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Chapter 1: Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife

Marine Conservation Home / Essays on Wildlife Conservation / NEXT: Marine Conservation Organizations »
Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt
By Mary A. Orland1

Late Industrial
Food acquisition and social structure

Late industrial societies such as ours are marked by highly developed technology and by the widespread use of computers and other information technologies. Advanced technologies are applied to agriculture to increase the efficiency of production, and include specialized farm equipment, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, scientific crop breeding and genetically modified organisms. Technology is also used to build dams and complex irrigation systems to increase agricultural production. For example, the water projects of the Central Valley of California collectively constitute the largest irrigation system in the world, supplying 3 million acres of farmland with water from over 20 major dams and 500 miles of major canals. Such major alteration of rivers has severe consequences for fish and other aquatic wildlife.

Another key characteristic of our current late industrial society is the abundant use of electricity and other forms of energy, as well as high resource consumption. This widespread wealth is considered to be both a cause and consequence of the high education rates and the democratic governments that protect people's rights in such societies. However, widespread wealth and consumerism demands many natural resources, and subsequently has a strong negative impact on natural systems and wildlife. The information-processing, high tech work of late industrial societies, mostly does not require physical strength, which makes women at least equal to men in terms of their ability to perform in the economic system. As a consequence, women are gradually achieving social status and power nearly on par with men in advanced industrial societies.

In the other forms of human societies, it typically is observed that as agriculture becomes more efficient, human populations also increase. However, this pattern changes in late industrial societies, as birth rates become lower. In Western Europe and Japan, birth rates are currently below replacement rate (Population Reference Bureau 2004), which means that these countries will eventually begin to shrink in size unless they increase immigration (which they are doing). In the US, birth rates are currently at nearly exactly replacement rate (i.e. 2 children per woman), so that without immigration the US population would be expected to stabilize in a couple decades. This entirely voluntary curtailment of birth rates is unprecedented in human history. Unfortunately, countries with low birth rates are still having high environmental impacts as a result of high immigration rates and high per capita rates of consumption of resources. The stabilizing of the global human population and a decline in per capita consumption of natural resources in advanced industrial societies will undoubtedly be necessary for the survival of wildlife, preservation of natural places, and ultimately the continued well-being of human beings around the world.

The voluntary curtailment of birth rates can be attributed to several factors (Montgomery 2004, Population Reference Bureau 2004). Most important is the high level of education of women, which provides them with greater economic opportunities and a greater ability to make reproductive choices using reliable methods of birth control. Also, the degree of specialization of late industrial societies requires many years of schooling, so the labor of children, which was valuable in on agrarian society, is of no value to parents in a late industrial society. In fact, rearing a child is a large economic cost, and it is estimated that a child born today to a middle-class, professional woman costs roughly 1 million dollars to its parents, both in terms of the money spent directly on the child's upkeep and in the wages lost for taking off time for child care. Not surprisingly, a major factor in the reduction of birth rates is the education and participation of women in the work force in late industrial societies. The education of women also appears to be an effective way of reducing birth rates in developing countries, and simply giving women basic literacy and arithmetic skills is correlated with dramatic reductions in birth rates. The reduced infant mortality rates and increased economic security of late industrial societies are also reasons for lowered birth rates, because parents do not need to have large numbers of children to ensure that some survive or to take care of them in old age.

Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
Modern society uses its technology and a capitalist market economy to create an environment for the maintenance of human populations that is largely buffered from the natural world, or at least apparently so. We feed ourselves and obtain other resources by participation in the economy. Whereas in a hunter-gatherer or agrarian society a drought might make people fear for survival, in our modern society a recession is what scares people, and the weather is something to be discussed in polite conversation. This is because crop failures in one part of the world can be compensated with increased production in other parts of the world. This disjuncture between the human and natural worlds results in at least three general worldviews toward nature. First is the view that nature and wildlife are primarily a resource to be exploited under the market-based system, similar to the attitudes held in early-industrialized societies. Second, there are many for whom nature is simply irrelevant, and so they pay little attention to it. The creation of human-altered environments and material abundance in such societies means that it is quite possible for a person to live a comfortable urban or suburban life and have almost no contact with wildlife, natural ecosystems, or even agricultural ecosystems, aside from an occasional mosquito or errant bird hitting a window.

