Saturday, July 21, 2012

A lament, and some interesting books

"Last Migration"  by bezayildirim 77, used by permission

Once, on a windy spring day when I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler of the year, and was shocked all over again at how beautiful this commom migrant really is, I had two conflicting thoughts. One was that my life is so much richer and more meaningful now that I love birds. And the other was that this love has also given me a sorrow that is ten thousand fathoms deep. It's like meeting your soul mate, falling madly in love, planning your incomparable future together, and then finding out that he or she is dying of a terminal illness.

But does that comparison really hold? The indignities that we are inflicting upon our planet are certainly serious, but are they terminal? I don't think so...yet. If we don't change our ways, in another fifty or one hundred years, who knows? For many species, it is already too late, and many others are suffering from alarming declines. (If you'd like a soundtrack to this post, try Planet Earth by Duran Duran -- right click to open a new window.)

Meanwhile, when thinking about this feels like walking in a world of wounds, the vitality of birds can be a partial antidote.
-- from The View from Lazy Point by Carl Safina.

The naturalist Edward O. Wilson posited that humans have an innate affinity for nature, which he coined "biophilia." This thought has been taken up, with much fanfare, by Richard Louv in his works The Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, which diagnosed many of us in the industrialized, post-modern era as suffering from "nature deficit disorder." (Although I have a few bones to pick with Louv's hypotheses, I love the fact that he has had such success in bringing these ideas to the public consciousness.)

And one of the things I like about the growing paleo movement is the recognition that exposure to natural spaces is vital to our well-being; I wonder how many modern problems with depression, anxiety, OCD, ADD, etc., are caused or exacerbated by our artificial lifestyles?

But if biophilia is a true, deep-seated human affinity, then how do we explain that so many of us react to the news of what we are doing to the earth with apathy, denial, defensiveness, or even jubilation? Surely no one actually enjoys looking at photos of oiled pelicans, but why would so many people have reacted to the BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico not by responding, "How can we stop this from ever happening again?," but with the mantra of "drill, baby, drill"?

How could comments like this even be possible?
The ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man's dominion over the Earth. The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet -- it's yours. That's our job: drilling, mining and stripping. Sweaters are the anti-Biblical view. Big gas-guzzling cars with phones and CD players and wet bars -- that's the Biblical view.
--Ann Coulter, "Oil good; democrats bad"
Perhaps the situation is similar to that of a smoker; and by saying this, I mean no disrespect, as I used to smoke myself. The evidence on smoking is in, and the verdict is undeniable: it's bad for you! And yet people still smoke. My smoker's train of thought went as's probably not all that bad, really...not for most people, anyway, only those with really bad genetic luck, which I don't have...and even if it is bad, I'll stop before I get sick...and don't I have the right to ruin my health if I want to? It was only after I'd quit once and for all that I recognized those excuses for what they were: the justifications of an addict.

All of these ruminations make me think of Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, (Penguin: 2005) which gives several "case histories" of societies that have adapted and lived (Iceland, Japan, New Guinea), or failed, not with a bang but a whimper (Easter Island, Norse Greenland, Pitcairn Island). Islands go faster than the rest of us, but the combined pressures of population growth and exploitation of resources will bite anyone in the ass sooner or later, or so goes his theory.

The central question of the book is: what did the Easter Islanders think as they cut down the last tree? Why didn't they see their fate before they got to that extreme? On a literal level, this question is a bit silly, but taken metaphorically -- why don't societies correct their ways before it's too late? -- an excellent question. Some of Jared's analyses seem spot on, such as the discussion of the genocide in Rwanda and comparison between Haiti and the Dominica Republic; others seem hurried or incomplete (the parts about the Anasazi and the Maya, and the case of China needs a whole book to itself, not one chapter); and others are unconvincing and rather dull (on and on and on about Greenland).

Probably the most interesting part is about Easter Island; who hasn't been fascinated by the giant heads, or wondered what on earth could have happened to that civilization? Diamond has a good discussion, but it seems that he may have published a bit too soon, as more recent archeological evidence has presented some different perspectives.

For one thing, humans might have been blameless in the case of that last tree on the island. According to Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue by William Stolzenburg (Bloomsbury: 2011), the culprit may very well have been a rat.

Written in a breezy, journalistic style, Rat Island presents some very bad and moderately good news about island ecologies the world over. We already know the bad news; invasive species, which include rats, rabbits, cats, weasels, stoats, pigs, foxes, goats, even insects, simply decimates the bird life and other endemic species of fragile island habitats.

Even after having read numerous other books on similar topics, I learned some new information, such as the havoc wreaked by Arctic foxes transplanted to foxless Alaskan islands, and the efforts of some early conservation pioneers in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, all true heroes as far as I'm concerned. I also learned a lot about how to get rid of rats on a large scale, with some wonderful news: it works! Islands which were once practically dead zones as far as endemic bird life are concerned are once again flourishing, because a few stubborn and caring individuals insisted on going ahead with the projects.

Of course, nothing is without controversy. These pest-removal missions can be expensive and labor-intensive, and are not without some collateral losses. The Nature Conservancy came under scrutiny after some gulls and eagles were found poisoned on one of the Alaskan islands; but gulls and eagles are not rare, and the effect was only temporary. Was their loss worth saving the nesting ground of endangered seabirds? Just when is OK to intervene, and when should we let "nature take its course"?

This is a complicated question. In my discussion of another book, Miracle Under the Oaks: The Revival of Nature in America by William Stevens (Pocket Books: 1995), I agree with the premise that the remnants of "nature" that are left are so degraded that mere conservation is no longer enough; we must try to restore things the best approximation of their past glory.

I understand the concern that we don't yet know enough about these habitats to ensure that we don't trample in and do more harm than good; after all, our species' interference is how we got in this mess to begin with. And I also sympathize with those who don't like to inflict harm or suffering on other creatures, even if they are lowly rats (not to mention that tinderbox of environmental controversy, feral cats). But in my view, if you have a chance to save a species on the brink of extinction, barring inflicting harm on fellow humans (harm, not inconvenience), you just move forward and do your best.

But as Carl Safina points out in The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World (Picador: 2011), the underlying problem is that our paradigm for understanding the world is centuries out of date. The view that humans are separate from, and superior to, the natural world goes as far back in Western thought as the ancient Greeks. Aristotle stated that, "It must be that nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man"; Rene Descartes that men are the "lords and possessors of nature"; Francis Bacon that "the world is made for man."

The problem is that those earlier thinkers simply could not have imagined a time when man's technology, and the ever-increasing pressure of population, could actually start to destroy the world around us. Even if one is loath to relinquish humanity's special position as granted by Western thought, if we want to continue to flourish on this planet, it seems wise to think of ourselves as caretakers rather than the rapists and pillagers of Ann Coulter's statement.

I am only partway through The View from Lazy Point; it's the kind of detailed, thoughtful work that I don't want to rush through. I'm sure I'll come back to this topic; in the meantime, I can only console myself with the hope that, just as rat-despoiled islands can once again teem with life, we will pull ourselves back before too many of the birds I love so much are gone forever.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this thoughtful post! May I recommend another book, "Rambunctious Garden"? I bought it partly because the jacket promised that it was "short on gloom"! While the author might cringe at my synopsis, the book basically asserts that, since humans have messed with the environment so much already, we need to roll up our sleeves and start fixing things, with rewilding and assisted migration, novel ecosystems, and even embracing exotic species. An interesting book! And I want to read "The View From Lazy Point"! "Rat Island" sounds good, too. I've always been fascinated by Easter Island. Mom