Chapter 1: Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife
Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt
By Mary A. Orland1
HUMANS—THE CULTURAL ANIMAL
Why exactly do we humans have such an incredibly large influence on other species and the natural world? We are unique among animal species in that we survive and reproduce in a wide variety of environments through cultural adaptations (Richerson et al. 1996). In contrast, other species are primarily able to survive and reproduce due to biological adaptations that result from eons of natural selection and biological evolution. The cultural adaptations of humans have allowed them to colonize nearly every ecosystem type on Earth. In addition, cultural innovations have allowed the human population to grow exponentially for millennia. Such sustained population growth is unparalleled by any other species on the planet. The population of a typical species grows until it reaches the carrying capacity of its environment, then levels off or declines. In other words, it grows until it is fully utilizing the available resources, such as food and space. At this point mechanisms such as disease and starvation keep the population from continuing to grow. However, we humans have responded to resource scarcity with cultural practices and technologies that increase the availability of resources. We raise our food on farms and live in multi-story apartment buildings, increasing the carrying capacity of the environment for humans. This growth eventually requires yet more cultural adaptations to increase resources, and the alteration of the natural environment and the rate of cultural evolution is accelerated. Currently the global human population is large enough and the technologies that allow humans to manipulate the environment are potent enough that human-caused alterations to the biosphere are causing the extinction of innumerable wildlife species. If present trends continue, there will be an eventual crash in the human population that will bring great suffering and cause widespread environmental damage. This is the root cause of the modern environmental crisis. This chapter deals with how we got into the present situation from the perspective of cultural interactions with wildlife and wild lands.
RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN HUMANS AND NATURE IN DIFFERENT SOCIETIES
The following is a brief description of the various types of human societies, grouped according to their main mode of acquiring food and resources. Each of these types of societies is generally associated with certain types of social conditions and attitudes toward wildlife and nature. This way of organizing and describing human societies comes from a subdiscipline of anthropology called Human Ecology, which seeks to understand humans by how they interact with the natural world and with each other in order to survive (Richerson et al. 1996). This is essentially the way that ecologists understand other organisms, so Human Ecology fundamentally sees humans as another species of large social mammal living in the biosphere, while still recognizing their incredible uniqueness as cultural animals. Understanding the history between resource acquisition and attitudes toward nature provides a context for the history of wildlife in North America, which is discussed in the next chapter. It may also provide some clues about how our global culture needs to change if it is to create a sustainable world in the future. The sections below divide societies into five convenient categories for discussion, but they represent a continuum of culture and values, and there are of course exceptions to the sweeping generalities that are made. The important thing to know is the general trend in how different societies relate to nature, rather than how to categorize any given society.
Food acquisition and social structure
Hunter-gatherer societies obtain their food directly from “natural” ecosystems, by hunting wild animals and collecting wild plants (Richerson et al. 1996). This requires intimate, detailed knowledge of plant and animal species in the local environment. A hunter-gatherer lifestyle can support a relatively small number of people in most landscapes, so population densities of hunter-gatherer societies tend to be low. Most hunter-gatherer peoples also are migratory, traveling frequently in search of food rather than living in settlements. Generally each individual in the group is responsible for procurement of food, so there is little division of labor within the sexes. As a result, the social structure of hunter-gatherer cultures tends to be fairly egalitarian. However, this egalitarianism does not necessarily translate into peacefulness. Anthropologists have shown that the incidence of murder in hunter-gatherer societies is generally several times higher than even in the most violent modern cities, which is attributable to the lack of a centralized authority for settling disputes. There tends to be considerable division of labor between the sexes, with men usually responsible for hunting and women for foraging, in large part because it is difficult to take small children hunting. The status of women relative to men in hunter-gatherer societies tends to be roughly correlated with how important foraging is relative to hunting for supplying food, and disparity between the sexes is generally not as large as seen in agrarian societies.
Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
The direct dependence of hunter gathers on natural ecosystems for their food, and the intimate knowledge of the natural world that this requires, is generally reflected in their beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife. Such peoples commonly view themselves as inseparable from the natural ecosystems and wildlife around them (Gottleib 1996, Wilber 2000). Animals are often regarded to be another kind of people, or as spirit beings, who can be appealed to for help and protection. Rituals are commonly performed to show respect, gratitude and reverence for the animal-spirits, with the hope of promoting continued hunting success. Other rituals to influence natural events, such as the coming of rain, are also not uncommon in hunter-gatherer cultures. These literal beliefs in magic, ritual and fusion of humans with the natural world are often termed animism (Richerson et al. 1996, Wilber 2000). Examples of such beliefs toward nature are shown in both the traditions of numerous Native American cultures, and in the beautifully executed portraits of bison, deer, salmon and other animals in the caves of France by the hunter-gatherer ancestors of modern day Europeans. Humans worldwide lived in tribal, hunter-gatherer societies for most of their evolutionary history, and some anthropologists argue that we therefore feel most at ease in circumstances that mimic such societies. These circumstances include open settings with views of wildlife (or livestock as substitutes for wildlife), living in areas near water, and egalitarian social groups with frequent interactions with close family members and at most a few dozen members of the same culture (Wilson 1984, Richerson and Boyd 2000).
Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
Overall, hunter-gatherer societies are generally regarded as the best of all types of societies at coexisting with natural wildlife populations, because human population densities tend to be low and because this way of getting food involves the least manipulation of natural ecosystems. The much greater abundance and diversity of wildlife in North America as opposed to Europe at the time of European colonization, in spite of the roughly equal latitudes and areas of these continents, speaks directly to the relatively greater ability of hunter-gatherer societies to coexist with wildlife. It has been suggested that the ability of hunter-gatherer societies to coexist with wildlife is attributable to their magical, reverent attitude toward nature (Gottleib 1996). However, alternative arguments assert that hunter-gathers had relatively small impacts on natural ecosystems simply because they did not have the technologies to further manipulate nature, or the population densities that require such manipulations (Wilber 1996). It is known that the hunter-gathers of Asia, Australia, and North America caused the extinction of numerous large mammal and bird species by over hunting and altering the landscape through extensive use of fire, which suggests that even humans living in hunter-gatherer societies can have considerable ecological influence (Flannery 1994, 2001, Warren 2003). This is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.
Early Agrarian Societies
Food acquisition and social structure
Early agrarian societies obtain food not just by foraging in natural ecosystems, but also by planting species that are important food items and/or raising livestock. They may supplement the food they raise with hunting and foraging. Those early agrarian societies that focus on planting are called horticultural societies, whereas those that focus on livestock as the primary food source are called herding or pastoralist societies (Richerson et al. 1996). There can be considerable differences between these two types of societies, but we have grouped them both under early agrarian society for this discussion. Early agrarian societies are distinguished from late agrarian societies by the lack of metal plows, and beasts of burden to pull them. Most early agrarian societies have domesticated animals, although the indigenous civilizations of North and Central America and Australia kept only dogs. Examples of extinct horticultural societies include the Aztecs, the “mound building” Native Americans of the Ohio Valley, and the early agriculturalists of the Middle East of 10,000 years ago. Many wet tropical areas of the world still support horticulturalist societies that practice small-scale slash and burn agriculture. The poor soil of such regions usually cannot support the permanent, large-scale, plowed farming style of more advanced agriculture societies.
The greater efficiency and predictability of agricultural practices for obtaining food means that such societies generally have higher population densities than hunter-gatherer societies (Richerson et al. 1996). Permanent villages and small cities usually first occur in agricultural societies. The greater productivity of agriculture can support a more complex social structure with greater division of labor, because not everyone needs to work to procure food. This can result in the development of a ruling class, a religious class, and artisans, which further accelerates cultural evolution. This division of labor means that early agrarian societies often are less egalitarian than hunter-gatherer societies. The few human societies that are matrilineal, i.e. where family lineages are passed on by the mother and women have high status, are usually horticultural, a prime example being the matrilineal horticultural societies of SubSaharan Africa. In these societies, the stationary settlements and relatively easy physical labor needed to procure food allow women to contribute greatly to the food supply, and their status and economic power is greater as a result.
Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
The gods and goddesses of early agrarian societies begin to take on a human face rather than animal face, compared to those of hunter-gatherer societies. However, animals are commonly associated with particular gods and goddesses, and are often symbolic of a deity’s power. Encountering a particular species of wildlife may be construed as an omen from a god, but the power usually does not reside in the animal itself, but rather in its relationship to a deity. Animals often play important roles in the mythology of such cultures, and gods themselves may take the forms of animals. The “pagan” religions of Northern Europe are one Western example of an early agrarian religion. The mythology of the classical Greek gods and goddesses is also an example of these themes, although ancient Greek society itself was too technologically advanced to be properly categorized as early agrarian. A common religious theme in early agrarian cultures was the need to makes sacrifices to gods to incur their favor and ensure continued bounty (Wilber 2000). In herding societies these were usually animal sacrifices, and the Old Testament actually gives instructions of how to perform these. However, in horticultural societies human sacrifice was surprisingly common. Some of the early agrarian cultures of Europe and the Middle East practiced human sacrifice, as did the Aztecs and Ohio Valley horticulturalists of the New World (Richerson 1996, Wilber 1996, Warren 2003).
Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
Because their mode of procuring food involves manipulation of natural ecosystems, early agrarian societies tend to have greater negative impacts on wildlife. Areas used to tend desired crops are not available to support the full species complement of the surrounding natural plant community, and livestock often compete with other animal species for forage. Denser human settlements may over-exploit wildlife in the surrounding wild areas, even if they are not directly manipulating the habitat. However, horticultural and herding societies are generally confined to only certain climates and habitat types, and their population densities are still relatively low, so often with these societies there are still considerable undisturbed areas that provide habitat for wildlife. Increased birth rates are commonly observed when people transition from hunter-gatherer to early agrarian societies, and the denser, growing human populations place ever-increasing demands on the surrounding wildlife and natural ecosystems.
Late Agrarian Societies
Food acquisition and social structure
As agrarian societies evolve, techniques for planting and harvesting become more technologically advanced and more efficient (Richerson et al. 1996). Domesticated animals such as horses and oxen are used to pull plows, which increases yields. Beasts of burden are also used to mill grains, along with water and wind mills. Large-scale irrigation systems are often used, although even early agrarian societies may possess small-scale irrigation systems. Often late agrarian societies are highly dependent upon a small number of grain crops, such as wheat, corn, or rice. Crops are also grown to feed livestock, which are the primary source of protein. Natural ecosystems provide only a small amount of the food in such societies; nearly all of the food comes from the human-manipulated agricultural ecosystems.
The higher crop yields in advanced agrarian societies can support dense human populations and large cities because many people do not have to work to procure food (Richerson et al. 1996). This division of labor allows for the development of complex societies with a considerable degree of specialization. Writing is present is advanced agrarian societies, and there often are well-developed artistic, literary, and religious classes, all of which further accelerates the rate of technological innovation and cultural evolution. The social structure of such societies is often highly stratified. The monarchy and aristocracy often control all the land and therefore the supply of food. Much of the rest of the population is pressed into service as peasants, serfs, or other laborer class members. Classic examples of late agrarian societies include Medieval Europe, Chinese feudalism, the Indian caste system, and the American South before the Civil War. The greater physical intensity of labor involved with using large animals and plows made women less able to contribute to food procurement, which generally resulted in a lower social status for women in the nearly universally patriarchal agrarian societies. The need for farm labor motivated people to have large families, which combined with other factors, makes human population growth rates generally quite high in agrarian societies.
Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
Agrarian societies largely rely upon controlling and manipulating ecosystems to procure food, rather than on interacting with natural ecosystems and wildlife. Furthermore, the world’s great religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, all arose in late agrarian societies. The god or divinity of agrarian religions is often an abstract entity, not something material, and generally separate from wildlife or nature (Wilber 2000). Agrarian gods may have a human face associated with them in some form, but even this may be just a symbol of an unseen force. Animals are only occasionally associated with gods, and are certainly not in themselves considered to be in possession of great powers. In fact, particularly in the western agrarian religions, there was an active attempt to assert that humans were superior to animals, and that it was God’s will that humans fully utilize the natural world for their own benefit (Warren 2003). The wilderness was often considered a bad, evil place, and taming wilderness for farms and killing wild animals was as much a moral act as an economically beneficial one (Snyder 1990). There were also active attempts by agrarian religions in the west to suppress the practice of the more animistic and nature-oriented horticultural and hunter-gatherer religions, although we still practice the vestiges of old European pagan rituals during Christian holidays in the west today, such as Easter bunnies, Easter eggs and Christmas trees. It might be fair to say that late agrarian religions often have an “otherworldliness” quality to them, especially in the west (Wilber 2000). The school of Ecophilosophy asserts that the corresponding lack of sacredness in nature and the material world helped fuel the environmental destruction that accompanies this form of society (Wilber 1996, Gottlieb 1996).
Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
The impacts of agrarian societies on wildlife and natural ecosystems can be quite considerable, which is not surprising given both the high population densities of such societies and their increasingly potent technology for altering nature. When Western Europe was in a late agrarian stage of development, natural habitat and large wildlife species such as deer and wild boar were mainly found in either the aristocrats’ protected hunting grounds, or in areas too mountainous or too far north to allow for agriculture. The rich, thick soils of grasslands makes them especially amenable to agriculture, and nearly all the area of this ecosystem type in Europe, North American and Asia has been completely modified for human food production. The high population densities of agrarian societies also have high demands for firewood and timber, so it is not uncommon to see deforestation for firewood (and resultant accelerated erosion of hillsides) in such societies. The bare hills of much of the Middle East are the result of removal of forests thousands of years ago, followed by erosion of soils and intensive grazing by goats and other livestock. The grazing continues today, keeping the hills in a perpetual state of biological poverty and low productivity. However, agricultural societies can only exist in those climates that are amenable to growing the key domesticated crops, so often habitats that are too cold, mountainous, or dry (deserts) can escape being completely altered, and hence may provide wildlife habitat.
