Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Preservation of Human Habitat

From The Nature of Economies, by Jane Jacobs:

Think about habitats people have dwelled in and altered but haven't destroyed. Ask yourself, 'Why haven't they?' After all, people could have destroyed them...

And yet in most places, most of the time, people have managed to avoid destroying their habitats, including many they've occupied long and continuously. What could possibly have restrained our species? Something did, or else much of the earth, long, long since, would have been laid waste, then laid waste again as fast as it recovered- when it did recover. I'm speculating that our evolutionary endowments, like those of the great cats, elephants, bonobos, chimps, and others, must include traits that check habitat destruction.

Jacobs lists several possible human traits that could contribute to our failure to destroy the world (so far), including "the capacity for aesthetic appreciation," "fear of retribution for transgression" which she says covers both primitive superstition and modern scientific fear, and the propensity to engage in alternate occupations that don't affect the environment, such as talking or having recreational sex - she compares us to bonobos and chimps with their habit for sitting around grooming socially instead of eating everything in sight. She also includes "our inborn capacity to tinker and contrive" which I am less persuaded by. If human tinkering has in some cases relieved stress on the environment, it has certainly increased environmental stress in as many or more situations.

It's an interesting idea, that humans may in some ways be evolutionarily predisposed not to destroy environments when we have so much evidence that in fact, humans destroy environments. I only have to look out my back window and see the little rabbit that lives in my neighborhood making its way from one perfectly manicured lawn to another, for as far as the eye can see, and imagine the prairie that rabbit ought to be living in to understand that. And yet... the world is not a barren wasteland, devoid of all but cockroaches. Humanity certainly has the power to make the world a wasteland, or worse: with the nuclear weapons the United States owns, we could reduce the Earth from a planet to a large and mobile asteroid belt. And we haven't, yet. Obviously there are reasons why, and Jacobs has started me thinking about the idea, and what possible characteristics might be humanity's salvation here.

An ability to engage in long-term thinking seems to me to be right up there with aesthetic appreciation for why we don't destroy our own habitats. Even societies whose habitat modification only extends to domestication of herd animals know that allowing your sheep to eat every damn piece of grass in the field means next year you won't have any sheep. Long-term thinking plus basic self-interest means stewardship of the land, not raping it. But on the other hand, things don't always work out that way; Jacobs gives the example of cod fishing in Newfoundland, where scarceness of cod drove cod prices up, inciting cod fishermen to actually invest in cod-catching boats and such, leading to complete devastation of the ocean in that area in the early 1990s.

Earlier today a post I read on Balloon Juice made me consider another human quality that might act to preserve the environment. It was this post, comment #17, and it says, speculating on possible reasons for the invasion of Iraq, "It is a fairly safe assumption that they didn’t give a fuck about the various factions in Iraq. Some days I even doubt they care all that much about the oil and suspect they were just in a mood to trash a country. From a safe distance of course."

Whatever you think about the war, and whether it was begun over oil or family pride or foolish, misplaced idealism, consider that no one would read that and think, "But it's just not possible for someone to want to trash a country for no reason! People don't like to destroy things unless they really have to! Violence is something that you can only force into human discourse as a means to a good end!" Fact is, people do in fact like to destroy things, particularly other human things. And by things I mean people. Human history can be pretty accurately described as a series of violent atrocities committed by one group of humans on another, for a multitude of reasons, for as far back as we have records. It is still, in this enlightened age, somewhat counter-cultural to posit that war may be inherently evil.

The human desire to kill and/or disenfranchise large groups of other humans may not be a shoo-in for a characteristic that strongly defends the environment. War does have a nasty tendency to damage the air, water and land as well as those living on it. However, as Malthus said so long ago, war is a key check on human population, along with disease and 'immorality' like homosexuality and contraception. The bloodiness of the 20th century has surely reduced world population by large amounts. Anything that curbs human population growth, I would think, has some benefit to the rest of the environment.

Writing this, I am aware that it sounds morbid and cold, and it is. I am not even sure if its true or useful to view the situation this way. Fortunately, I'm not someone who has to worry about whether what I say is true or useful before I think out loud- or in type. Besides, I'm certainly not the first person who has ventured this opinion.

There will come soft rain and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire.

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly.

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

- Sara Teasdale, 1922

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