Green Myths : We must conserve everything.
There’s this unquestioned idea, that’s been firmly planted into the public mind. That idea is that nothing should ever be allowed to go extinct and therefore conservation of anything is automatically a good thing. It’s nearly universally accepted and yet it’s totally unnatural and fundamentally wrong.
In stark terms, we and the world we live in, are all products of an ever-changing environment, which ruthlessly weeds out of existence anything that cannot handle habitat change, fend for itself or successfully compete with a new species which is moving into its niche. That process is slow enough not to be perceptible at most times but it has not stopped. It’s always happened and will always happen.
We Homo Sapiens have only been around about a quarter of a million years, but behind us stretches that long line of extinct hominid species we descended from. There were many other contemporaneous hominids, who died out without speciating. Dead ends. Since evolution won’t be stopping just for us, it’s a possibility that there’ll be a new and perhaps improved hominid taking over from us at some point in the future, though speciation is rare. Extinction tends to be more usual for any species.
So many times when we in our well-intentioned ignorance decide to interfere with that natural extinction process with the specific intention of conserving something, it’s a disaster. The bigger the object of conservation, and therefore the more complex, the bigger the disaster. There’s a link at the bottom of this piece to a lecture given by the late Michael Crichton. It’s a fascinating talk in itself, but the germane part of it is where he discusses the conservation efforts done to manage the two million acre Yellowstone National Park.
All that a century of active management achieved, was the complete disappearance from the park of the coyote, whitetail deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, wolverine, beaver and so many other species. Notice how many of those nasty predators they killed off? The damage to the flora was just as extensive. What produced that unwanted result, was not encroaching civilisation, but continuous attempts to “manage” nature. What’s left is good, but in terms of species diversity, it’s not a patch on what was there before it was declared a national park. It’s one step removed from a theme park, and just as artificial. They’d have done so much better, if they’d simply done as little as possible.
They were arrogant enough to think they could manage nature, which had somehow got by quite nicely without the benefit of their management for thousands of years, and all they did in the end was manage so much of nature right out of the park.
Even when we get down to managing the conservation of an individual species, we’re blinded by a saccharine Walt Disney view of how the natural world actually works. We’d rather make conservation policy based on political views of nature or on outright myths, and I’m talking here not only about the common person, but even some of the so-called experts.
A case of the former is the polar bear. Because of fears about a declining population, a multilateral hunting ban was imposed in 1973, but natives were issued with permits allowing them to hunt for a quota of bears. I’m sure the quotas are strictly enforced by that vast gendarmerie patrolling the Arctic wastes. Whether the bear was really under threat at the time is debatable. The natives and the bears had already lived in the same environment for hundreds of years without either of them going extinct, even though they’d eaten each other on occasion. I suppose a possible new factor might have been the theoretical appearance of an army of big game hunters, but when you stop to think about it, there can’t have been many people rich enough to pay for hunting expeditions to the Arctic, and I just can’t see them shooting twenty bears apiece.
Speaking as someone who’s hunted for food, given the choice between looking for a seal or a polar bear, I’d go for the seal every time, rather than the bear. After all, it’s a ferocious beast, which also happens to be the largest land predator in the world. I imagine most Eskimo hunters would come to the same conclusion. While catching a few fish or bagging seals might not be as exciting as bringing down a 1300 lb, 10 foot tall on its hind legs, enraged, top of the food chain predator, your family will eat every day and you’ll live a lot longer. There is of course a market by the natives selling hunting permits to the occasional hunter. Getting hard cash for a free permit very few people in their right mind would use is always handy.
Despite testimony submitted in 2008 to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by the Fish and Wildlife Service, that the population had increased five fold in the last sixty years, the bear was listed as further endangered by global warming. An apex predator like the polar bear needs a very large hunting territory, so when their population expands so dramatically, they have to spread out. It’s that which is driving the bears southward, not some delusional meltdown of the arctic.
