02 June, 2010

People and environment I: a study in contrast

As things wound down, i found time to at last read a booklet bought my first weekend in Ankara. Found in a used bookshop, it's a bit out of date (published 1992 by a then-newly-formed Ministry of Environment) but "Turkey's Importance in the World of Living Things" manages to pack a thorough overview into thirty-four novel-size pages.

For instance, it describes the country's position at the confluence of three continents. Exhibiting pockets of almost every climatic zone, and with mountain ranges that separate it from other land masses, in a biogeographic sense Anatolia can be considered a continent of its own. Europe has 203 plant families with 1,541 genera and roughly 12,000 species. Though much smaller, Anatolia is host to 163 families (1225 genera, 9000 species). Around one third of these species are endemic to Anatolia, which is considered the genetic center for Achillea, Allium, Astragalus, Centaurea, Iris, Verbascum, Ficus, Vitus (grapes), Vicia (vetches and favas), Linum (flax), and all the major grains (Avena, Hordeum, Secale, and Triticum). Many of the world's major crop plants originated here. In addition, the number of animal species is estimated at 80,000, about one and a half times the number found in Europe. As a bridge, this land is a crucial stopover for migratory birds passing from northern Europe to Africa.

One of the most important things i have learned in the past years is that the terms "biodiversity" and "germplasm" are meaningless to most, the latter in fact being meaningless to my spellchecker. Particularly here, where settlement occurs in dense clusters separated by kilometers upon kilometers of open space, interest in the natural world seems low. A city of roughly 5 million, Ankara has only two outdoor sporting stores; recreational hiking and bicycling are - save for foreign tourists - almost unheard of.

As one moves south and east from Europe, a very different relation to the natural world emerges. In America, a similar gradient is visible as one moves from urban and particularly suburban environments where natural resources are experienced as limited and in need of protection to rural environments where use-based attitudes toward nature (and at times open conflict with it, e.g. the woodchucks in my garden) prevail. One might say that distance, even separation from Nature breeds attachment to it.

Here in Turkiye, another set of factors seems to regulate exposure to nature. Settlement patterns are very different; where in individualistic America urban sprawl spreads cancerous across the landscape, development here is typically dense and clustered. Car ownership is lower, while the infrastructure of sparsely distributed cities lends itself to a well-developed network of public transportation. People here find few opportunities - and perhaps few reasons - to explore the vast, semi-wild interstitial spaces.

Western European and North American societies experienced an environment (in America, one seemingly inexhaustible to begin with) which, with the onset of  industrialization, began to show signs of depletion. The literary and cultural influences of Muir, Thoreau, Leopold, Carson and late 19th century bourgeois naturalists developed attitudes of avocational interaction, conservation, and preservation.

In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv posits a normative nature experience framed on a model of wilderness settlement - characterized (as i recall, perhaps colored by my own theoretical framework) by phases of exploration, use, taxonomy, and preservation. Nature experience, it can be argued, is foremost a phenomenon of sociology: of religion, tradition, and scientific evolution.

I would argue that the attitudes and emotions familiar to a North American are absent in Turkiye. With over three-thousand years of continuous habitation, the cultural basis for nature experience is much different. Think for a moment about the differences between a society where breaking the virgin Great Plains is a recent cultural memory, and one where the land has been worked for thousands of years, where landraces of grains and fruit trees occur in the semi-wild. American conservationists have within their experiential gaze both an oft-romanticized aboriginal lifestyle that existed until the last centuries and a fleeting agrarian vision of preindustrial America. For Turks, Kurds, Azeris, Circassians, Greeks, and others who share Anatolia past and present, the aboriginal is a past too distant to romance; the agrarian, a memory too recent to long for.

As coming generations of urban Anatolians look beyond the built environment of their childhood, a perceived distance from nature may  emerge here as well - but not to be overlooked, the exigencies of learning to share land with other ethnic groups is a far more immediate and important experience for this culture to process.

While a romance of the land seems largely absent, sustainable behaviors are perhaps easier to achieve here. The landscape's limits in proportion to its inhabitants are visible; climactic influences and a weaker car culture are helpful factors. Most important, stronger collectivist values emphasize that the environment is something we hold common.