So I should probably say something about this article which George Monbiot wrote back in March: ‘Destroyer of Worlds‘. Quite a few writers I respect have been passing it on with apparent approval and no qualifying remarks about its … er, shall we say one-sidedness, bias towards premature conclusions, crass provocative rhetoric, deep misanthropy and/or implicit racism towards indigenous people?? I mean, I know he must be under pressure to keep up his pageviews with suitably controversial opinions but this was a real hatchet job IMHO. Just look at the strap line:
New research suggests there was no state of grace: for two million years humankind has been the natural world’s nemesis.
I found it a chore to go ahead and read the rest of the article after such a ridiculous opening line. New research = all well and good. Author’s interpretation rammed down my throat = no thanks, go away. Who has spoken about a ‘state of grace’? What is ‘the natural world’ and how can it have a ‘nemesis’ from within its own member species? If you take the article as a whole as a confession of how Monbiot feels – a sorrow for the loss of extinct megafauna coupled with a kind of hatred towards those he considers responsible for their demise – then, well that’s fair enough. But he insists on positioning it as an aggressive demand that the reader simply must share his reaction:
This article, if you have any love for the world, will inject you with a venom – a soul-scraping sadness – without an obvious antidote.
I must hate the world then, because, while I was interested to learn about the new findings and the ongoing debate about the Pleistocene megafauna, the only ‘scraping’ I felt after reading this article was a kind of deep irritation. Not so much an injection of venom, rather a kind of allergen resulting in a short-lived rash or hives or something. Didn’t see it on my soul though – maybe hidden on the back of my neck somewhere… I guess I was annoyed because I was just shaping up to take a look at this topic myself (what with my interest in aboriginal Britons and hunter-gatherer people more generally) but, just as the sediment was starting to settle enough for me to begin my careful examinations, along comes old George to jump feet first into the exact spot I was going to look at, muddying it beyond repair. FFS, now what am I supposed to do?
I tried going through a few of the scientific articles cited, went to the Oxford Megafauna Conference website and read the linked press articles and blog pieces and even tried listening to one of the talks (most of them are available on this page) before giving up after five minutes because the sound level was too low and I wasn’t really understanding what was being said anyway (I am still intending to go back and try to make sense of it at some point). There is plenty to give pause for thought admittedly, for example the far-reaching ecological effects of animal species like elephants and rhinos and how their disappearance would have drastically altered the environment of prehistoric Britain. But again the attribution of blame all seemed quite one-sided, and while there were many aknowledgements that some view climate change as the main contributing factor to these extinctions, these arguments were not presented in any depth or refuted on their own terms (although I may well have missed something). A BBC news report on the conference gave a more balanced appraisal, with conference organiser professor Yadvinder Malhi offering a few concessions:
One area that has proved to be somewhat divisive within the scientific community is whether the demise of many large species was the result of changes to the global climate system or human activity.
Two presentations at the Megafauna and Ecosystem Function from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene conference presented data from around the globe that looked at when species extinctions were recorded, and whether this coincided with the arrival of humans or a significant event in the climate record.
Both presentations – one by Lewis Bartlett from the University of Exeter (audio link), the other by Chris Sandom from the universities of Oxford and Aarhus (audio link) – concluded that, on a global scale, human arrival was a “decisive factor”. In other words, the creatures were hunted and displaced until they became extinct.
“When you look at the global picture with a consistent set of data, it is very hard to argue against a strong human role,” said Prof Malhi.
But he added: “It has been an area that has been hugely contentious for a long time, so I am sure there will be people who will say that the issue is still unsettled.”
I found a blog entry on Malhi’s website where he makes some further measured remarks, while making clear that he broadly agrees with Monbiot’s stance:
I find the evidence that humans had the primary role in causing the Pleistocene extinctions pretty convincing (with the possible exception of Eurasia, where climate change drove down populations in refugia and humans played a role in preventing these species from bouncing back as they had done in previous periods of climate change).
As for what it means for our sense of our place in nature, I think Monbiot is right in identifying that there never was a golden age in our relationship with the rest of nature. Probably for millions of years and certainly for tens of thousands of years we have been a new kind of superpredator, and thereby been disrupting ecosystems around us and driving species to extinction, either directly through hunting or indirectly through habitat change and trophic cascades. This does not negate our need to reverse the tide of destruction, but it is perhaps better to do so with the wide-eyed clarity of understanding the deep history of our impact on the environment than has accompanied our rise as a species, rather than harking back to a prehistoric golden age that never was.
Again with this ‘golden age’, ‘state of grace’ stuff. Who are he & Monbiot arguing with, Rousseau? Wordsworth? Their own former selves? Or maybe it’s just a strawman. I haven’t heard even the most wild-eyed of modern primitivists speak in that kind of unreserved way about past cultures. Also I’m seeing a strong emotional charge as they deliver their verdict about the human species. It sounds like condemnation or moral reproach, with an urging towards better behaviour in the future. Monbiot, an advocate for nuclear power*, pins his hopes on human ‘ingenuity’, laying it on thick in his closing paragraph:
Is this all we are? A diminutive monster that can leave no door closed, no hiding place intact, that is now doing to the great beasts of the sea what we did so long ago to the great beasts of the land? Or can we stop? Can we use our ingenuity, which for two million years has turned so inventively to destruction, to defy our evolutionary history?
