My line in the sand

When it comes to the environment and our interactions with it, passion is definitely involved. There are a lot of different points of views that people have which can lead to very heated arguments. Everybody seems to have a different way of saving the planet. Or not save, I suppose.

Meaningful critiques can be difficult to make at times because the topic is so broad. Plus, labels like conservationist, environmentalist, naturalist are used interchangeably by some people, while others cut it finer. I just want to let my many, many, many readers (Or, perhaps it is just my parents… Hi Ma!) know exactly where I stand on topics that are important to me. Maybe after this, you will understand how I can love animals without just being an animal lover.

Things happen beyond the human timescale. This is important because life has been billions of years in the making, except we only get to emotionally connect with just a sliver of it… a human lifetime. Certainly, it can be hard to wrap one’s mind around the enormous differences in scale involved. I like the analogy of the Piraha tribe in the Amazon, made famous because they have no concept of numbers. More accurately, they have words for “one”, “two”, and “many”. That’s it. Those are all the quantities they need in their world. Good luck trying to get change for a $20. But we are all the same way at some point. Sure, many of us can really understand change in value over a 5, 10, 20 year period. We can relate to that. But changes over a 500,000; 50,000,000; 500,000,000 year period? A billion versus a trillion? It loses the emotional context. Or, in other words, they’re all just bigger than 2.

This affects my stance with the environment in 2 ways:

1. Ranges expand and contract over time. 130 years ago, there were Passenger Pigeons by the millions in Wisconsin. 400 years ago, there were Bison and Grizzly Bears in New York. 10,000 years ago, there were Mammoths in L.A. Many people are familiar with that concept of habitat destruction and contraction of species natural range. But the opposite is also true. 130 years ago, there were NO cattle egrets in the Americas. 160 years ago, there were NO nine-banded armadillos north of the Rio Grande. There are now. We cannot pigeon-hole plants and animals and say “This is outside they’re normal habitat. They don’t belong here.” What is a constant in a human lifetime might not be the case on a larger scale. This isn’t necessarily saying that all invasive species are ok, but we do need a better way of looking at biogeography and how it changes over time.

2. Biodiversity doesn’t happen instantly. Here’s a bold statement. The extinctions we have caused in the last 200 years may not be a bad thing. Am I insane?! Possibly, but hear me out. Extinctions have open up niches for life to fill. Unless its a total extinction of life, the loss of biodiversity has been a temporary thing. The extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago created an opportunity for other animals, mostly mammals, to exploit.

The problem again is time. Look at something more recent. Sure, we killed off the last of the Drepanis honeycreepers last century. I’m sure something will evolve into that role… in a few million years. Perhaps a Eurasian Sparrow will develop the tongue, the beak, or other traits needed for a nectivorous diet as opposed to its current omnivorous one. That takes time. This is my argument for biodiversity and saving endangered species. It took millions of years to get to this point with biodiversity. There is nothing inherently wrong about the extinctions, it is more a selfish desire than anything to enjoy what we have now. It may take millions of years to recover. I’d rather not wait that long.

Healthy individuals != healthy populations. We want healthy individuals. Healthy individuals can do things without second thought. In your everyday life, you don’t really think about things like eating, breathing, talking with someone else. If one is gravely ill, these everyday things can have serious consequences. If you look at any hospital show and their intensive care unit, you notice that precautions are made. Sterile, latex gloves have to be put on to touch a sick patient. An surgical mask might be needed to speak around the patient. Perhaps the sick individual has to be attached to a breathing machine. These normal, everyday activities can be major problems when someone is gravely ill. But only when they are ill.

In some ways, populations can be thought of with the same I.C.U. mentality. Healthy populations can withstand the loss of individuals through predation, disease, weather, etc. 400 rats predated in New York doesn’t put a big dent in the greater populations. Heck, there are probably 400 rats born every hour in cities. Unhealthy populations, it’s a different case. There are 450 Siberian Tigers; 400 dead tigers would be catastrophic to that population. That loss might be enough to drive the cats to extinction. In the lobelia series, as much as I’d like to share where all these plants are, it’s a big issue. Some species have less than 40 total individuals left. Normal activities like the public viewing them can drive the populations over the edge. There is even a case here in O’ahu where a specimen of super-rare Hesperomannia was killed because interested individuals wanting to take a look were stepping on its fragile root system.

Most of the time, what is good for the individual is good for the group. It is not always the case. A super healthy individual in a population of 1 is still a sick population after all. It is really the reason I bring this up. If there are many individuals of a species being given the best care, but they are all in separate institutions, no one population is very robust. People can intervene and get individuals together for mating, but healthy populations shouldn’t need our help to sustain themselves. The population is still in intensive care. As much as we give attention to special individuals, whether it’s Christian the Lion, or Koko the Gorilla, or the General Sherman Tree, we need to make sure that collectively, the populations are just as healthy as the individual.

Conservation is only the beginning. The habitat destruction, alteration, and general upheaval we have caused is very real. In an effort to keep species from slipping into extinction, we are trying to halt all these issues. Going back to the previous analogy, most of conservation is the I.C.U. It has to be. A lot of populations are in such grave conditions that we are doing what we can just to keep them alive. This effort to stop the bleeding is what comes to mind when we think about conservation.

But that is only the short term goal. We don’t want the patients just to survive, we want them to thrive. We want to see them out of the I.C.U., out of the hospital at some point. That is the bigger problem and also the more difficult. How do you live with an Indian Rhino, a Florida Panther, an Amur Leopard? We don’t have to worry about that now because we are more worried about them disappearing at the moment. But at some point, if conservation is a success, they are questions that we will have to answer. How exactly will we live with the flora and fauna of this planet?

Make no mistake, there are success stories. It’s just that the most successful ones happen to cause other problems. The plants and animals that have the most success at living with humans are typically known by another name: weeds and pests. House mice have spread all over the world; Dandelions need powerful weed killers to eradicate them from our backyards. It is a very disconcerting thought. These success stories live beyond our ability to control them easily. While life shouldn’t be controlled, that is exactly what we are doing right now with endangered species. If it is possible, will we give up that control? Can endangered Mehamehame become as weedy as dandelions? Will we be calling our local animal control officers to complain about Vicunas constantly eating our vegetable gardens?

I think I would like to close by saying that as strong as these statements are, I know I don’t have all the answers. There are better solutions out there. I can still be convinced otherwise. But we cannot be afraid to talk about these topics for fear of ridicule. Controversial topics within conservation/environmentalism need to be discussed to help figure out how we are all going to more forward. As I’ve said before; we already share the planet, we just need to share it better.

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2 Responses to My line in the sand

  1. papa says:

    waiting for this…..good job Ku

  2. Pingback: Legend of the Fall (Ashfall Fossil Beds) | Studia Mirabilium

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