and Copper Hill, where virtually indistinguishable close-up photographs could be taken under the right conditions?

Why is there a contrast in attitudes regarding the warm waters of Yellowstone and those released as reactor cooling water? One is a natural wonder; the other is considered as pollution. What if human actions had somehow created the Grand Canyon? Would we still be amazed by its austere beauty?

Examples of these environmental paradoxes can be found in many places. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why is it important to us what caused a particular environmental situation if it offers unusual but spectacular images? The answer surely goes beyond the simplistic answer that people have an innate love of nature.

Could it be that we harbor resentment, apprehension and mistrust when other humans control our natural resources? Do we accept the rearrangement of nature but become uncomfortable with changes that demonstrate that someone else can control our environmental well-being? These deeper, unexplored feelings may be the underlying cause of many of our environmental conflicts.

Whit Gibbons is Professor of Zoology and Senior Biologist in the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. If you have an environmental question or comment, send an email to [email protected].

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