Sunday, September 11, 2016

2441. Anthropocene Promoters and the Sixth Mass Extinction

By Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth, May 2016

Editor's note: The following is from "The Most Dangerous Worldview" pp. 71-79 in E. O. Wilson's Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life (Liveright, 2016). It is reprinted here because of Wilson's apt critique of the small but growing hyper-anthropocentric current in the ecology/enviromentalist movement that unabashedly views nature as Man's Dominion. It includes most of the chapter; minor sections deemed not immediately relevant are left out.  KN

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Not everyone claiming to be a conservationist agrees that biodiversity should be protected intact. A small but growing minority believe that humanity has already changed the living world beyond repair….A few of the revisionists urge the adoption of an extreme Anthropocene worldview, in which humans completely dominate Earth and surviving wild species and ecosystems are judged and conserved for their usefulness to our species. 

In this vision life on earth, wildernesses no longer exist; all parts of the world, even the most remote, have been adulterated to some degree degree. Living nature, as it evolved before the coming of man is dead or dying. Perhaps, extreme advocates believe, this outcome was foreordained by the imperatives of history. If so, the destiny of the planet is to be completely overtaken and ruled by humanity—pole to pole, of, by, for us, the only species at the end of the day that really matters.

There is whisper of truth in this opinion. Humanity has delivered a blow to the planet not even remotely approached by that of any other single species. The full scale of the assault, in common parlance of the Anthropocene called “growth and development,” began at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It was foreordained by the extermination of most of the mammal species in the world more than ten kilograms in weight, collectively called the megafauna, a process begun in Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and thereafter increased in stages enabled by technological innovations. 

The decline of biodiversity has been more like the gradual diminishing of light than the flick of a switch. As the human  population multiplied and spread around the world, it almost always strained local resources to their local limits. Doubling in numbers, then doubling again, and yet again, people fell upon the planet like a hostile race of aliens…

The extirpation of biodiversity proceeds in a measure equal to that of the spread of mankind.  Tens of thousands of species fell to the ax and the pot. As we’ve already seen, at least a thousand species of birds, 10 percent of the world total, vanished when the Polynesian colonists swept across the Pacific on double canoe and outriggers island to island from Tonga to the most distant archipelagoes of Hawaii, Pitcairn, and New Zealand. The early European explorers of North American found that the megafauna, possibly once the richest in the world, had already been wiped out by arrows and traps of the Paleoindians. Gone were mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed big cats, oversized wolves, huge soaring birds and gigantic beavers and earthbound sloths. 

…The Conservation movement, born in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, came late, but mercifully not too late to save what is left of our fauna and flora.  

The concept of conversation for its own sake has spread around the world, to the extent that by the early twenty-first century a great majority of the world’s 196 sovereign national states had natural national parks or government protected reserves of some kind. The concept has been successful—but only partly so in numbers and quality. … The species extinction rate in all such habitats around the world, estimated from data on vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs and other amphibians, fishes), has reached about a thousand times the prehuman baseline, and is accelerating. 

The shortfall of the conservation movement has been the focus of the new Anthropocene ideology. Its proponents claim in essence that traditional efforts to save the Earth’s biodiversity have failed. Pristine nature no longer exists, and true wildernesses survive only as figment of the imagination. Those who see the world through the lens of Anthropocene enthusiasts work off an entirely different worldview from the traditional conservationists. Extremist among them believe that what is left of nature should be treated as commodity to justify saving it. The surviving biodiversity is best judged by its service to humanity. Let history run its seemingly predetermined course.  Above all, recognize the Earth’s destiny is to be humanized. For those sharing most or all of this vision, the Anthropocene is intrinsically a good thing. What remains of nature is not bad, of course, but the bottom line remains that even wildlife must earn its livelihood like everyone else.  

The ideology, which some of its proponents call the “new conservation,” has led to a variety of practical proposals. First and foremost, nature parks and other reserves should be managed in a way that helps them meet the needs of people.  And not all people, but implicitly those of us alive at the present time and into the near future, with our contemporary aesthetics and personal values made decisive—hence forever. Leaders who follow Anthropocene guidelines will take nature past the point of no return, whether the countless generations to come like it or note. Surviving wild species of plants and animals will live in a new amity with humans. Where in the past people entered natural ecosystems as visitors, in the Anthropocene Era species composing adulterated fragments of the ecosystems are expected to live among us. 

