This will be the first in a series that will outline my thinking about the modern environmental movement, which is one I have come to view with deep suspicion and as yet another symptom of humankind’s unfortunate short-sightedness. To head off any salvos at Strawman Pass, let me say that at the root of it all, I believe that we have to conduct ourselves on this planet as we see fit. We need ethics and a belief framework, otherwise the psychological noise of daily life is too much to bear.
But the current “green” marketing efforts currently underway divorce us from any real solutions. We look to technology, to innovation, to something new and shiny that will deliver us from our evils, all in an effort to maintain the levels of comfort and control over our lives we’ve come to expect. It is, in fact, those expectations (most fewer than 100 years old!) that cause the very degradation around us that we all decry as evil. We’re all a part of it by virtue of being alive. No, your Prius isn’t helping jack squat. To this end, I can’t recommend enough the bittersweet, soul-crushing beauty of Dark Mountain‘s Manifesto.
I’ll let the American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, science historian, and writer Stephen Jay Gould sum up my feelings on this, because he did so brilliantly:
[N]ature is so massively indifferent to us and our suffering. Perhaps this indifference, this majesty of years in uncaring billions (before we made a belated appearance), marks her true glory…she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten…We should be so powerful! Nothing within our power can come close to conditions and catastrophes that the earth has often passed through and beyond…We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria…I doubt that we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects…[b]ut we can surely eliminate our fragile selves—and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness…[H]uman brainpower, for reasons quite unrelated to its evolutionary origin, has the damnedest capacity to discover the most fascinating things, and think the most peculiar thoughts. So why not keep this interesting experiment around, at least for another planetary second or two?
We’ve all seen the headlines about invasive species: Monster Goldfish Found in Lake Tahoe, Lionfish: Invasive Species Devastating Reefs, Invasion of the Giant Pythons. We love to talk about this and make regulations around it, such as forcing people to clean their boats and seaplanes in order to prevent introducing invasive species elsewhere.
Oh, and don’t forget the acetaminophen-laced mice to be dropped on Guam to kill their brown tree snake problem. Hmm…how did those brown tree snakes get there anyway? The best guess is cargo from US ships or planes, since the US tramples all over the island for military purposes. But they’re not suggesting that we cool our imperialism, they’d rather drop dead mice out of helicopters in order to hypothetically prevent the snakes from somehow invading Hawaii. Why are we more concerned about Hawaii? “The National Wildlife Research Center estimates that a Hawaiian brown tree snake infestation would inflict $593 million to $2.14 billion in economic damages each year, including widespread power outages and a significant decrease in tourism.” Oh, I see. But wait, won’t the acetaminophen be harmful to bird populations? “Scientists claim that most of the birds have already been wiped out by the snakes anyway.” Carry on then!
As depressing as this scenario is, unfortunately “invasive” species don’t exist. It’s a human construct. If we’re going to go there, then every mention of a human shall henceforth be termed “invasive”, since we refused to be boxed into Africa and emerged some 125,000 or so years ago. Seriously: “Teresa Sanderson, an invasive Homo sapiens sapiens, of Terre Haute found an intruder in her kitchen at 3am last night.”
Okay, okay. That’s silly. But at the very least, the term “invasive species” should be limited to mean a species that has been introduced due to human intervention, and the moral projection associated with it should be left out. Why? Because you cannot call yourself a serious student of evolution if you consider invasive species a “threat” to anything.
So a species was artificially moved to a different location and it thrives. Yay. This does not account for all the species that were also moved but did not take hold because they didn’t find the new location favorable. But that doesn’t make for a sensational headline, does it?: “Four Formerly Invasive Species No Longer Considered Invasive After They Fail to Thrive in New Environment.” That’s more of an Onion headline.
Let’s say that a species does set up house somewhere and it wipes out the majority of life there. If given enough time—time that we humans are terrible at calculating and anticipating—some interesting things might happen. Perhaps another species will discover a taste for the new resident. Because it’s an abundant food source, it could lead to the success of that new-found predator. Or perhaps, given a lot of time, segments of the initial population move elsewhere or become isolated, leading to whole new species that bloom into a new era of life diversity. Don’t believe me? Check out the Permian event.
How else can you deprogram yourself from the farce that is “invasive species”?
