Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Grizzly Man Ecology

Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man certainly left an impression on me. Timothy Treadwell's passion for grizzly bears (and a pretty-fly-for-a-white-guy desire to live like them) unfolded into an blinding innocence about the distance that man has evolved from animals, leading to his ultimate, bloody death (and his companion's). Herzog, not content to focus just on Treadwell's character, implies a difficult question: to what extent does humanity delude itself that it can peacefully coexist with nature?

In subsequent interviews, Treadwell's colleagues rejected Herzog's portrayal of the delusional man, emphasizing his expertise, experience, and ultimately the results he achieved protecting grizzly bears. Of course, these colleagues seem apologetic, salvaging what they can of Treadwell's work and reputation. Their conservationism seems to be as destructive and confrontational as their poachers they try to stave off.

This film came to mind as Brdgt has tried to convince me of the importance of risk in urban history. True, I would not equate Treadwell's environmental instincts with urban planning or think that his follies discredit environmentalism's attention to urban issues. But her comments have me questioning my own belief that "humanity has a history of dialogue with the environment": that it is impossible to see the landscape without the human hand. Rather than rushing toward the disaster, urban life involves constant, tedious balancing that is seldom stable. I'm not as concerned that Mike Davis' hot tubbing bears are evidence of man's crossing the line than Treadwell.

I guess my concern is how risk emphasizes certain aspects of the urban experience above others. Has the intimacy and rapidity of interactions brought by urban life been, well, worth the risk? Is human population density in itself problematic, even fundamentally unnatural? And do disasters fit in as speed bumps in the urban experience, or are they washed away in the tide of rebuilding?

If I have answers in the future, I'm sure I'll have more questions as well.


At 6:12 PM, Blogger Brdgt said...

We've spent the past couple weeks on the built environment and today discussed in depth how the way we build our urban environments have made them riskier places to live. For example, the suburbs are built to allow better commuting and perceived safety from physical violence, but they cause sedentary lifestyles and more car accidents. Urban environments may promote social capital, but without considering class and race you can romanticize the city as healthier.

At 8:15 PM, Blogger eb said...

On the general question of humanity's dialogue with the environment, you might want to look at Uncommon Ground (ed. Cronon), a collection of essays from a variety of disciplines on a variety of specific subjects, but all exporing the ways we think about nature.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

I think that there is an "exceptional" way in which the environmental impact of urbanism is percieved. The association of urban expansion with sprawl, suburbanization, and white flight pertains much more to American cities, and it is married to notions that capitalist thinking encapsulates urban development: nature has nothing but use value.

One thing I would note is that the French banlieu is not a place of refuge from the city, but a parasite wherefrom the poorest, least white are forced to commute in order to serve those who live therein, reserving the benefits of urbanization for themselves. Last years rioting reveals that these geographical relations create their own social problems, but they are quite different from American social problems.

Urban development is, however, at least met with efforts to improve access to the center city--trains, subways, exclusion of motor vehicles from heavily pedestrian areas. Commuters are less likely to drive into the city, no matter how far they might commute (Bordeaux to Paris, perhaps).

I won't claim that this softer touch proves that harmony is possible between cities and nature. That strawman would be as easily knocked down as faith in progress. It's quite something else to claim that restraint and consideration are a personal virtues that provide no amelioration.


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