Gathering at the River

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Human history and natural history are inextricably and inescapably intertwined. “Nature alive” is the context and precondition for culture, society, humanity.[1] And healthy, diverse nature, which supports life well and abundantly, is the basis for justice and the human good. It is no less true that culture is also a precondition for nature, since the health and function of natural systems are so powerfully shaped by human activity, for better or worse. If the biotic community is to flourish, it is not enough for the human community to just “leave it alone”; humans must actively and intentionally sustain its integrity, diversity, and health. Supporting life well and living well are inseparable. Nature alive and culture responsible go hand-in-hand.

Redefining Our Relationship to the River

Nowhere has this confluence of humanity, culture and nature been more striking than along the mighty Hudson River and in its valley. Here the rhythms of ecological adaptation and historical change are syncopated. Consider the Adirondack Park; the Catskills and its reservoirs; the island of Manhattan with its surrounding rivers and estuary; the industrial development of the Hudson River Valley from the seventeenth century on; the art, architecture, and literature spawned by the interactions of the Hudson region’s nature and its human inhabitants. In this the four hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration, we do well to take a broad and long view. A major industrial corridor for the better part of two centuries, the Hudson still bears the marks of that bygone era, and communities along the river struggle with toxic residue and with abandoned commercial waterfronts awaiting redefinition. These river towns hold within them the potential for a new way of defining communities in relationship to the river, its watershed, and its landscapes.

What will become of these Hudson River human and biotic communities? This is a pressing question and providing answers to it will require us to rise to a new level of regional civic responsibility. Finding a resilient and sustainable—life affirming and dynamically active— relationship between worthwhile human activities and the integrity of natural systems on the Hudson River is a moral and civic challenge for which we are ill-prepared.

Many gains have been made by environmentalists over the years in protecting the river; and recreational and some commercial uses thrive, with scenic vistas nearly as rich today as they were when Jasper Cropsey painted them or Washington Irving wrote about them. Looking down at the river while hiking in the Hudson Highlands, or kayaking in the marsh waters across from West Point, is a rich personal experience. Nonetheless, while our planning processes are protecting the river, they are not giving our communities a meaningful relationship to the river. We don’t have the conceptual vocabulary to talk about that, and so we don’t. The mainstream planning and political languages are idioms of conflicting interests over nature seen as a resource. This form of discourse and action, this practice of democratic citizenship is falling short. It is failing us and failing that mighty river and its region.

Moreover, at the present time, we do not adequately know how to think and act regionally. We do not know how to think local and regional together. We grope in the face of numerous human and natural crises: suburban sprawl; languishing brownfields and downtowns; and now severe global recession and a mounting fiscal crisis for state and local government. We flounder in the face of equally pressing imperatives: protecting land, water, and air; mitigating and adapting to global and regional climate change; pursuing social justice and human rights in the face of continuing poverty, discrimination, and massive inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power.

There is much talk at the river about “sustainability.” Bryan Norton, a noted environmental philosopher, has said: “sustainability stands for taking responsibility for the future impacts of today’s activities, including impacts on natural, physical systems and also on the values and ideals of the community in the future.”[2] What kind of towns, villages, and regions do we want to be? How should we prepare for a just, healthy, biologically and culturally diverse future? How much can we borrow from future generations—our children—and what should we bequeath to them? How can we exercise ecological democratic citizenship and become resilient, sustainable “communities of conservation and civic responsibility”?

Many thoughtful individuals and groups are now grappling with these questions in the region, from a variety of different perspectives and in diverse ways. The Hudson Valley is not a remote or a forgotten area, by any means. But the salience and high degree of environmental concern resident in the region, and the juxtaposition there of extremes of global wealth and severe economic hardship, do not always make the problems of the region easier to solve, for these conditions do not generate ready cooperation or consensus. Decision making is difficult because it is so visible and the stakes are very high.

What can one contribute under these circumstances? What can one do that will be new and useful?

Changing the Subject

I believe that the planning process in the Hudson Valley requires a new intellectual paradigm. In too many towns and villages along the river, the civic conversation is stalled, perspectives have become too limited and entrenched. Local conflict and disagreement is often intense; options are too often pedestrian and unimaginative. State and local officials, local office holders, stakeholder groups and others are often caught up in the details of a local proposal and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) process. Brownfield sites often present enormously complex remediation and development choices, that are partly scientific and technical but also social and value-laden.

In this context, Hudson Valley officials, planners, environmentalists, developers, and ordinary citizens in local communities need to step back and reexamine the fundamental underlying concepts and assumptions at work in environmental and land use planning and decision making.

We need to reimagine our possibilities and enrich our vision. We need to create new vocabularies of value for ethics, economics, and politics. We need to break out of dead-end debates that lead nowhere. We need to change the subject from humans versus nature to humans with and in nature. We need to learn how to shift from a form of planning and politics that sees the river, watershed, and landscape as “resources” to be developed or consumed to a kind of planning and politics that sees the question not as one of “resources,” but as one of “relationships”—sustainable, careful, and mutually health-giving and life-affirming relationships between the biotic systems of river, watershed, and landscape and the human beings and communities that live by, with, and through the river.

