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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Self Destruction or Rewilding?

We seem hell bent on wiping ourselves out or at the very least wiping out the relatively comfortable, interesting and fulfilling life we now have.

The sooner we admit that we are not as smart as we think we are the better.  Then we might be able to do something about it.

Until recently, the peak of our ecological knowledge dictated that if we wipe out the wolves, we will have more deer to hunt.  Read Farley Mowat's book Never Cry Wolf for a very comical treatment of this myth.  I bet most people "on the street" would still think that this is perfectly correct.

Go to TED talks and type in  the search box George Monbiot or Rewilding or both and have a look at a most erudite treatment of this myth.

We are wiping out species at a rate equal to or greater than during the past 5 great die offs with gay abandon and with little appreciation of the consequences.

Up until recently it was also commonly held that  if you kill all the whales, there will be more krill for fish to eat and hence more fish to catch.  I bet if you asked "the man in the street" you would find he would agree with this also.  George has something to say about this myth too.

And the height of ignorance was expressed by a fisheries biologist that I met in Prince Rupert, BC, Canada who was just off to break up a beaver dam.  He was convinced that beaver dams in streams were detrimental to Salmon and trout.  I mean, How ignorant can you get. You would expect this from a fisherman but not from a biologist.

We are woefully ignorant and the sooner  we realize it, the sooner we may be able to reverse our destructive tendencies.  So what can we do.

Once we have admitted our own lack of knowledge and moreover, our venality in the collective (corporate greed), there is only one solution.  We must set aside large areas on land and in the oceans for nature to get on with what nature does best.

Managed parks such as Kruger in South Africa and all the various other parks in Natal and elsewhere in the world are valuable but there must also be completely untouched areas.  Here is another example of ignorance.

In Kruger Park and other South African Nature reserves, they used to collect dead wood for the fires in the camps.  The accepted wisdom was that this would have no effect on the ecology of the park.  This was stopped when some bright ecologist realized that dead wood is the base for a whole network of organisms.  The cellulose in wood is a polysaccharide.  In other words, a chain of sugar molecules joined together in such a way that the giant molecules are insoluble and refractory to most multi-celled organisms.  Only bacteria can break down the cellulose and many multi-celled organisms from termites to cows have such bacteria in their gut.  In this way cellulose becomes a food source for a whole ecology.

Kruger now brings wood from outside the park for her fires.

If it took so long to realize something so simple such as the role of wolves and whales and of dead wood and of beavers, just how competent do you think we are  to manage vastly more complicated interactions in nature.  We must simply set aside areas which we leave alone.  We can introduce what we believe to be missing components of the ecology but then leave the area well enough alone to sort itself out.  This will generally result in a succession of ecologies similar but not the same as what happened when the continental glaciers retreated from the land.  It will be a source of wonder just what pathways the successions take and a lesson in what used to be and could be in the future.

Look at the story of the return of the wolves to Yellowstone Park.    Here again we have shown our incompetence and venality in our interaction with wolves and the results when we restore missing components and let nature get on with what she does best.  Many of you will be familiar with the story but for a really lucid description, go, again to Monbiot on TED talks.

We also thought we could manage the fisheries of the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland using a simple catch-per-unit-effort model while the catching techniques were ever improving.  How wrong we were there.  For an eye opener of what used to exist around the St Lawrence river area, read Farley Mowat's book, Sea of Slaughter.  Incidentally, some biologists warned against the fishing practices but were shut up by the Canadian Government.  Canada!! for heaven sake.  Considered one of the right thinking, scientifically advanced countries of the world. 

As a further example, just recently, under the Harper government, scientist were muzzled, especially if they wanted to talk out about climate change at threat of their jobs.  What jobs.  The job of a scientist is to speak the truth about what they discover.  These scientist were being paid a salary but they didn't have a job.  If this can occur in a liberal democracy, what must it be like in a totalitarian regime.

If we can't get something so obvious and so simple right, what chance is there that we will manage nature.  None at all.

And why should this lead to self destruction.  With most of us living in cities, we are pretty ignorant of the things nature does for us.  It provides clean air and water, food and fibre, genetic diversity, and a whole range of other benefits.  Besides, nature provides a balm for our senses in this overstressed world we live in.

For that matter, why do we think that us humans, a latecomer in evolution, have the right to wipe out other species who were here long before us.  I wonder if every planet on which life exists eventually produces a species that wipes out the planet and itself with it.