Leading Anthropocene enthusiasts seem unconcerned with what the consequences will be if their beliefs are played out. They are free of fear as they are free of facts. Of them the social observer and conservationist Eileen Crist has written:
Economic growth and consumer cultures will remain the leading social models (many Anthropocene promoters see this as desirable, while a few are ambivalent); we now live on a domesticated planet, with wilderness gone for good; we might put ecological gloom—and—doom to rest and embrace a more positive attitude about our prospects on a humanized planet; technology, including risky, centralized, and industrial-scale systems, should be embraced as our destiny and even our salvation. 
Erle Ellis, an environmental scientist at the University of Maryland, has posted a fierce credo meant to help environmentalist prepare for the new order: “Stop trying ti save the planet. Nature is gone. You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene—a geological epoch in which earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere are shaped primarily by human force.” 

What passion drives the human juggernaut? It is manifested in the ordinary experience of our daily lives and in unquestioned idioms of our language. Crist continues her analysis:
Takeover (or assimilation) has proceeded by biotic cleansing and improvement: using up and poisoning the soil; making things killable; putting the fear of God into the animals such that they cower or flee in our presence; renaming fish “fisheries,” animals “livestock,” trees “timber,” rivers “freshwater,” mountaintops “overburden,” and seacoast “beachfronts,” so as to legitimize conversion, extinction, and commodification “ventures.” 
Anthropocene enthusiasts are, of course, not entirely lacking in ideas on how to preserve biodiversity in the new order. Chris D. Thomas, a conservation biologist at the University of York in United Kingdom, has managed to work around masses of published contrary evidence to posit that the ongoing extinction of local species will be balanced by alien species now being spread by people around the world.  These, the expert assures us, will help to fill gaps in ecosystems that are either naturally low in biodiversity or else pauperized by human activity. Hybridization between the aliens and the surviving native species will further bolster the number of varieties and species.  And we must keep in mind, he reminds us, that mass extinction during the geological ages were followed by surges of new species. Of course, the process took millions of years. It does not seem to matter to Thomas that future generations will be peeved to learn that the evolutionary restoration of biodiversity will require an amount of time five millions or longer, several times that of the span needed to evolve the modern human species. Nor is it a major impediment that a significant fraction of alien species turn into invasive species, costing the world many billions of dollars annually.

If the preservation of Earth’s living heritage depends on just leaving the heart of biological conservation in place safely, who could think differently? One prominent person who thinks differently has been Peter M. Kareiva, a leading light of the :new conservation” philosophy. He acquired an influential pulpit as chief scientific officer of The Nature Conservancy in 2014.  In public speaking and writing for the academic and popular press, he has been the leaders pf those who attack the existence of wilderness. In his opinion there are no pristine areas left on Earth. The regions they long ago occupied should therefore be opened to people for more sensible management and profit.  Instead of wildernesses, Kareiva prefers “working landscapes,” presumably as opposed to “lazy and idle” landscapes, thereby making them more acceptable to economists and business leaders. 

But this assault on wilderness is based on an etymological error. Nowhere in the U.S. Wilderness Act do words like “pristine” appear.  Surely Kareiva and others of like mind are also aware that the word “wilderness” refers to undomesticated places not yoked to the human will. In the parlance of conservation science, “wilderness” means large area within which natural processes unfold in the absence of deliberate human intervention, where life remains “self-willed.”  Wilderness have often contained sparse populations of people, especially those indigenous for centuries or millennia, without losing their character. And areas of wilderness, as I will document shortly, are real entities. They cannot be defined out of existence. 

Other Anthropocene optimists have a different kind of hope: many extinct species, they believe, can be brought back to life, providing we can obtain enough preserved tissues to map their genetic codes and clone entire organisms. Examples favored for de0extinction, as this process is called, include passenger pigeon, mammoths, and Australia’s wolflike thylacine. Presumably, the ecosystems that each species require to survive will be intact, or else can be re-created, for each species, with the original niches, or somehow made available. 

Meanwhile, over the realm of popular literature, Emma Marris, journalist and author, offers a cheerful picture of semi-wild species kept for human benefit in places scattered about in the gardens of a new smart planet. In her view, we should abandon forthwith the idea of untrammeled wilderness, a “cult” born and peddled in America that has “lurked behind conservation organizations mission statements” and unfortunately has managed to “saturate nature writings and nature documentaries.” Such fallacious thinking must be tempered, Marris warns.  Our true role as rulers of the planet is to turn biodiversity into a “global, half-wild rambunctious garden tended by us.” 

It has been my impression that those most uncaring and prone to be dismissive of the wildlands and the magnificent biodiversity these lands still shelter are quite often the same people who have had the least personal experience with either. I think it relevant to quote the great explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt on this subject, as true in his time as it is in ours: “The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” 

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