The expansionary habits of the human species simply
do not allow enough space for our fellow creatures.
Empire of extinction
David Watson calls for a more modest human role in the biosphere.
An optimistic, problem-solving attitude can sometimes conceal a deeper despair. In 1995 India’s Environment Ministry moved to protect Indian butterfly and moth species under the Government’s Wildlife Act. Sensible enough! The measure came after two German tourists were caught trying to leave the country with 15,000 preserved butterflies and moths in their luggage. Should we feel relief at attempts to plug one of the myriad leaks in nature’s troubled reservoir, hope that some at least are grappling with a grave issue most of us did not even suspect existed? Or numb our grief, knowing that the guardians cannot block every gate nor staunch every haemorrhaging wound? ‘Man the exterminator has designs on everything that lives,’ the misanthropic philosopher EM Cioran once quipped. ‘Soon we will be hearing about the last louse.’
For me these two smugglers exemplify a narrow self-interest driving both individuals and international institutions toward the abyss. But they were the only ones intercepted, not the 50, perhaps even 100 who got away. In a world where humans are the measure of all things and sole repository of value, every unique manifestation of life becomes merchandise and rare butterflies have little chance of living out their own evolutionary destiny. Sadly, such macrocosmic insults as dam construction, logging, the use of biocides, and urban sprawl dwarf the collector as a threat to butterflies and their habitat. And as a single moth goes, so may a flower, and other members of a small and complex community of life utterly indivisible, and invisible to us.
Those moths and butterflies that do eventually succumb will join an accelerating danse macabre of extinction brought about by our clever species during the last few centuries, especially the last few decades. Some victims are already gone: the Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Woodland Bison, Eskimo Curlew, Dodo (and with it a plant dependent for its germination on the passage of its seed through the Dodo’s digestive tract). Others are sliding irrevocably toward the chute: rhinoceros, elephant, tiger, piping plover and countless other creatures vanishing before we even know of them. Like the Auk, so utterly extinguished by the mid-1800s that some thought it apocryphal, these creatures will one day be considered as fabulous as we today consider the unicorn. It will matter little to our grandchildren whether they once lived or were mere inventions.
It’s easy to find scientists and lay people who consider this sense of loss mere sentimentality unworthy of our status as ‘the lords and possessors of nature’, to repeat Descartes’ unhappy phrase. After all, extinction is natural and inevitable, they are quick to remind us. Trying to save species that have lost in the competition between the ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ is to turn back an inexorable clock. There is little room for such beautiful losers in the ongoing march of progress.
Extinction may be natural. But today countless species are more like the victims of Latin American death-squad regimes, being made actively to ‘disappear’. Rising human population is widely considered an underlying cause of the contemporary die-off along the bulldozer’s blade and chainsaw’s teeth. Ecological collapse is typically represented by a landless peasant slashing the forest with his machete, or a tribal woman carrying a bundle of sticks on her head and a hungry child on her back.
To be sure, the ascending J-curve of rising human numbers, accompanying the vertiginous obliteration of countless other species, leaves a stunning impression. Yet sheer numbers do not totally explain the current mass-extinction spasm. We need to look beyond the numbers, at social structures, at an energy- and commodity-intensive development model and the social and historical causes of extreme poverty. While they comprise only 25 per cent of the world’s population, industrial nations account for 75 per cent of energy use and consume 85 per cent of forest products. US per-capita energy consumption is 250 times greater than in many poor countries. Obviously daily life in the North contributes far more to ecological destruction than population growth in the South. On a global scale, according to one US official, the impact of the world’s poorest people is ‘probably more akin to picking up branches and twigs after commercial chainsaws have done their work’.
There is a wide divergence of opinion about planetary carrying-capacity and the human numbers that can adequately be supported (though there are copious signs that our ability to feed ourselves is declining due to abuse and over-exploitation of our food sources). But even if some believe we can provide a decent life for twice the number of people now living, no thoughtful person could possibly doubt the disastrous effect such numbers will inevitably have on other species. How many people the earth can support is the wrong question. We also need to think about what kind of life we want: crowded into an urbanopolis with a landscape entirely marshalled to meet our ever-expanding needs; or in community with other species in a green world at least something like the one in which we evolved. The latter is the kind of planet that will make it possible for all species to flourish, along with essential wilderness and diverse land and ocean habitats. That will be the best world for us too, but it will necessitate fewer of us.
