Destroying our Environment

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day three I wrote about Anne Murrow Lindbergh’s Channeled Whelk.)

Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain” a short essay about how one man came to appreciate the complexity of nature.  Leopold remembers how as a young boy they loved to kill wolves.  Wolves were an enemy of humans, and if there were fewer wolves, there would be more deer.  Then one day he saw a wolf die, and that changed his view.  As he puts it, just as the deer live in mortal fear of the wolves, the mountain lives in mortal fear of deer.   The mountain understands the complexity of nature; the mountain appreciates the whole, and does not get lost in disconnected detail.

He has a point.  Deer will eat all the vegetation on the mountain, and ultimately destroy its ecosystem.  Deer are more destructive than wolves, they are a force that not only can destroy an ecosystem, but in so doing they will destroy themselves through starvation.

Looking at it that way, it seems that wolves are benevolent rather than malevolent.  They do not destroy the environment, they simply kill a small number of deer or other animals in order to survive.  As such, they keep the ecosystem in balance, preventing the deer’s destructive capacity from coming to fruition.   The deer is the dangerous creature, the wolf is nature’s hero.

Few see it that way though.  Deer are the gentle, harmless creatures who tromp through the woods, and are scared at a slight sound.  We might curse them if they attack our gardens (that happens here in the Maine woods a lot), and they certainly can do damage if they cross the highway in front of a car, but in general we don’t put them in the same category as wolves or bears.   A deer in the backyard is cool – a wolf or a bear is scary!

It’s not that deer are by nature evil.  They simply like to eat and procreate.  Without being kept in balance, their natural tendencies will become one of the most destructive forces in nature; one can see them almost akin to a virus attacking the planet.  The wolves are the anti-bodies, protecting the ecosystem.

Humans are like deer, except we’ve managed to overcome our predators.  Following our nature, we consume the planet.   Our numbers constantly increase; the UN said in a recent report that a billion people are chronically hungry on the planet.  Moreover, our desire to consume goes beyond just food.  Our attempt to get energy to allow us to have a luxurious life style has meant not only creating an unsustainable appetite for a non-renewable resource (oil) but has led to such intense pollution that the planet’s climate is in danger of radical transformation thanks to human activity.  While the politicians try to downplay the threat, the reality is clear: in fifty years climate change is likely be more damaging to human life and our quality of life than all the wars and economic crises of the past.

Like deer, we are not doing this out of any malicious intent.  Though we may fight each other over resources, driving cars does no one any harm, beyond the risk of accidents.  Flying through the air does little harm, save a few birds that get caught up in the engines.  Even smoke stacks spewing filth into the air do little direct damage.   We may not like the smell, but it’s just smoke.   And for decades, even centuries, the pollution went unquestioned.  Jobs matter more than how the air smells, after all.

Not until about fifty years ago did the environmental movement, begun by pioneering environmentalists like Leopold in the early 20th century, take root.  Perhaps most important in popularizing the cause was marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring (1962) not only showed the harm done by pesticides, leading to a ban on DDT, but called into question the whole paradigm of scientific control over nature.   Although she died of cancer in 1964 at only age 56, Carson was instrumental in bringing environmentalism into the mainstream.

People started to wonder what the impact of all this pollution would be on the ecosystem.  When Lake Eerie caught fire, when rivers stank, when smog in LA led to severe health hazards, people started to make changes.  Yet it turns out that those problems were small potatoes, and not that hard to fix.   Our rivers, air, and cities are much better now than thirty years ago, thanks to legislation limiting pollution.   There have been successful efforts made to fight the unrestrained development that activists like Carson opposed.   Yet it turns out, those weren’t the worst dangers.

By the eighties acid rain, soil erosion, global warming, and threats to the ozone layer created the specter of major dangers ahead.  Even then, as long as some scientists express skepticism (often paid by industry to do so), humans will choose to engage in wishful thinking that bad things can’t happen, and we shouldn’t sacrifice our ability to get more stuff to try to keep the environment healthy.  Like the deer, we are driven to keep consuming, unable to stop ourselves from destroying our environment.

