One man thinks we should. Stop worrying about what is happening to the planet – just kick back and enjoy the ride. That is the message of ecologist Chris Thomas’s new book ‘Inheritors of the Earth, How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction”. “It is time” he writes, “for the ecological, conservation and environmental movement to throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world.”
We’ve now become all too unhappily familiar with the ‘Anthropocene’, the word coined by Dutch Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen to describe this new age, the age in which Man has played havoc with the entire functioning of the planet. We’ve altered the make-up of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans, changed the climate itself. Glaciers are melting, sea levels rising. We’ve depleted biodiversity, plants and animals, and messed up their distribution. We’ve rerouted rivers, drained lakes, razed forests and covered the Earth in highways and cities. And all the while our own population has exploded, 7.4 billion today and an expected 9.7 billion by 2050.
What is there not to be alarmed about?
Anthropocenists (by that I mean the vast majority of ecologists who are concerned about the repercussions of human activity) propose that if we have the technology to so damage the planet, why can’t we turn technology to its healing? Hi-tech geo-engineering such as air cleaning plants, altering ocean chemistry to absorb more carbon, or capturing carbon emissions from power stations and factories. Maybe we could even modify the weather. A luxury travel company that promises perfect wedding weather for the big day thinks we can. Expert opinion says otherwise: “The scale of the Earth’s atmosphere is far too great to tamper with—at least for now.” according to meteorologist Bruce Broe.
But Professor Chris Thomas’s thinking runs on altogether different lines, and he’s nothing if not a glass-half-full man. In this age of mass extinction, he says, nature will do what it always does – fight back.
A quick summary of his thinking –
- Man is an animal and just as much a part of Nature as a bird or a fish
- Contrary to what we are constantly being told, Nature is thriving. There are biodiversity gains as well as losses, and “the number of species is increasing in most regions of the world”
- The essence of life is eternal change – everything lives, evolves, dies. There is no stasis in Nature. We need to embrace the change and forget about trying to hold back the hands of the clock
Taking each of those points in turn:-
Man is part of, not outside Nature
All life forms on Earth including humans, Chris says, are the result of natural physical, chemical and then biological processes. “I take it as a given that humans have evolved and everything we do is directly or indirectly a product of human evolution. We are part of nature, and in that sense we are part of the force of nature, rather than altering it.”
The Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, with Homo sapiens a relative newcomer emerging approximately 200,000 years ago. But our planet has never known another species like ours in terms of our exponentially developing technological abilities, which have enabled us to colonise all corners of the globe, and make momentous changes to the environment.
The biggest dead zone ever in the Gulf of Mexico courtesy of toxic waste from America’s industrial meat production, pesticides and herbicides poisoning the land, plastics polluting the oceans, failed nuclear power plants irradiating entire continents* – I see all these as the unforeseen and unwelcome backwash from acclaimed-at-the-time ‘advances’ intended to improve our efficiency, and make our lives easier and better. Yet for Prof Chris all the damage and pollution is ‘natural’, because all result from innovations emanating from the evolved human brain. And evolution is the law of Nature.
Furthermore, the Prof argues, “most of the ways we are changing the world are not completely unprecedented.” They are already present in some form, apart from human activity. To back up his point, he cites background radiation; beavers building houses; and leaf-cutter ants farming fungi. “Most of the things we are doing are kind of comparable to normal ecological processes.”
At first glance this idea seems preposterous. How can you compare Fukushima and Chernobyl with natural background radiation, a few beavers’ lodges with our megacities, or ants’ fungi with factory farms? But a new article in Chemical & Engineering News gives a measure of credence to Chris’s point. Apparently certain living organisms can and do make their own versions of as many as 6,000 chemical pollutants, some the exact equivalent of man-made chemicals now banned because of their toxicity. “You could call them naturally produced persistent organic pollutants,” says Reddy, a marine chemist at WHOI. There’s a public perception that humans have produced more halogenated compounds than nature has, he says. “That’s not necessarily true.”
Nature is thriving
It takes a brave man to make a statement like that when the world is on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020. But the Prof maintains that while it cannot be denied the overall number of species is declining, there are actually a greater number of species in many parts of the world. Take the UK for instance, he says. In addition to our native species, we are host to nearly 2,000 non-natives, like the house sparrow and the poppy.
(I’m not sure how wisely he’s picked his examples, since the house sparrow, with a population declining since the 1970s – by 50% in the country and by 60% in towns and cities – is on the red list of ‘species of high conservation concern’. The poppy isn’t threatened, but we’ve yet to see fields of golden wheat lavishly stippled with the poppy’s vivid red as we once did pre 1950s and the advent of industrial farming)
But, in support of the Prof’s ‘Nature thriving’ contention, there is the so-called ‘cocaine hippo effect’. By that is meant the flourishing colonies of animals in unexpected places – animals that may well be endangered or even extinct in their native habitats. Why ‘cocaine hippos’? Because there’s a small population of wild hippos in South America, offspring of animals who escaped the abandoned hacienda of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Every cloud has a silver hippo lining.
“In fact, thanks to introduced populations, regional megafauna species richness is substantially higher today than at any other time during the past 10,000 years’, according to a new study.
“Worldwide introductions have increased the number of megafauna by 11% in Africa and Asia, by 33% in Europe, by 57% in North America, by 62% in South America, and by 100% in Australia.
“Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but today has eight introduced megafauna species, including the world’s only wild population of dromedary camels.”
And in their new environments, these translocated species are often creating new beneficial trophic cascades. Take burros for example:
“In North America, we have found that introduced wild donkeys, locally known as “burros”, dig wells more than a metre deep to reach groundwater. At least 31 species use these wells, and in certain conditions they become nurseries for germinating trees”, say the lead authors of the study.
“Everywhere you look, there are species that are doing very well in the human-modified world. That is what I mean by nature is thriving,” says the Prof.
But though every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining also brings with it its cloud. The cocaine hippos, though thriving thousands of miles from their native habitat, are creating a little havoc of their own. With the damage to the environs they have decided to call home, and disturbance to native wildlife, they’re giving Colombian conservationists a few nasty headaches. Not to mention the threat to people – the hippos seem quite at home in town, as you will see from the video.
The thriving colony may thrive for this generation only, if Cornare‘s neutering program is successful.
The moral of the tale is surely, that though pockets of threatened species may flourish far from their native habitat, will we be able to say the same in 50 or 100 years time? We’d better not be relying on the cocaine hippos for the survival of their species. And there’s a reason why megafauna fit so well in their native habitats.
The essence of Nature is change. Embrace the change. We can’t hold back the tide
I can’t put the Prof’s point better than he does himself:
“We must become accustomed to thinking that the world will continue to change, rather than hankering after some rose-tinted past that it is no longer possible to return to.
“The idea that we are somehow keeping the world in a pristine natural state is a kind of mirage because the entire planet has already been transformed by humans. The reality is that the world is dynamic and the distributions of species are changing. You can try to intervene and keep things as they are, but this is not how the biological world works. With climate change set in motion, it will be impossible to keep things just as they are. What I’m saying is, go with the flow a bit more and choose carefully which fights you are going to fight because otherwise you are going to throw good money at losing battles.
“The rate at which we are moving other animals and plants around the world is the greatest it has been for at least the half-billion years. It’s like we have reunited all the continents into a new version of Pangea. We are connecting up the world. This is an unprecedented experiment. But the outcome will be that the most successful animals, plants, fungi and microbes will rise to the top. And with more robust species, you can expect future ecological systems to end up being more robust as well.”
It’s certainly true that many species are adapting themselves to a human-dominated world. Foxes, raccoons, coyotes and Canada geese are among the many species moving into cities. Coyotes too – one has even made a Chicago graveyard his home. There are wild boar in Berlin, peregrine falcons in the centre of London. Many of these animals are seeking refuge from hunting and persecution. Cities have become a safer place for them. And they are adapting to city life fast. Pavement ants appear to be thriving on discarded junk food. And in Britain, birds’ beaks have lengthened noticeably in the last 40 years, a true genetic, evolutionary adaptation to the prevalence of urban and suburban garden bird feeders. “That’s a really short time period in which to see this sort of difference emerging,” says Professor Jon Slate.
Professor Chris’s message is beguiling – he’s like a kind uncle patting us on the head and telling us not to worry, everything is going to be just fine. But I’m not ready to be that easily placated. I have profound misgivings. He may have hit the nail on the head with his prognostications for the future of the planet, but is that the planet we want to see? Three thoughts:
1 Am I wrong to think there’s a danger the professor’s contentions could do a lot of harm? If the message we’re receiving is you can’t hold back the tide, why should we bother doing anything? Let Nature and Fate take their course. After all, Nature is thriving, Nature will keep adapting and Nature will survive. So why trouble trying to check carbon emissions, why trouble banning plastic bags, why bother saving the tiger? Let’s just kick back and “go with the flow.” Life would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?
2 The Prof dubs life on Earth “an unprecedented experiment”, which he watches unfolding before him as if from on high. But it is an experiment in which animals, human and nonhuman, are getting hurt. Is sitting back and watching with fascinated scientific detachment an appropriate response to the sight of a slaughtered elephant with flies crawling over the congealing pools of blood where his tusks should be? Or a polar bear on shrinking ice, starving and unable to feed her cubs. Or the terror in the eyes of an orangutan infant, orphaned by human cruelty and greed. Creatures are suffering – now, today, and will keep on suffering if we don’t make every effort to put the brakes on this cruel ‘experiment’.
3 I’ve said this before, and no doubt I’ll be saying it again because I believe it to be true: “The mysteries and marvels of Nature we will never fully fathom. Nature is an irreplaceable treasure, and to lose even the smallest scrap of it is tragic beyond measure.”
So I’m afraid I cannot echo the Professor’s optimism. The future of the Earth he foresees where only the toughest few survive is a planet desperately diminished in richness and complexity. Species at threat right now have their own unique and vital roles within the complex web of life. We do not know all the ways their loss will impair our own survival. But we do know we will lose our delight, our constant surprise at their dazzling beauty, their awesome abilities, from the humblest woodlouse to the blue whale, king of the oceans. Every day we discover more wondrous beings we never knew shared our planet with us. And we’ve barely even begun to uncover the complexity of their thoughts and feelings, the secrets of their lives.
Above all, they too have a right to their life and a place to live it, untrammelled and free.
The good Prof says, “Appreciate the world for what it is, rather than spending time being sad that the world isn’t how you think it was supposed to be…”
But I’m with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the Earth crying.”
How about you?
*Radioactive contamination from Chernobyl detected all over the world – Global Radiation Patterns