There is a ‘nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw’ idea that human depredation and consequent mass extinction are entirely natural. According to this view even Palaeolithic humans, being an intrinsically murderous lot, carried out their share of mass extinctions: for example, supposedly wiping out many large mammals in North America. Yet there is little hard evidence, and much reason to doubt – except in obvious cases of extinction on islands, like that of the flightless Moa of Aotearoa/New Zealand – that mass extinctions were caused by prehistoric foragers and hunters.
Farley Mowat, in his book Sea of Slaughter, gives us a dizzying description of the carnage perpetrated on the animals of the North American eastern seaboard by explorers and entrepreneurs. He points out that the Great Auk co-existed with human hunters for millennia. But it succumbed in a couple of hundred years to the mechanized, market-driven empire that was only a quaint precursor to our own. We can remain agnostic about whether or not our distant ancestors foolishly fouled their nest. It is pretty much irrelevant to the reality we face now: an immensely brutal and thoroughly anthropocentric civilization ravaging the earth, ostensibly in our interest. The scale and scope of such devastation is unprecedented in the history of our species.
This civilization’s arrogance is evident in our scientific tradition’s urge to expand what Francis Bacon called ‘the empire of man’. But it goes back even further. The Judaeo-Christian biblical edict granted us ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ Now many animals mentioned in the Bible are going the way of the Dodo – Jonah’s whale, the Persian Wild Ass on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the Nubian Ibex, the Arabian Oryx which Isaiah tells us was trapped in nets.
Human dominion has done these creatures little good; most have fallen forever into our nets. The image of a human imperium oppressing the rest of nature is no mere metaphor. It conforms to an actual pattern of imperial conquest, plunder, eventual exhaustion and collapse. Our century has given a privileged layer of humanity an industrially organized life more opulent, more wasteful yet also more frenetic, alienated and depressed than that of any ancient hierarch. We’ve transformed the earth into a giant mine and waste pit, its forests and meadow lands into enormous feed lots for billions of stock animals, its waters into cesspools devoid of life, its skies into orbiting junkyards of contaminated rocket debris. The world’s tallest mountains are littered with expedition trash. Ships at sea do not go a single day without seeing plastic garbage. Giant nets 30 miles long drag the oceans killing millions of sea creatures, including birds and mammals. These are simply ‘by-products’ to be tossed overboard. The whole planet has become a war zone generating a bio-crisis not just for individual species, but for entire webs of life.
Human beings are now altering the basic physiology of the planet. Industrial smog can be found everywhere over the oceans, and weather patterns are so distorted that climatologists now discuss ‘climate death.’ Industrial contamination is pervasive, even in the fat cells of Antarctic penguins. The rain is not only acid but toxic. Whether industrialism warms or cools the atmosphere, its unprecedented chemical experiment threatens to reconfigure life in ways barely imaginable, but undoubtedly for the worse.
All empires turn out to be relatively short-lived enterprises that finally betray their own subjects. Despite its enormous cost to the rest of life, modern civilization has engendered a mode of existence that fails to provide even the barest essentials for a fifth of humanity or to satisfy the fundamental psychic needs of the rest. Strangely, our very anthropocentrism may be our own undoing. Pragmatic self-interest alone should teach us that we must change before nature exacts inevitable revenge. And nothing can be done, North or South, without social strategies that create institutions to provide practical alternatives and thus opportunities for people to change.
Yet meaningful subversion of the ‘empire of man’ requires more than enlightened self-interest or even social justice. It means real transformation, a cultural practice that considers all life a larger community deserving of our solidarity. In the process, people may discover that limiting our numbers and consumption, living more simply so that others (human and non-human) may simply live, brings ineluctable rewards of its own.
Such recognition suggests precisely that spiritual dimension which is missing from modern life and its frenzy of accumulation. For the last few years I have practised T’ai Chi, an ancient, meditative martial art that names many of its postures for animals such as monkeys, cranes and tigers. I have often wondered what would become of a practice inextricably woven to such creatures when human hubris finally extinguishes them. What will become of our own spirit when inspirited creatures we invoke are gone from our midst? Who – and what – will we be? When will we realize the lifeforms and life-webs we’ve slaughtered and abused are our own larger self, as many native peoples, radical ecologists and other ‘counter-traditions’ remind us? Only with this awareness will we begin the necessary process of renewal that could make life worth living in the coming centuries.
David Watson is the author of How Deep Is Deep Ecology? (Times Change 1989) and Beyond Bookchin: Preface for a Future Social Ecology (Autonomedia/Black & Red, 1996).
Issue 288 Contents
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