Toward Communities of Conservation: A Strategy

The mission of the Center for Humans and Nature is to critically examine fundamental concepts and assumptions and to craft new vocabularies of value. It is our intention to bring these skills to bear in the Hudson River Valley region by initiating a two-year Communities of Conservation project, working in collaboration with the Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges and Universities, the American Museum of Natural History, and many other groups. By critically considering the Hudson region’s natural and cultural history, we will explore a regional civic vision for the future. We will educate ourselves on how most effectively to think humans and nature together, how most productively to consider human and natural interactions with the aim of building up the region’s biological and cultural diversity, multiple values, and resilience.

Such exploration and research by necessity must be multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral (including, academic institutions, museums, civic NGOs, businesses, and religious communities, among others). The aim finally will be to help build civic cultures of conservation. In this effort, the Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley colleges and universities can play an important role, not only by strengthening environmental programs and awareness among their faculty and students (who will surely be the region’s environmental and political leaders of the next generation), but also by fostering civic conservation efforts in their surrounding towns and villages. As Norton has argued: “Movement toward sustainability . . . must begin with a commitment to work together to find cooperative solutions to shared problems . . . we must work from the bottom up to build new and more inclusive vocabularies that will further improve communication, especially communication around the practical nexus of what to do, given what we know and what we want as a community.”[3]

The Hudson Valley Communities of Conservation project fills a unique niche that complements and adds value to—but does not duplicate or compete with—programs and initiatives that are recent or are currently ongoing in the Hudson Valley. The focus of many of these programs tends to be on creating change and broadening stakeholder education within existing policy frameworks and processes. They do not, for the most part, make a concerted effort to critically examine or to make more transparent the cultural, political and value assumptions that underlie current mechanisms of environmental, economic development, and land-use policy. Working within existing institutional frameworks and cultural assumptions, without at the same time questioning them, is precisely an important part of what is wrong with regional policy making today, in our view.

In a pragmatic, manageable, and compelling way, the Communities of Conservation project will demonstrate that a new way of framing community choices and policy decisions—upon which the future of the Hudson River ecosystem depends—can grow out of dialogue that questions the assumptions of land use as usual, politics as usual, and planning as usual. Our aim is to rethink the underlying principles that influence our collective relationship with Nature, not only in a theoretical, but also in a practical sense; to rethink these principles not only in thought, but also through action.[4]

More specifically, our project challenges the basic assumption that permeates public policy and practice, namely, that nature (i.e., ecosystemic diversity, integrity, and healthy functioning) is a competing interest that must be balanced against other interests (such as property rights, tax revenues for local municipalities, and economic growth) by officials and policymakers making environmental and land-use planning decisions. Through seminars, symposia, dialogues, and vision planning at the local and regional levels, the Communities of Conservation project will challenge this underlying conception of nature as a competing interest. It will explore and promote instead an alternative planning paradigm in which nature is understood as the foundation of all human and societal endeavors. This re-alignment has profound effects upon how we as a society make decisions and set priorities. This is the cornerstone of democratic ecological citizenship. Our programmatic goals, in the broadest sense, are to foster a new kind of discourse about land use and environmental planning.

Implicit in the Communities of Conservation project is an underlying model of deliberative planning and of the relationship between well functioning representational governance and robust participatory involvement in local affairs. A few words should be said to explain and clarify this model.[5]

Clearly many environmental issues transcend any one locality or even region and require governance on the state of national (even international) levels. However, it is also true that in New York State local communities have substantial zoning, planning, and environmental regulatory authority that has been delegated to them under state law. Therefore, the political and planning discourse that takes place in local communities substantially effects the interaction between local government and large developers and other corporate interests. Localism and regionalism need not be in conflict, although they often are made to conflict by certain attitudes and behaviors. It is at the local level that deliberative planning and democratic ecological citizen participation can most readily occur in a substantive way. But the aim of local deliberation need not be—and should not be—local myopia or narrow geographic or jurisdictional interests. The fruits of deliberation by responsible civic communities and democratic citizens must fit the facts and scale of real world problems. Local deliberations must ultimately give birth to a sense of regional responsibility and action.

Environmental values and economic interests cannot be well-integrated and balanced in policy unless they are properly defined and assessed in the first instance. Ecological, scientific literacy and a discourse of civic values are essential to that task. Robust grassroots debate and mutual engagement can create the basis for an entirely new way of thinking and talking about these issues in a given community. The terms of old political animosities and stalemates can be loosened, rethought, and broken down. Pragmatic compromises and adequately protective, resilient and sustainable modes of development can be discerned. Elected officials in our system of political representation can actually function as true brokers of consensus and as trustees of the public good once more.

[1]. The concept of “nature alive” (as opposed to “nature lifeless”) was introduced by Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938), p. 150, who maintained: that “neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”

[2]. Brian G. Norton, Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management (2005), p. 359.

[3]. Ibid., 358.

[4]. Rethinking through action was a central tenet of philosophical pragmatism in America, and it from that tradition (from philosophers such as John Dewey, and from planners such as Louis Mumford) that our own orientation is drawn. See Ben A. Minteer, The Landscape of Reform: Civic Pragmatism and Environmental Thought in America (2006).

[5]. This vision underlying the project is political theory, to be sure, but it is also increasingly political practice—concrete and tangible—that is making a difference around the country. See John Forrester, The Deliberative Practitioner: Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes (2001); Matt Leighninger, The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance . . . and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same (2006); Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007); and J.G. Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, Crisis, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2008).

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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