- Stop seeing the earth as distinct regions and territories. The earth is one big bioregion. It does not acknowledge our arbitrary lines, fences, and understandings. This is the very thinking that gets us into trouble, because we can’t possibly fathom how a little bit of pollution could be so bad. We don’t understand the downstream effects. We think if we can pollute just certain parts of the world, the others will remain pristine. We know this isn’t true, but it’s difficult to prove in any tangible way. It may have once been true when the world population stood at 250,000 and we were still so intimately connected to our surroundings that we would have to move if we sullied or abused any one location beyond carrying capacity. But today, we get huge, swirling masses of floating plastic in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific. In terms of invasive species, did you know that dust carries microbes over from China all the time? This must be stopped! *facepalm* Folks, birds and butterflies and caribou migrate. They carry things with them from place to place on their fur, in their poop, in their bodies. There has never been a perfect, unchanging ecosystem. Ever. Just try to stop ocean currents, the jet stream, and meteorite strikes. Humans are merely another vehicle, albeit a particularly malignant and reckless one, for this constant change.
- Think in geologic time. Before Earth had seven continents (another arbitrary designation), it had one—Pangaea. It was all the same thing, and truly still is. While populations have evolved in that time to be distinct species, there is no reason it can’t all intermingle and compete for resources again. Extinctions happened before humans and they will happen again with and without humans. A lifetime of 80 years on this planet isn’t even half a blink of an eye in geologic time and is a poor perspective from which to judge what the earth needs. Time is for humans, not nature. The small spot of earth we all inhabit right now, no matter how much you love it and the way it looks right now, has not always been this way and it will not always be this way. The area where I grew up was once under a vast sea millions of years ago.
- Stop seeing some species as “good” and others as “bad”. This one always gives me a chuckle. We’ve heard a lot lately about bird numbers being decimated by domestic cats. We’ve conveniently forgotten that cats have been used for centuries to help control mouse and rat populations on farms, on ships, and in cities. So they’re “good” when they’re useful to us, but “bad” when we decide they aren’t being sensitive enough to the needs of birds we like? That is some funny monkey thinking right there. Besides, have we forgotten our Darwin 101? The birds that outwit the cats will go on to have smarter offspring. If cats wish to continue catching birds, they’ll have to step up their game too. Or they may decide it’s too much effort and start leaving birds alone to go for mice instead. Which will lead to an uptick in bird populations and we’ll all complain that there’s too much bird poop on everything and the birds must be stopped! *facepalm* Besides, nature doesn’t care which ones you find palatable and which ones you don’t.
Understand that while some species will disappear, and that is very sad, other species do just fine in our presence. Using our bird example above, let’s say that all the black-capped vireos and marbled murrelets vanish. Oh no! No more birds! Wrong. Many species actually benefit from the presence of humans and others are figuring out ways to adapt to their changing surroundings. Just in my backyard, I can tell you the jay populations are doing just dandy. Crows do pretty darn good for themselves. Mallards love our parks and golf courses. Peregrine falcons have adapted to nest on skyscrapers (in lieu of the usual cliff faces) and feast on pigeons, who also appear to enjoy the company of humans. Even if we lose all the more “exotic” species of birds, the future world will be populated with these and more, and from that narrowing could come an explosion of diversity again as populations migrate and diversify. It has happened before and it will happen again. This future landscape will also potentially be populated with the descendants of raccoons, deer, squirrels, and rats. Don’t get me wrong, I think the disappearance of the Siberian tiger and the rhino is depressing and I intensely despise humankind’s role in all of it, but life will continue on even if we don’t see it as favorable or desirable.
In general, as long as we put up artificial definitions and preferences, it cannot be said that we truly and deeply appreciate life in all its messy, chaotic glory. Trust the trajectory. It is not for us to lord over it and control it. Be amazed, be amused, be utterly in awe of it all. But the short-sighted urge to “protect” and “save” privileges the species we find desirable and damns the ones we don’t. The inevitable conclusion to the Savior of the Animal Kingdom route is that we will put all the rhinos and elephants in a zoo when what is really required is habitat conservancy, which would require a massive reduction in human population to stop impinging on those places in the first place. So what’s your brilliant solution to that one?
And here is where I remind my dear readers that we must all conduct ourselves in such a way so we can all sleep soundly at night. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you recycle you are somehow virtuous and correct. Once that obstacle is in your mind, you cannot grasp the bigger picture and you will do more harm than good in the name of self-righteousness.
We, humans, are the only invasive species. Your Priuses pollute waterways full of fish, all the paper and wood in our lives came from trees that housed birds, and when our houses were built they destroyed animal habitats. Accept it. Unless you are able to unplug and live in a handmade mud hut off the grid (and even then…), it’s time to accept that we are part of this great cycle of creation and destruction that was set in motion eons ago before our species even existed. Be a good student of evolution and trust it in all its mystery.