We put our faith in technology – scientists will solve all the problems, alternative energy sources will allow us to consume without sacrifice, even if oil runs low.  Yet damage to the climate takes 50 years to be felt; even if we improved things dramatically now, it would be 50 years before that improvement would yield positive consequences.   The prognosis is that parts of Africa may become uninhabitable, severe crises may hit coastal regions due to rising sea levels and severe weather, and the biggest threat to human kind to be not war nor economic collapse, but environmental crisis.

We cannot “think like a mountain” as Leopold puts it.  Like the deer, we are driven to consume.  Yet that shouldn’t be the case.  Unlike deer, we’re not simply feeding ourselves, we’re trying to expand our material possessions.  Unlike the deer, we do have the capacity to reflect and take action to protect our world from ourselves.  If we do not start “thinking like a mountain” – understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of nature – then the current crisis may seem small in comparison to what we’ll face in perhaps as few as ten or twenty years.

Because, while the deer can make a mountain barren and cause mass starvation, the mountain still stands and sooner or later vegetation reappears.  We don’t threaten the planet with our actions, we threaten ourselves.

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  1. #1 by henitsirk on June 24, 2009 - 03:15

    The issue of “dangerous” predatory animals is complex here in the West. I don’t think people look at wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions as inherently bad when they stick to their remote habitats. It’s when they coexist with ranches, and predate on domestic animals, that they become problematic. (I also think it’s funny that one way to protect domestic animals is to get a llama. Not exactly a native species to the US, but it’s an unnatural solution to an unnatural problem, I guess.)

    I suppose we’re the same: when we try to coexist with nature but look solely to our own gain, then humans tend to harm the environment. One could look on it as just a “natural” occurrence as wolves eating sheep; it’s all a matter of context and perspective, I suppose.

  2. #2 by Josh on June 24, 2009 - 04:26

    Interesting post. Here are some of my (not very poetic) thoughts on global warming:

    As an undergraduate studying mathematics, I convince myself of theorems by way of proofs. Therefore, I tend to be a bit pessimistic about global warming theories (particularly the assertion that we are causing the warming). I am not necessarily saying it is false, but I think scientists need to do a better job convincing people. The superficial explanations of global warming by those like Gore do not cut it for me. I would need to actually do years of my own research (which would mean more advanced training in the natural sciences) to see for myself how global warming is really caused.

    Also, I find that some global warming activists are the ones who burn the most carbon and consume the most energy! That certainly doesn’t help convince me that global warming is thanks to us!

    BUT…if I am ever convinced that we are the cause of global warming, I hope that I will have the guts to admit that I was wrong. I want to recognize the truth, even if it means going against my right-leaning politics (and swallowing my pride).

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on June 24, 2009 - 14:48

    Okay, this is pretty deep stuff Scott. You had me with the wolf v. deer v. earth scenario.

    While I am all about finding clean AND efficient sources of energy that are renewable, and I am all for cleaning up industrial pollutants, the Global Warming business so far doesn’t fly with me.

    Yes, the temperature went up a little over a degree in 100 years, with the caveat that the majority of the measuring devices are considered to have been substandard, but we’ll assume for all intents and purposes that it did in fact go up. Was it man made or not? Thats a pretty hard conclusion to prove. In the medieval days we had a much warmer climate worldwide, according to scientific study, than we do today…yet lacked industrial output, SUVs, and polluting power plants. The period before that was cooler, so global warming did indeed occur then as well, yet the end of the world, civilization, and the extinction of the natural environment failed to occur.

    As for Carson’s Silent Spring, it is my opinion that this was driven more by conjecture and emotion than actual fact (considering her sources in footnotes, she often cherry picked reports that told a different story than hers), at least concerning its influence on banning DDT. DDT itself is relatively harmless, save for the malaria infested mosquito populations burned out like a napalm strike on vegetation.