However, the complex social and economic system upon which people depend in late industrial societies is based ultimately on the integrity of natural ecosystems. The realization of this fact has led to a third view toward nature, namely valuing ecosystems and wildlife for their own sake and for their direct and indirect economic value. The modern environmental movement in the US began in the 1960s and 70s, and was motivated both by concerns for human health and for preserving wild areas for aesthetic and recreational purposes. The human-health motivated policies are the backbone of agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is largely responsible for regulating pollutants entering the air, water, and soil. Considerable progress has also been made toward protecting wilderness, ecosystems and endangered species in the US, although more needs to be done to ensure that future generations will have access to the same natural heritage that current generations enjoy. The increasing power that humans have to alter the natural world has led to the view that Nature is something we can destroy, not something that can destroy us.

Ecosystems provide many key services to people, so the preservation of natural areas has direct economic and survival benefits for people. However, many people are motivated to preserve wildlife and natural ecosystems for aesthetic, recreational, or spiritual reasons. A look at the history of the relationship between humans and nature gives us a perspective on why this may occur. Human beings have spent most of their evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers living in natural ecosystems. People in agrarian societies also worked outside and kept close tabs of the weather and other natural processes. Urban environments and office cubicles are quite different than the natural settings in which people evolved, and this difference can lead to considerable stress. A good number of people in urban centers go to rural or wild areas to “get away from it all” in their leisure time. This preference for natural settings and wild creatures has been coined “biophilia,” and it is hypothesized to result from our inherent inclination to connect to natural ecosystems the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did (Wilson 1984).

People are also increasingly finding spiritual meaning in wilderness, a trend that reverses the historical tendency in western culture to see nature as less and less sacred (Gottlieb 1996). Some people feel that by connecting to nature they are connecting to something larger than themselves, perhaps to a divine source. Many Christian denominations are now finding Biblical passages that suggest humans should protect nature and wildlife because they are creations of God, and several major Christian churches, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist, have issued statements regarding the ethical imperative to care for the environment and use resources wisely. Perhaps the earlier interpretations of the Bible that justified domination of nature and viewed wilderness as evil were more the product of the agrarian mindset than actual commands in scripture. There are also movements in late industrial societies that strive to find a spiritual relationship to nature by trying to recapture an animistic view of nature like that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but it is unclear whether such an animistic world view could ever be widely practiced by a scientifically literate, urban populace. It may be fair to say that a comprehensive spiritual view of the world that encapsulates both humans and nature and that is consistent with scientific rationalism has not yet been fully developed or widely practiced. However, such a spiritual view may be in the future of humankind, and may indeed be key to the development of a just and sustainable global society in the future (Orr 1994).

Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
The technological ability of late industrial societies to alter natural ecosystems and impact wildlife populations is intense. Late industrial human society is now a global force on par with other natural processes. There is essentially no place on the Earth's surface where pesticides and other pollutants cannot be found. The amount of nitrogen in the chemical fertilizers used by farmers around the world is now greater than the total amount of nitrogen naturally fixed by all the plants in the world (Vitousek 1994). Over 40% of the terrestrial net primary productivity of the earth is used by humans, and 25% of the total earth's primary productivity. Depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer by the use of chlorofluorocarbons and related chemicals threatened to expose the entire earth to cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation until international regulations successfully intervened (Masters 1996). However, perhaps the most disconcerting of all the global environmental impacts of industrial society is global climate change.

Global Climate Change
Industrial societies run on large amounts of energy. Just think of all the electricity and gasoline you or your family use in a week, and then consider how many people do the same thing across the country, in addition to all the energy consumed by businesses and industry. Most of this energy currently comes from the burning of fossil fuels, such as natural gas, petroleum, and coal. When fossil fuels are burned they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and they are the single largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (Masters 1997). Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is known to raise the earth's surface temperature by reradiating energy back to earth, a phenomenon known as the “greenhouse effect.” Since the beginning of the industrial revolution the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 278 ppm (parts per million) to 373 ppm due to human activity, and is continuing to increase by over 1 ppm per year. Models predict that global average temperature will increase by 1.4 to 5.8°C by the end of the 21st century, and it is documented that the Earth's mean surface temperature already increased by 0.6°C between 1950 and the year 2000 (IPCC 2001).

