Knowing and Owning
Updated: May 23
The line from Yokoo Hut up Mt. Chogadake is an almost straight 1000m climb, followed by about a kilometer hike along a wind-blasted ridge to the 2667m summit. It’s not a difficult climb, and and we weren’t doing it in record time. I was looking around a lot, not just at the spectacular view of Mt. Yari across the valley, but at the trees and the undergrowth. Talking with my wife as we climbed, I began to say something about what I saw,
see how the tips on these conifers are a brighter green? They drop their tips in winter to save energy, and now that they can photosynthesize again they grow new ones to take maximum advantage of the sunlight.
As we got higher kuma bamboo suddenly gave way to a sparser undergrowth. Further up still the pines looked ragged in their crowns until they also stopped and we emerged from the forest below the ridge where only the hardiest of plants were able to keep their grip on the mountain. Until recently my focus has always been on moving quickly through the mountains, stopping only occasionally to catch my breath and admire the view. But now I have learned a little about the environment and how it changes at different elevations, and in this way I have forged a stronger connection between myself and the landscape.
Science lets us know, and therefore connect, with the environment around us. It teaches us that forests are not merely a collection of individual trees but part of a complex community with a highly developed social structure. We can learn that trees communicate with each other and make collective decisions about which years they will attempt to reproduce and which years they will not, that stronger trees support struggling members of their group by passing nutrients through their networked root systems, and that highly connected old trees that have fallen and been reduced to stumps by rot and the passage of time are kept alive by the trees around it like a deeply honored village elder. We can learn these things and begin to feel that trees are not just objects but beings that think and feel and act; that they are not so different from us humans. Or, that they are not so different from the way we prefer to imagine ourselves.
But money changes that. Any notion that a tree in a forest might be something we share a connection with is abandoned. And science shifts from knowledge that connects us with the rest of nature to a power that we wield over nature. In this view trees are not communities of living beings but timber, wetlands are not watersheds and habitats for keystone bird species but oil fields and mountains are not water towers but coal mines. We have the technology to turn the landscape into money. The technology exists for taking oil and coal from the earth, for clear-cutting forests for timber, and so we do it. Here science allows us to think of natural elements as a collection of properties. Science also allows us to extract those natural elements efficiently and to use them in economically advantageous ways. And this kind of scientific knowledge of natural elements is inevitably confused with ownership of those natural elements.
The desire to gain knowledge is something very natural to us humans and might seem entirely innocent. At the outset there may be nothing purer than the minds of those who wish to know. But there can be an overwhelming cost to wide eyed exploration. The celebrated sertanista Sydney Possuelo learned from a lifetime working with the tribes of the Amazon, that simply by putting oneself in the system one changes it. In his early career he believed that he was helping the tribes by contacting them as a warning, to help them protect their culture in the face of the advancing frontier. But simply by contacting these uncontacted tribes he and his team were killing 90% of their population with disease. And those who survived would find Possuelo’s gifts of rifles and axes so convenient that they would promptly forget traditional methods of hunting and digging out canoes. Ultimately he was helping the cause he had set out to oppose. He went to the amazon to protect, but to his great shame he realised that he was merely the first wave of colonization. He just paved the way for commercial interests in a place where tribal peoples had lived and carefully managed a jungle for millennia.
The geologist Andrés Ruzo, might be like the young Possuelo. His research centers on a little-known boiling river in his home country, Peru. His TED talk ends with a passionate call for this river to be protected, but this comes across as exceedingly naive. At the beginning of his talk he confesses that his own initial motivation is to look for a source of geothermal power within Peru. It seems that his stance regarding the boiling river may have changed during the course of his research, but there he stands on the TED stage, telling the world about this untapped and unprotected source of thermal energy. We can predict that within a decade or so this river will be hooked up to a power plant, other industries will come to the area and the people for whom this water is their livelihood will be wearing Nike baseball caps and charging tourists to see the famous boiling river because the water is no longer pure and they need a source of income to buy goods from a supermarket. But I don’t wish to make a straw man of Dr. Ruzo. He is a man who is passionate about his work and I hope he finds a way to protect the boiling river.
The reality is that scientific discourse can be much more subtle in the ways it assumes human dominion over the earth. Emma Marris helps us to understand the subtleties of this problem. A species is an abstract concept imposed on a group of living things because they all share certain features. Categorizing a species is convenient for many reasons, but one of these reasons is that it allows us to decided how we are going to treat a member of that species if we happen to encounter one. Are we going to keep them as pets? Are we going to shoot it? How do we feel if we happen to hit one with our cars? Can we eat it? Or are we going to act in some altogether other way, such as attempt to ‘protect’ it? This last one often involves killing may members of another species that has been determined to be limiting the ability to survive of the species we want to protect (not always with the desired result). All of these behaviours are consonant with ownership. Scientific taxonomy of species in and of itself (into categories that are more fluid or fuzzy than we tend to think), is another way in which knowing spills over into assumed owning.
Back in the mountains I feel connected to the landscape because I’ve spent many hours and days there, pondering its beauty, getting to know its details, and feeling the challenges it presents me: the steep inclines, the changes in weather, the technical ground, the encounters with potentially hostile wildlife. Knowing how to talk about the places and the animals and the plants can enrich the experience. So can taking photographs and recording GPS data to remember my route. I in a sense, bit by bit, I’m knowing those mountains through owning my knowledge and my experience of them. I can describe the flora along the route, just as I can describe the route itself. But I never want to take anything more from the mountains than my experience of them. And the implacable indifference of mountains, of forests and wetlands, of tundra and glaciers, suggests that science has the ownership equation backwards. Our scientific knowledge is meaningless to nature. Our ideas of ownership are grandiose and absurd. Nature owns us, we need it in every way. In no way at all does it need us. Ever.