Reflections in the wake of Earth Day 2012.
Earth Day is getting interesting. Discussions on conservation and environmentalism have gone cosmic. Some argue that much of the contentiousness of environmental politics, especially the divide between economics and environmentalism, represents the New Holy Wars.
Since the days of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, debate has raged on the relationship between human beings and nature. Should public lands be preserved untouched or made available for “wise and multiple use”? Is nature better left alone to achieve some perceived state of equilibrium or balance? Or is the very idea of a balance, stasis or equipoise, a steady state if you will, really a misperception of a world characterized by flux, upheaval, dynamism and change? Moreover, is mankind a “natural” part of the landscape or an alien invader, a destroyer of worlds? And which version of nature do we want to exploit, protect or restore?
Daniel B. Botkin, a leading ecological scientist, wrote a path-breaking book, a genuine intellectual stimulant, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twentieth-First Century (1990), which demonstrated how human misperceptions of a natural balance in nature actually obstruct solid, scientific efforts at protection or restoration. A revised and updated version of this book will be issued by Oxford University Press in August.
Botkin noted that even a very wild place like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, which “could persist with the least direct human intervention,” has, from the end of the last ice age until the time of European colonization, “passed from the ice and tundra to spruce and jack pine forest.”
The shift from tundra to spruce to jack and red pine, then to paper birch and alder, and then back to spruce, jack pine and white pine was driven by variable climate. “Which of these forests represented the natural state?” asked Botkin.
“If natural means simply before human intervention, then all these habitats could be claimed as natural, contrary to what people really mean and really want,” wrote Botkin. “What people want in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the wilderness as seen by the voyageurs and a landscape that gives the feeling of being untouched by people.”
Human beings, interacting with natural conditions and climate, have had a big impact on their environments since before Native Americans stampeded buffaloes over cliffs or set fires to drive game or cultivate crops. We have for millennia made choices — some good, some bad — about our landscapes, watersheds and natural world.
Ironically, we are now destined to be the instrument for saving, conserving or restoring nature whether we like it or not. There is no other choice. Inaction is not an option.
Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010), wrote a perceptive review last month of a new book by Emma Marris, The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (2011). Marris, says Ridley, explores the paradoxical truth “that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage it intensely. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by human beings.”
“‘A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem,’ she writes. ‘The ecosystems that look the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly wild.’”
To let aspen, willow and beaver return to Yellowstone, it was necessary to reintroduce the wolf, which reduced elk numbers. Mojave Desert tortoises demand control of ravens whose numbers have skyrocketed due to landfill sites.
Take an example from the Great Lakes. There would be no commercial or recreational fishing to speak of in the Great Lakes absent the exertions of the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) to cope with a parasitic invasive, the sea lamprey.
The sea lamprey infiltrated the basin, from the Atlantic, via the Welland Canal, which was opened in the early 19th century. Niagara Falls did serve as a kind of barrier until the Canal was modified in 1919.
A single sea lamprey can destroy 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime by attaching its mouth to its prey by means of suction. One metric used in the program is the wounding rate found on targeted fish species.
As the eel spread to all five of the lakes, it decimated both native fish and stocked salmon, which had been introduced intentionally, a human intervention in and of itself. An extensive program of trapping, pinpoint poisoning, velocity barriers (the sea lamprey is a weak swimmer) and introduction of sterilized males has been going on for decades. It is a very substantial investment without which there would simply be no Great Lakes fishery. Chris Goddard, Executive Secretary, and Marc Gaden, Communications Director for the GLFC, inform me that the total invested in this program over the decades amounts to nearly $450 million. The good news is that the entire fishery is valued at $7 billion. Some analysts have calculated a positive benefit-cost ratio approaching 17-1.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?