These may not sound like large increases in temperature, but they can have very large impacts on humans and ecosystems. Indeed, some argue that the term “Global Climate Change” is a misnomer that underemphasizes the consequences to the public; this is potentially a Global Climate Disaster. The Arctic ice cap currently is over 20% smaller and 30% thinner than it was in the 1970s, and some scientists predict it will disappear entirely by the end of the 21st century (Figure 2). This will have dire consequences for wildlife species such as polar bears and many seals, whose primary habitat is arctic ice floes. Sea levels are predicted to rise on average 0.5 meters by the end of the 21st century due to global warming, which would inundate estuaries and coastal habitat. It could also put many major US cities below sea level, and much of the territory of low-lying countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh (Neuman et al. 2000). Bangladesh is already one of the poorest, most overpopulated countries in the world, and is an example of the fact that many of the countries predicted to be most negatively impacted by global climate change are those least able to cope, yet which have done the least to cause the problem. Overall, climate change is predicted to cause greater climatic variability in most places on earth, with more heat waves, wildfires, droughts, and floods. Not only would this likely cause greater storm damage, water shortages, and perhaps lower agricultural yields, but also species extinctions and declines even in protected areas like national parks (Malcolm and Pitelka 2001). There is also a small but scientifically plausible possibility that climate change could cause an abrupt change in climate by triggering “ice-age” type climatic conditions (National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Abrupt Climate Change, 2001). Overall, global climate change has the potential to cause profound economic disruption, and is likely to lead to great human suffering in developing countries and the loss of irreplaceable biodiversity worldwide.

It is important to emphasize that it is the overwhelming consensus among the international scientific community that 1) human activity has already caused some climate change, 2) more climate change will occur, and 3) the consequences of this climate change will probably be quite detrimental to humans and ecosystems (Pew Foundation 2004). Over 3000 scientists from Europe, North America and Japan who are specialists in climate science were polled on their scientific opinion, and fewer than 10 expressed any significant doubt about the existence and negative consequences of human caused climate change. Unfortunately, those who have a vested interest in continuing to utilize fossil fuels, such as the oil industry, have presented the degree of scientific controversy regarding climate change to be much larger than it really is. Such influences have been strong in the US, and as a result there has been little support for policies that address climate change. However, in Europe much more progressive actions have been taken to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, without sacrificing economic competitiveness (Blair 2003). Both Great Briton and the Netherlands saw an increase in the rate of economic growth after they reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the 1990's, perhaps in part due to the money saved by having a more energy efficient economy. The web site of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based in Switzerland, is a scientifically sound source for the latest information on climate change, as is the web site of the Pew Foundation Center for Climate Change.

extent of arctic polar ice cap, from 1979 to 2003

Figure 2: Comparison of extent of arctic polar ice cap, from 1979 to 2003. The melting of the arctic ice cap is predicted by scientists to be one of the first consequences of human-induced climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, and the entire ice cap may be gone in summers by the end of this century. The loss of the ice cap will have dire consequences for polar bears and other arctic wildlife as they lose their habitat. Source: NASA, as presented by NRDC. http://www.nrdc.org/globalWarming/qthinice.asp.

Biodiversity loss
Even though considerable action has been taken by late industrial societies, particularly the US and Canada, to preserve wildlife and natural habitat, there has still been a large loss in biodiversity as a result of intense alteration of natural ecosystems. Since 1600 2.1% of the world's mammal species and 1.3% of bird species have gone extinct (Primack 2002). The potential for future extinctions is even greater, as it is estimated that 12% of both mammal and bird species in the world today are threatened with extinction. These world averages do not portray just how threatened some types of wildlife are. For example, currently 39% of parrot species, 79% of deer species and 68% of iguana species in the world are threatened with extinction. Habitat loss and alteration is considered to be the single largest threat to biodiversity worldwide, followed by invasions of alien species. Extinction rates among plants and animals from current human activity are the highest seen since a large meteor hit the Earth 65 million years ago. That event caused a mass extinction that eliminated the dinosaurs and countless other species.

Grizzly Bear in California

Figure 3: California grizzly bear (Anonymous painting, 1856). Grizzly bears were once abundant throughout California where they had managed to co-exist with Native Americans for thousands of years. Like bears today in Alaska, they presumably fed heavily on the abundant salmon in the rivers as well as on a wide variety of other foods, with individuals roaming widely. EuroAmerican settlers, however, regarded them as competitors and as predators on livestock, and so hunted them into extinction. The last grizzly bear in California was killed in 1922.

THE FUTURE—WHERE ARE WE GOING?
The relationship between humans and nature has changed dramatically over the last 10,000 years. As human culture changes from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial, increasingly large human populations require increasing manipulation of the natural world to make food production efficient enough to feed so many people. The greater efficiency of food production leads to greater social complexity and professional specialization, which in turn leads to yet greater rates of cultural and technological change. The increasing need to control nature to provide food, combined with the increasing disconnection between humans and the natural world in daily life, is reflected in views toward nature and religion as society becomes more complex. During the five stages of human societies listed above, wildlife went from being synonymous with a divine power, to symbolic of a divine power, to the antithesis of a divine power, to a commodity for sale in a society that does not much recognize divine powers, to a precious, irreplaceable resource that must be protected. Perhaps the most important trend to keep in mind in the history of the relationship between humans and nature is that the ever-increasing alteration and exploitation of natural ecosystems for human use has led to a steady loss of wildlife, biodiversity and wilderness through time.