Early Industrial Societies
Food acquisition and social structure
The invention of steam engines and other machines to perform physical labor began the early industrial era (Richerson el al. 1996). Some of these technologies were applied to agriculture, which made food production even more efficient. This allowed for yet more urbanization and professional specialization, which in turn led to great advances in the arts and sciences during this time. Many people in early industrial societies make their livelihood producing manufactured goods, often in an urban center. It is quite possible for a person in an industrial society to live their entire life and have little or no direct contact with either natural or agricultural ecosystems. Industrial societies also brought about the extensive use of capital as the life-blood of the economy, which created markets for many specialized goods and began the creation of a mercantile middleclass that traded goods and managed capital. Western Europe and the United States were in an early industrial phase from the eighteenth century to roughly through World War I. China and some other industrializing Asian countries are often characterized as currently being in an early to middle industrial phase.
The burgeoning populations and sharp class structure of late agrarian societies may often provide a surfeit of workers to countries in the early stage of industrialization, and these workers often have no choice but to work for low wages under poor conditions. However, the concepts of modern democracy, civil liberties, and human rights were born in early western industrial societies, under the Enlightenment idea that “all men are created equal.” Scientific rationalism and the discovery of the fundamental scientific principles of Newtonian physics and Darwin’s theory of evolution also were developed during the early industrial era. The printing press was invented and literacy rates greatly increased. In industrial societies machines perform much of the labor performed by people in agrarian or horticultural societies. The status of women also usually begins to increase in industrial societies, presumably because economic productivity becomes less linked to physical strength.
Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
Different segments of society hold different attitudes toward nature and wildlife in early industrial societies. The new market-based industrial economy viewed wildlife and other products from natural ecosystems as goods to be sold on the open market. The result was the rapid plundering of wildlife by market-hunting, particularly in the western hemisphere (Warren 2003). This rapid plunder was aided by the attitudes toward wilderness as being “evil” or purely for human use, which were held over from the agrarian religious worldview.
However, the rational, scientific view of nature also arose during this area, exemplified by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many naturalists who painstakingly collected and documented the diversity of the Earth’s species, which helped people to develop an appreciation for the wonder of the natural world (Warren 2003). Concurrently, the Romantic philosophers such as John Locke, began to rail against the harshness of the industrial world, and argue than humans need to return to nature and a more natural way of being. The scientific appreciation of nature and wildlife combined with the sentiments expressed by Romantic philosophers and the work of artists and naturalists such as John Muir were some of the cultural forces that come together to start the conservation movement in the US and northern Europe during the early industrial era. This movement aimed to protect wildlife and nature from those who would overexploit it for financial gain or subdue it for its own sake. Yellowstone National Park and the National Park Service were established during the early industrial era of North America.
The increasing secularity of industrial society is seen by the fact that the arguments for conservation are generally not seen as primarily religious. It is easy to see how the intense exploitation of wildlife for markets reflected the view that nature is separate from humans. However, even the appreciation of natural places for their beauty, as reflected in 19th Century landscape paintings (Figure 1), contained the subtle message that humans are separate of humans from nature. In fact, the entire concept on looking at a “pretty view” in a natural landscape did not even exist in the West until approximately the 17th century, and is attributed by social scientists to the increasing psychological separation between humans and nature (Tuan 1982). It could also be argued that the increased scientific understanding of nature in this time was to some degree founded upon the separation of humans from nature allowing for an objective perspective. As complex as attitudes toward nature became during the early industrial era, perhaps they were all influenced by increasing separation of people from nature; thus, the livelihoods and daily activities of most people in industrial societies require little direct contact with natural ecosystems, wildlife, or plants.
Figure 1: 19th century landscape painting of the American West by Alfred Bierstadt (Storm in the Rocky Mountains, 1866, Brooklyn Museum, N.Y.). In the age before photography, gigantic paintings such as these introduced the people of America to the natural splendor of the continent, and helped create public support for the protection of wilderness.
Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
The influence of early industrial economies on nature and wildlife is considerable. Increasingly powerful technologies allowed for the exploitation of wildlife populations that had hitherto been protected because of remoteness or difficulty of hunting and fishing. For example, the railroad brought numerous people to the Great Plains, and harvesting of buffalo rapidly drove them to near extinction (Warren 2003). Likewise, better ships and harpooning technologies lead to the over-harvest of whales during the early industrial era. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the overexploitation of wildlife populations was ultimately driven by the demand of the market. Industrial societies are marked by economies based upon the flow of capital, and by demand for goods by a large population with ever-increasing wealth. The demand of market economies for wildlife nearly always continues to grow until wildlife populations are driven extinct or to very low densities. Thus, the tough leather of American bison hides made good belts for industrial machines in the Eastern US, and commercial hunting for this purpose was ultimately what drove them to near extinction. In general, tight regulations are needed on market-based exploitation of natural populations to prevent species loss, and indeed many of the first environmental laws passed during this era addressed market hunting. Of course, also driving the environmental degradation of early industrial society is the relatively high and ever increasing human population.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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