Skip to main content
The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Making Room for Nature: What Does it Mean?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 | 11:30 am
Herman Karl, Affiliate Associate Professor
University of New Hampshire
US Geological Survey (retired)

Since at least the writings of Henry David Thoreau, American society has reflected upon its relationship with nature as more and more wild areas were developed into agricultural tracts and urban centers.  Development "improved" wild places, but also resulted in unintended consequences. The environmental crises of the 1960s galvanized society to find ways to manage natural systems and the services they provide in harmony with social and economic systems. Enacted in 1969, the foundational modern U.S. environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), sets forth this aspiration and outlines the decision processes that are intended to help federal agencies better achieve “productive” harmony among ecological systems, economic systems, and social systems. At least two decades of sustainability initiatives, likewise, have aimed for this harmony. Yet these efforts continue to fall short of their aspirational promise. In the late 1930's, Aldo Leopold stated that our knowledge has cracked the atom, but that it does not "...suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it." That is as true today as it was then. Why? In part, because we have tried to contain nature. Now the effects of changing climate underscore more than ever that nature cannot be boxed up; we need to learn to "make room for nature," because healthy ecosystems are the foundation for thriving communities and dynamic economies. There is no silver bullet for adapting to climate change, practicing environmental and ecological stewardship, and sustainability.  I ask the question: Do institutions need to be realigned in a way that fosters collective decisions made in the common interest and for the common good? My research efforts emphasize developing place-based institutional processes that incorporate values and cultural norms to help societies adapt to changing climate striving to ensure, among other factors, water and food security and habitat conservation in harmony with economic, agricultural, and urban development.