    Some cited DDT as having negative effects on certain wildlife, including mosquitos building up a resistance to the chemical. And this is true to a point..when it is used in a great and overly proportionate manner, like with outright cropdusting, instead of localized, controlled usage.

    In an effort to show the lack of harm DDT has on most wildlife and humans, Professor J. Gordon Edwards, an environmentalist himself, would consume DDT regularly during his talks, with no known harm coming to him over the years. Surely, the environmentalists would have jumped on this had a bad result happened.

    If anything, the banning of DDT can be attributed to the increase in malaria and malaria-related deaths, along with a host of other ecological problems affecting plant life (caused by certain pests/bugs/insects)

    As for other pollution related incidences you mention, I’ll probably give those to you, as I have nothing, and probably never will. We do need to change a lot of our ways. I have to agree with you there.

    Okay, on a lighter note. Wolves not malevolent??? I beg to differ. Case in point 1: Little Red Riding Hood’s Granny certainly didn’t eat herself. Case in point number 2: Lobo….and for the rest, I point to almost any fairy tale or disney movie involving a wolf….a sliver of a percentage have benevolent tendencies, and none show a neutrality movement, therefore they must be evil evil creatures!! Just kidding, I love wolves…although I wouldnt go trying to pet one!

  4. #4 by Lee on June 24, 2009 - 15:22

    Interesting post. We are a house divided on the global warming issue as well. I tend to believe that we have skewed nature out of whack, my wife thinks this is all a part of a much larger cycle and is not driven by the human populations use or misuse of nature. It does make for interesting dinner conversation!

    Ironically I live in a pretty good sized city and we have a coyote problem. I personally find coyotes a good bit more problematic than wolves. Coyotes are doing well adapting to city life . . .

  5. #5 by henitsirk on June 24, 2009 - 16:56

    Whatever the truth behind the theory of global warming, human beings do impact the environment. That is scientifically verifiable. So in my mind, our responsibility is to figure out both whether we are doing more harm than good, and how to live with the consequences of whatever is actually happening. So really we need to prepare ourselves a little better, I think — not being apocalyptic but rather looking at whether our current lifestyles are sustainable and reasonable.

    You could argue that there is evidence of regular historical shifts in worldwide temperatures and that our recent measurements just reflect one of those natural shifts. Or you could say that recent changes reflect human intervention. Either way, we have to deal with it.

    Anyway, I’m not saying this very coherently, but my point is that whatever the cause, we still have to adapt to changes. In the Middle Ages, there were famines when the weather went wonky. I suppose if the Yellowstone caldera blows up, we’ll have a lot to worry about too. Neither of those events are manmade. But whether humans are causing the changing weather patterns worldwide or not, we still have to deal with the possibility of massive human losses in coastal areas, for example, or disruptions in our food supply.

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on June 24, 2009 - 17:16

    I don’t rely on politicians of any stripe, or political arguments for global warming. I rely particularly the scientists here at UMF that I know, trust and can talk with. I’m convinced that the likelihood that humans are a major factor in global warming is so high, and the potential consequences so severe, that it would be folly not to act forcefully to try to change the dynamic. That is easier said than done. Where there is uncertainty you can always find evidence for a contrary theory. But is it worth the risk that the majority of scientists are wrong?

    But humans tend to think things will keep going good until a crisis his, so I suspect we’ll not really take the environment seriously until we have no choice. As for DDT…Gov. Edwards died at age 85 of a heart attack while on a vigorous hike. I’m sure if it wasn’t for all the DDT he ingested, he would have lived well past 90!

    Now, I’m going to lie in the green field and fly a big red kite. Actually, the first concert I ever saw is one my mom took me to when I was about 12…Lobo.

  7. #7 by Mike Lovell on June 24, 2009 - 17:42

    “But is it worth the risk that the majority of scientists are wrong?”

    Where’s proof of the majority? What about the 32,000 scientist signed petition of dissenters? What about the touted talking points citing the IPCC reports, with information contained therein that contradicts the talking points. Or the fact that everything and its counteraction are blamed on global warming?
    I think humans do have an impact on the earth, yes. How much I do not know, but I doubt it is as catastrophic, as many like to make it out to be.

    And all this hooey about CO2 being a pollutant….um hello, we expel it with every breath and word we speak, it fuels plant growth. And don’t forget that CO2 growth has traditionally followed the warming trends, and according to reports that propose necessary target numbers (in pounds or whatever)that we arent capable of denting if we eliminated even that 80% reduction of our CO2 output called for?

    Just some questions I’d love to hear the answers to from your UMF guys? I love to argue if for no other reason than the argument itself, but I also appreciate the intelligence coming from other angles as well!

  8. #8 by Scott Erb on June 24, 2009 - 18:02

    I have asked about the petition. As I recall, only about 25% had Ph.Ds, and very few were climate scientists (and they’re the ones who have been studying this). So it sounds more like a political petition than anything serious. What constitutes being a “scientist?” There is even more damning evidence, including perhaps that it was a fake funded by the oil industry, here: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080522150151AAXGFY2

    I haven’t checked out all those accusations, but apparently the guy involved with this was also involved in helping cigarette companies deny tabacco is harmful. I’ll ask, but some initial digging certainly gives strong reason for skepticism about the petition!

    As for Co2 being a pollutant, it is similar to when something becomes unhealthy. Is sugar unhealthy? Obviously not. Neither is olive oil. But if you eat too much of them, replacing other things in your diet, they can be. Vitamin A is an essential vitamin, but too much can kill you. Tylenol is a good pain reliever, but have too much and add some alcohol, and you can have liver failure.

    It’s just like the deer. The right number creates a balanced ecosystem. Take the wolves away and deer can overtake the mountain. The atmosphere is a balance. Ultimately, there is a lot we don’t know. I’m going to listen to climate scientists specifically, and compare studies. Everything I’ve seen convinces me that the chances are very high that humans have changed our atmosphere enough to affect the climate, and that this could cause real problems. That certainly is not something that can be dismissed.

    Of course, I suspect not much will be done that can change it, so we’ll probably find out for sure in a decade or so!

  9. #9 by Mike Lovell on June 24, 2009 - 18:35

    “As I recall, only about 25% had Ph.Ds, and very few were climate scientists (and they’re the ones who have been studying this).”

    Having a PH.D only means you did more schooling, maybe wrote a few well written thesis. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can read data better than a guy with a high school diploma. Sure it helps to have the PH.D., but a mathemetician like Freeman Dyson who merely has a B.A. in mathematics has a greater ability to read and decipher data and draw conclusions than most people with higher degrees of “official” education. Likewise, I have met people who self taught themselves in subjects to a higher degree than those with formal educations in the same subjects.

    As for political petitions, one could argue that most studies are politically funded, with a preconceived outcome sought. The cigarette study..Scott, thats a low blow!!! LOL As a smoker who is only 5% cured (i take breaks away from smoking on a daily basis), I contend that while tobacco MAY be bad for me, it conclusively cant be proven as the cause for lung cancer….the majority of smokers never contract the disease….I blame it on dirty air from other sources,a nd maybe illegal asbestos installations ….um….err…okay so I havent got much evidence, but allow myself to invent a university to bestow a PH. D upon myself real quick!!!

  10. #10 by Scott Erb on June 24, 2009 - 18:48

    Yeah, but given how little I understand about science, if I’m going to take a stance on climate change, I’m going to listen to those who have studied it. Having a Ph.D. and being a climate scientist matters in my book. This is a complex and specialized field, and learning — passing exams and showing the capacity to research and understand research — makes a difference. Perhaps someone can self-teach the intricacies of climate science, but if I’m going to seek expertise, I’m not going to gamble that some guy who signs a petition effectively taught himself the chemistry, physics, and all that it takes to understand this. I’m going to the people with proven track records.

    I mean, yeah, Doctors only have more schooling, and maybe my neighbor who says he’s taught himself how to remove gall bladders perfectly is better than the doctors at the hospital. It’s possible. But if my gall bladder starts to go and I need surgery, I’ll stick with the guy with the formal schooling and degrees.

  11. #11 by Mike Lovell on June 24, 2009 - 18:51

    “But if my gall bladder starts to go and I need surgery, I’ll stick with the guy with the formal schooling and degrees”

    Ahh..you spendthrift!! Learn to live on the wild side by being cheap about it!! LOL…however, once I allow reality to set in (I think I have a good 5-7 years before THAT happens), I’m with you on that example.

  12. #12 by Scott Erb on June 24, 2009 - 18:59

    Actually, my wife’s brother is visiting, and he just had his gall bladder removed. It is horrible. He can’t eat fried food, he can’t eat grilled food. He can’t drink coffee, he isn’t supposed to drink alcohol, and is to avoid fatty food and sweets. He won’t have those restrictions forever, but it certainly makes me want to take care of my gall bladder…though I’m not sure how one does that…

  13. #13 by Josh on June 24, 2009 - 19:11

    We shouldn’t just brush aside what the majority of climatologists are saying, but I think it’s dangerous to allow our way of life to be dictated by a select group of people. Are we just going to follow whatever the educated majority believes?

    If someone is really convinced that humans play a central role in global warming, that is fine as long as they have really thought about their decision. If someone believes otherwise, that’s fine as long as they have thought through their decision, also.
    As for me, even though I’m not convinced about global warming, I bet my carbon output is probably pretty small anyway. I think that may be true of many global warming skeptics.

    One more thought: even if some crazy catastrophe does happen, how will we ever REALLY know for sure it was caused by man?

  14. #14 by Scott Erb on June 24, 2009 - 19:39

    We never know much of anything “for sure.” But with the evidence we can probably make intelligent assessments. Josh, you’re moving a step beyond what I’m saying. I’m not sure what to do about it, and certainly not about government policies. I really am not sure how we should respond. I’m looking only at the question of whether or not I think global warming is occurring, and that human activity is part of the causal factor. That part is a science question, not a political question. But what we should do about it, if we should make real changes in our behavior, if these should be mandated by government, if they need to be international in scope…those are all political questions. Clearly the political is informed by the science, but it has to go that direction.

    What I don’t like is if people choose to look at the science in a way to support their political preferences. But I’m not sure what we should do…I suspect that moving to alternate fuels is a win-win due to the fact oil supplies may run out, and the technology gained probably will help our economy. But I’m not advocating major government regulations to deal with global warming, I honestly don’t know what to do!

  15. #15 by Josh on June 24, 2009 - 20:35

    That’s fair. I didn’t mean to suggest that you were advocating regulations, but there seems to be politicians and other powerful people who do.

    I want to be sure I’m convinced before endorsing something. I’m not convinced of many global warming theories, but on the other hand, I won’t be swayed by Limbaugh’s simplistic dismissals either. It takes work to be able to prove OR disprove something. So for the question about whether global warming is man-made, I really can’t be sure (although I tend to argue against it more often than not).

  16. #16 by Kate on June 25, 2009 - 05:02

    Scott, were you prompted by the Coeur Alaska decision this week? (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08slipopinion.html – First slip opinion at the top.) If you have time, its an interesting read, and not just from my law geek’s perspective. I say interesting to be polite – from an environmentalist’s perspective, its infuriating. Defeats the entire purpose of the CWA. The justices found ambiguity and deferred to an internal memo not subject to the Administrative Procedure Act’s public notice and comment standards. On the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, no less. I’m interning at SEACC this summer. Needless to say its been a heck of a week. Would love to get your thoughts when you get a chance, I know Summer Experience week is always busy.

  17. #17 by juliekinnear on June 30, 2009 - 18:10

    nice thoughts…there is only one way how to really live green. you have to understand the spirit of nature, to complex circle of life…

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