I'd actually doubt that we could wipe out all of humanity.  We are like cockroaches.  Very hard to exterminate.  Lovelock was laughed at when he suggested that within this century, human population would be down to 1b.  We are approaching 7b now so, if he is correct,  6 out of 7 of us won't survive.  He, of course, had no way of knowing just how serious the decline will be but what is pretty certain is that it would be the end of our technologically advanced civilization.  There goes the internet, the mass production of goods by robots which is only viable with a huge market, a sort of Pax UN (as faulty as it is) and so forth.  There goes also our effect on nature and she can begin to repair herself.  Then we will bounce back and do it all over again and again until we achieve total destruction.  Not a pretty picture.

There have been many many empires built up over the last 5000 years or so and all that remains of them is some archaeological remnants and a population of struggling humans occupying the same territory.  On a localized scale we have turned bread baskets into deserts.  The first people who arrived in a new territory wiped out everything their technology was capable of destroying.  European man arrived later and trashed whole ecologies.  There is some hope, though.  In some locations where man has eliminated himself, nature has come back with a vengeance.  A good example is along the border between Italy and the former Yugoslavia along the Soca valley.  In his book Ferral, George Monbiot describes how the Soca valley repaired itself after total destruction during the first world war.  A great read.

Look at North America, for instance.  When Europeans arrived, they were amazed at the richness of the ecology of North America.  Of course they were comparing it with Europe which they had already trashed.  They had no idea of what existed there before the "Indians" arrived.  All the richness Europeans observed was only a remnant of the original pre-human mega fauna.

For the first time, we have a commercially connected world.  We all breath the same air and depend on the same weather systems.  For the first time, as shown by the 2008 mini crisis, what happens in one location effects all of us and as the people in Western Canada will attest, the air pollution from Asia effects them.  I have a friend living on the West coast of Vancouver island.  Their laundry is regularly sullied by Asian pollution.

The ice of the Arctic is disappearing at a rapid rate and prediction of the effects of an ice free Arctic are dire.  It's not that we couldn't live in at least parts of the world under the new climate that seems likely to occur.  It is just that we have used our technology to adapt ourselves to the present climate and have allowed our population to grow to an extent that we are balanced on a knife edge.  A failure of the crops of the Northern Hemisphere for only one year, would send waves of destruction around the world.

I'm sad to say that what we need is a mid level disaster.  Nothing else will shake our system hard enough that we will do something about it.  Let's hope when we do finally wake up, that it is not too late.  This year (2016) is looking like we have already passed a critical tipping point.  2017 will either deny or firm up this impression.

In the mean time, let us set aside  areas as large as we can and leave them alone.  We can introduce remnant populations since often the migration routs have been cut by "civilization" but let nature get on with what it does best.  In Scotland, most major rivers have wide riparian zones. The rest of us should do the same.  These provide migration routs to connect wild areas.    We can even introduce species close to those that have long since disappeared and see how they do.  We are not necessarily trying to re-create what once was but rather an ecology of varied flora and fauna that nature can sort out and which will be a nucleus of recovery if we crash our economy and the rest of the ecology. 

Such areas will also remind us of what richness used to exist in our areas for comparison with the sad remains we have now.  We really need to reset our expectations.  Resetting our expectations may be one of the most important results of rewilding.


citizenschallenge said...

Were it only that simple.

Nice essay.


Sheila chambers said...

Excellent opinion of today's ecological situation.
Things are very different from what they were when we first developed civilizations which later collapsed. Only one area of the world was trashed & turned into desert but now we are trashing the entire planet.
We have spewed so much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that we are changing the climate to such an extent that some very prominent climate scientists say we are driving ourselves to extinction.
It could get so hot that we humans could not survive, our agriculture will collapse, billions of starving humans will be fighting their way north to escape while those living in the north will be fighting to keep the hordes out.
Our planet cannot sustain 7 billion humans, 10 billion will never see the light of day.
Scientists have been warning us for decades that the road we are on is unsustainable, we have become totally dependent upon a TEMPORARY energy/resource that is now in decline.
Fracking for the remaining oil & gas is the death knell of the oil age & with it's ending, so will our excessive population collapse.
There is now no way to escape this collapse, the momentum is too great, too much damage has been done, we are exhausting too many critical resources & pollution is killing our ocean.
Where I live I've seen the crab catch go from plentiful to collapse because of ocean warming, acidification & growing dead zones off our coast.
We are going extinct & we will be the cause of it & we are the cause of hundreds of other species that are going extinct each day!
We are dead homo walking.