A case of the outright myth is the panda. Ask why it’s protected and the usual answer you get is those cruel chinese peasants had hunted it to the very brink of extinction, so something had to be done. A few of those poor remaining specimens are now housed in the totally unnatural environment of a zoo, and occasionally brought together to mate. Though offspring are only very rarely produced, it all makes for a great media story either way. Perhaps in the face of our terrible cruelty, the poor shell-shocked creatures have lost the will to live. Hunting them has been banned for decades and yet the population is still in free fall. I don’t recall ever seeing a panda skin coat or dining out on roast panda, so perhaps the truth of the matter lies elsewhere.
The main staple of a panda’s diet is a particular species of bamboo, and a rare one in itself. Just to add to their difficulties, the female is only fertile for two or three days in the year. Headaches aside, that’s hardly a recipe for an exploding population, but rather a shrinking one, and that’s precisely what happened. As a species, they’re a classic case of over specialisation in a changing world, and the result of that is always extinction. Our best efforts will not stop that happening to them in the end. They’re a species that nature has stamped DNR on, and we should learn to accept that. When they eventually go into that good night, they won’t be alone; 99.9% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct.
Evolution is a blind, brute-force, iterative process and there’s no guarantee that the species it produces, are necessarily viable in the long-term.
Because of their cuddly toy image, both creatures have been cynically used for political ends. The panda to thaw out relations with the West after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and the polar bear to advance the cause of fighting global warming. The cherry on top of such ruthless exploitation, was that it played so well to that innate belief all alarmists have, in how humanity is at the root of all evils on the planet. That’s the cult’s version of the Christian idea of original sin. Us humans are inherently inclined to harm Mother Gaia, but we can be saved and gain some sort of absolution for our sins, by trying to repair the damage caused by our sinful nature. Given that viewpoint, it’s not difficult to see why we’re the one species on Earth so many of them are keen to cull.
Playing what is essentially a guilt card, works well with people in the developed world, primarily because the majority of them are well fed and live in cities, but it simply doesn’t work with the remaining five billion in the developing world. The border line poverty they spend their entire lives in, means they’ve no illusions about the true nature of nature. They’ll take from it what they need to get by, with no guilt and no regrets. If you honestly want to get a real feel for their view of the natural world, don’t eat anything for twenty-four hours, and then find a flock of chickens to gaze at. If they don’t look like anything better than just food running around, you’ve been snacking.
This is not an argument for bulldozing our way across the natural world, but rather to make some intelligent decisions about what species we should help to survive. Spending valuable resources on a species that doesn’t need our help or on one that is doomed anyway, is a total waste. There are a few cases where we can usefully help, such as the North American buffalo, but not many.
Whether you can see it or not, the only constant in the natural world is eternal change. The green view is that nothing should change, and what’s more, when change happens, it’s somehow always us pesky humans behind it. This is ignorant, wilful nonsense in the face of reality. Examples abound everywhere you look. The red squirrel was for centuries the only species of squirrel in Europe, until the grey squirrel finally arrived. Within less than a century, the grey squirrel is everywhere and the red squirrel is confined to a few reserves and one offshore island. If you want to save the red squirrel, then your choice is confined to shooting every grey squirrel on sight. They make good eating, by the way.
Having committed the mortal sin of arguing against that knee-jerk reflex of conserving everything, I might as well go all the way and say that if the choice is between the basic greater good for people and another species disappearing, then that’s tough luck on that species. Whether you agree with that or not, that’s what’s actually happening in the places around the world where the majority of humanity live, which is to say the developing nations.
Saving the rainforest from those evil loggers is a cute story that may go down well in the developed world, but it’s a no sale to a peasant, if that means continuing to live in the abject poverty of a favela rather than striking out and clearing a free acre of rainforest to grow food for his family. Leaving all the propaganda aside, everyone knows they’re the ones actually doing the clearances, which is why you’re trying to stop them under cover of anti-logging legislation.
He may just be a peasant, who’s had nothing much in the way of education, but he’s smart enough to wonder why, when we’ve already chopped down all our forests and have so many things he doesn’t have like abundant food, medicines, children who’re expected to reach adulthood, decent housing and electricity, we want him to continue living in poverty to somehow salve our consciences. He sees things clearly in a way we don’t and will do his best for the ones he loves. We might live on the same planet but we’re living in completely different worlds.
He’ll clear that land, plant a crop on it and nothing will stop him, and I wish him and his the best of luck with it.
Related articles by Pointman: