(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.