The E Word, part II

Issue #8*

Last week, I laid out my criticism of the E word. This week, I want to focus on solutions. How do I avoid the trappings of this paradigm I've grown up in, which puts “environment” into one category and “people” into another? Can I craft Threshold in a way that helps to heal this false divide?

I'll try to bring this abstract question down to earth. This first series of Threshold is all about our relationships with wild bison. In the environment vs. people paradigm, the way to frame these stories would be, “here are the people’s needs, and here are the bison’s needs – which should we prioritize?” From there, it's a very short leap to "these people are bison haters, and these people are bison huggers." Instantly polarized. Someone has to win, someone has to lose.

But the deeper, more interesting story (at least to me) is the way in which bison and people co-evolved on this continent; the way the fates of these two species have been so intertwined, for so long. Given that history, what does it mean that we have decoupled our future from this animal so thoroughly? How did we get to this point where bison actually feel like a threat to survival to some people, and a distant decoration on the landscape to most? Rather than framing it as people vs. bison, can we ask how rupturing that connection between the two species damages both? And how rebuilding that connection could benefit both? Or has the duality become a self-fulfilling prophecy: have we now created a world where it truly is a zero-sum game, where it really is people's needs vs. bison's needs, and never the twain shall meet? Is there any way out of that box? Is it worth it to try to find one?

This is where the real work waits to be done, I think. Not inside the paradigm of "people vs. environment," but questioning that paradigm itself. This is true with bison, with energy, with almost everything that we think of as an "environmental issue."

So that’s what I’m going for. Non-zero-sum game thinking. Non humans vs. "the environment” thinking. Not because I want to avoid conflicts, but because I want to document and investigate the real conflicts -- not the superficial and often stupid ones we've inherited. If all of our controversies happen inside the fiction that humans exist in some separate sphere, independent of all the life around us, then we're doomed to never resolve them. And we're also doomed to tell a lot of boring, dead-end stories.

I want to do it differently. I want to tell good stories -- stories that take real risks and open up possibilities. Stories that at least offer the chance of taking us into new territory. I'm not going to get there if I stay trapped inside the crusty old E word mentality. I have to start from a different place.

Here’s hoping I can manage to do so.


* I have to surrender my goal of 300 words or less. It's just takes me too damn long to keep it that short. The new limit is 500 words or less. Mostly, I'll try to be quite a bit under that.