Humanity has become an predominantly urban species for the first time in history, as I wrote about in an earlier post. But how will the shift affect how we view ourselves — and what are the implications of all that for conservation?

The transition from urban to rural entails a shift in the metaphors and concepts we use to describe the world. During humanity’s long hunter-gatherer stage, there was of course no writing, but the metaphors were still there, recorded in images and symbols. For obvious reasons, these metaphors were focused on the natural world, interpretations of nature’s patterns and rhythms that must have helped explain the world people lived in.

Many of these metaphors from the natural world are still with us, even if most humans aren’t as closely tied to that world. Despite the existence of indoor lighting and central heat, we still notice the days getting short and cold in the winter, and tend to refer to the cycle of seasons as a cycle of death and rebirth.

Some metaphors from the natural world stick with us even after their original meaning has mostly been lost. We still hang mistletoe above our doors, although few city dwellers have really thought through how miraculous its evergreen leaves must have seemed to our ancestors in the bleak winter forest when all the trees had lost their leaves.

A subset of writers writing many centuries later, many of them from quite urban backgrounds, has romanticized this period. Rousseau’s noble savage, which played such an important role in his philosophy, is one example. A more contemporary take on this idea can be found in Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, where California secedes from the United States and becomes a sort of environmentalist paradise. In the process, its economy becomes an odd mix of the modern (solar panels) and the tribal (people leaving the cities, dispersed to the woods to hunt game). In all literary works with this conceit, there is some sense of a lost ecological and social harmony.

Writing began after the agricultural revolution, and while there is considerable archaeological disagreement about where and how different languages evolved, there is agreement that some agricultural surplus was necessary before scribes could dedicate time to this specialized task. Under some theories of Sumerian language development, writing started mostly as a form of accounting, to keep track of the grain coming into the granary and the exchange of commodities.

Language, of course, quickly became much more, a repository for our metaphors and symbols and myths. Many of these metaphors and proverbs from an agricultural era remain frozen in our language. A Manhattanite who has never set foot on a farm may find certain phrases still sprouting in their speech. As you sow, so shall you reap. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Make hay while the sun shines.

Despite the dominance of agricultural metaphors (quick, run through all the proverbs in your head and see how many involve an urban setting), writing was from its beginning an urban phenomenon, and literature was to a considerable extent city dwellers writing about a mostly rural world. Perhaps because of this history, it is common in literature to draw a sharp contrast between the rural and urban, with a wall separating them literally and figuratively.

One aspect of this contrast is the view of urban as civilized, as opposed to rural barbarians. The etymology of our word “urbane” reveals a bit of this view — it was urban people who were urbane! The “city on the hill” of John Winthrop was a worthwhile analogy because there were a few elect inside and a whole corrupt world outside. So now, as humanity heads toward a whole world where almost everyone is urban, what happens to this literary conceit? Is everyone civilized now, or like a mirage does civilization always retreat to some place humanity has not quite reached?

The opposite viewpoint is also quite common in literature: rural areas are pastoral, idyllic, perhaps pristine while urban areas are corrupt and unhealthy. Interestingly, most of the writers espousing this viewpoint have been urban themselves, or at least have spent considerable time in city or ivory tower before retiring to a pastoral setting. Writers from this viewpoint will tend to contrast the chaos and stress of urban life with the calm and peace of a rural setting, even though most of their readers lived in that hectic and stressful sphere.

In the extreme, this ideology has driver intellectuals out of cities to farms or communes. The next logical step is the idolization not of agrarian landscapes but of true wilderness. Robert Marshall, born in New York City and educated at John Hopkins University, claimed in his famous essay “The Problem of Wilderness” that it is “It is only the possibility of convalescing in the wilderness which saves [modern city-dwellers] from being destroyed by the terrible neural tension of modern existence.” One could argue, somewhat depressingly, that as we become a wholly urban species this love of the rural and the wild will grow stronger, precisely at the moment when there are no places left on Earth that are truly wild.

Despite our overwhelming urban life, few truly urban metaphors or proverbs have emerged. We might still say “a stitch in time saves nine,” but few people do their own sewing. “The grass is always greener on the other side” when we wistfully describe a lost opportunity, but few people think of their cattle while saying it. It may be that urban life is too new for humanity to have yet developed proper set of urban metaphors. In the meantime, it is a challenge for writers, as the old agricultural metaphors slowly become antiquated to an urban humanity, and the new urban metaphors are still gestating.

Conservationists span these two viewpoints, the view that “urban is great” and the perspective that “urban is hell,” whether we like it or not. By impulse and temperament we side with Robert Marshall in support of wilderness. We advocate for every child having some experience with nature, as a crucial part of their development.

Paradoxically, however, in the past several centuries, urbanites (who live the farthest spatially from the remaining wilderness) have played a central role in protecting it. For example, Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was created in large part by lobbying of urban scientists based in Washington, DC, especially Ferdinand Hayden. In a similar way, residents of San Francisco were instrumental in the protection of Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park. Even today, the conservation movement is often funded by rich urbanites protecting the special places they vacationed in.

So, I think one of the greatest challenges for the conservation movement as humanity becomes an urban species is to find a way to advocate for wilderness (or nature more broadly) in a way urbanites can connect to. The great new cities of the world are being built in Asia and Africa, and connecting with those urbanites and convincing them of the value of conservation will be key to our success.

(Image credit: ToniVC/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I haved lived in Brazil for ten years now and have seen the environmental horror that Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro have become. Massive overpopulation is the driving force behind
    water shortages,unfit air to breathe and widespread violence and povety. The majority of the inhabitants have lost all contact with nature and are basically incarcerated in a sterile concrete environment while barely surviving on an economic treadmill!! Despite all the propaganda spouted by the government and urban planners these people are lemmings and will be eliminated by the cruelty of Mother Nature through famine, thirst,plague and urban warfare.

    Unless World Leadership gets real about overpopulation and uncontrolled urbanism in The Third World, then the horror of Port Au Prince will only be a fortaste of what is to come.

    Robert P. Curtin

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