Many people, including the authors of this essay, believe that human culture is now at a turning point in history. The technological power of modern industrial society makes humans a truly global force, with incredible capacity to manipulate the natural world. The global scale of human power means that we also have a global scale responsibility to ensure that power is used wisely, because there may be no area or people left unravaged by our failure to do so. There are many positive aspects of late industrial society that foreshadow a sustainable society, such as low birth rates and an increasing valuation of nature and wildlife. Late industrial society has also brought high standards of living and personal rights, freedom, and opportunity to many people, and the increasing industrialization seen in many countries around the world may potentially bring these benefits to yet more people. However, the benefits of industrial society are in part brought about by rapid exploitation of natural resources, which has significant negative consequences for environmental quality and wildlife populations, and which will only increase in the near future as more countries become industrialized. The potential exists to overexploit the natural resources and systems upon which human society depends to the point where in the future many of the benefits of industrialization will be lost. In the process, many wild areas and wildlife populations are likely to be destroyed, and all for no long-term benefit. The challenge of the 21st century will be to figure out how to design a sustainable global society that maintains the benefits of industrialization indefinitely into the future, allows access to those benefits for more people around the world, and still preserves environmental quality and biodiversity. This is a complex and difficult task, and will itself be an incredible leap forward in cultural evolution. However, unless we do figure out how to create a just, sustainable, technologically advanced society, it is certain that considerable human suffering and loss of natural ecosystems will occur.

Stabilizing the global human population and figuring out how to feed and provide for the several billion more people that are expected by the end of the 21st century is one of the major challenges that we have to face in order to create a sustainable future (UNPF 1999). While population growth rates are constant or negative in the industrialized countries, many of the developing countries of the world still have the high birth rates and exponential population growth that is typical of agrarian societies. The United Nations estimates the global human population could increase to 9 billion people in the next 50 years, eventually stabilizing at roughly 10-12 billion people by the end of the 21st century (Figure 4). This is about twice the number of people currently in the world, and it will be quite a challenge to provide an adequate standard of living for so many people when the earth is already showing signs of overexploitation by humans. Proactively managing our lands and waters will help these future generations to provide sufficient food for themselves.

Figure 4: Projected growth for the global human population.

Figure 4: Projected growth for the global human population. It is quite clear from this figure how important the curtailment of birth rates in developing countries will ultimately be to sustainability. Source: Population Reference Bureau.

With challenges this large in front of us, it may be easy to feel despair, or to feel that these problems are simply too large for you as an individual to do anything about them. However, there are many positive developments that give us hope. Population growth rates have naturally gone to zero or below in late industrialized nations, and have already slowed in many developing nations. There are promising new technologies for energy efficiency, non-fossil fuel energy, and carbon sequestration that could greatly reduce the threats of climate change, although bringing these technologies to market requires enlightened and aggressive political support. Standards of living, political freedom, access to education and human rights have been steadily improving in many countries around the world. Reduced birth rates come with increased education and development (Montgomery 2004). Large national preserves and legislation to protect wildlife and natural ecosystems exist in the USA and in many other counties, although it will take a global effort of managing all parts of the Earth to ensure the maintenance of biodiversity.

The Internet and the increasingly global nature of human culture aids in the development of international policies to respond to these global environmental challenges, although leadership likely has to come from the industrialized West. One thing is clear—for better or for worse, the nature of the relationship between humans and the environment long into the future will be largely determined in the next several decades. Whether we create a just, sustainable global society with protected natural areas, or a future of climatic catastrophes, wars between overpopulated countries for depleted resources, and near complete loss of wildlife and natural ecosystems, will largely result from the actions taken by the people of our generation. In this course we will provide you with some of the background needed for you to take part in creating a sustainable society. After that, it is up to you.

1 This chapter was written in 2004 by Mary A. Orland with input from Peter B. Moyle; Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis. It was modified from: Moyle, P.B. ,editor, 2004. Readings in Wildlife Conservation. University of California, Davis. © Regents, University of California.

References

Table of Contents

1. Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife
2. A history of wildlife in North America
3. Climatic determinants of global patterns of biodiversity
4. Biodiversity
5. Natural selection
6. Principles of ecology
7. Niche and habitat
8. Conservation biology
9. Conservation in the USA: legislative milestones
10. Alien invaders
11. Wildlife and Pollution
12. What you can do to save wildlife

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