I can’t help wondering if they would describe other species in similar terms. Daniel Quinn once pointed to the evolution of big cats as an analagous process of cascading extinctions stemming from the introduction of a new species:
Whenever a new species makes its appearance in the world, adjustments occur throughout the community of life and some of these adjustments are fatal for some species. For example, when the swift, powerful hunters of the cat family appeared late in the Eocene, the repercussions of this event were experienced throughout the community sometimes as extinction. Species of “easy prey” became extinct because they couldn’t reproduce fast enough to replace the individuals the cats were taking. Some of the cats’ competitors also became extinct, for the simple reason that they COULDN’T compete they just weren’t big enough or fast enough. This appearance and disappearance of species is precisely what evolution is all about, after all.
See? There never was a golden age in the relationship of big cats to the rest of nature! How laughable it would seem to describe prehistoric cats as ‘destroyers’, ‘the natural world’s nemesis’, responsible for a ‘killing spree’ or ‘blitzkrieg’ (in the absurd terminology of Paul S. Martin, the originator of the Overkill hypothesis). Perhaps they too had a ‘need to reverse the tide of destruction’ caused by their activities? Well, I wouldn’t know about that, but clearly their behaviour caused disturbance and disruption; they had ‘an impact on the environment’ but somehow this doesn’t seem like such a reprehensible thing when put into their context. But apparently we’re supposed to be better than that. When we do exactly the same things it’s proof that there’s something fundamentally different, even alien about us.
That said, I do think there exists a fundamental difference between extinctions caused by introduced or newly evolved species and the driving force behind the current extinction crisis. Monbiot tries to elide the two by comparing the alleged human responsibility for Pleistocene extinctions to modern poachers in Africa:
And still we have not stopped. Poaching has reduced the population of African forest elephants by 65% since 2002(17).
But prehistoric hunters would have killed megafauna for basic subsistence purposes – mainly food, clothing and tools, while those hunting them today do so to satisfy a demand in global capitalist markets for ivory – a nonessential luxury good (likewise with the overfishing of the ‘great beasts of the sea’: those giant trawlers aren’t out there to feed people, they’re out there to feed the insatiable markets – a crucial difference). Alienated from the land, their subsistence comes primarily from money and whatever means are necessary to get it. Hunter-gatherers have strong incentives to conserve and form longterm relationships with their prey species if possible, while I’ve heard it said that poachers and the industry that they supply actually have a motive to completely wipe the species out, as this would cause scarcity and a subsequent leap in the monetary value of their products. But, as Quinn puts it:
If ancient foragers hunted any species to extinction, it certainly wasn’t because they wanted to exterminate their own food supply! (ibid.)
So yes, while mindful of the backfire effect†, I’m not seeing much here to challenge my basic understanding of humanity as a species much like any other species – causing disturbance, disruption, having an impact, perhaps even reshuffling the ecological deck in drastic ways, as we’ve come to expect from creatures at the top of the food chain – but implacable, irredeemable enemies of the living world? No. In order to draw those kinds of conclusions you have to willfully ignore all the examples where human cultures have managed to live in highly diverse environments for long periods of time without causing any damage – indeed, where their presence has been shown to actually enrich the other-than-human life around them. See for example this piece on Survival International, which contains the information that, according to the WWF, ’80% of the world’s richest ‘ecoregions’ are inhabited by indigenous communities.’
Long before the word ‘conservation’ was coined, tribal peoples had developed highly effective measures for maintaining the richness of their land.
Their guardianship of the land includes practices such as taboos, crop-rotation systems, seasonal hunting bans and sacred groves. If they pillage their land, over-fish their rivers or over-harvest their timber they, and the spirits they revere, will suffer.
Taboos are deeply ingrained in many tribal cultures, serving both to maintain the social order and to protect the resources on which the community depends.
The result of these taboos and practices is an effective rationing of the resources in the tribe’s territory, giving a rich diversity of plants and animals the time and space to flourish.
This is how native cultures behave – they have a strong, ancestral connection to a specific place or multiple places between which they make seasonal migrations; they’re not going anywhere in a hurry so they have to learn to get along with the neighbours and the wider community. The land gives them life, so they can’t wreck it without impoverishing themselves or turning into wandering, placeless orphans. But then, human populations – like any other plant or animal populations – also migrate to entirely new environments, in which case the old laws don’t always apply and a whole new set of behaviours might have to be learned. That’s when the most damage can happen. Jason Godesky described the scenario in a way that has stuck with me over the years‡:
Feral animals often cause terrible disturbances in their ecologies, because they are basically invasive species. Invasive species always cause disturbances, precisely because they have no web of relationship: they have no predators, so their numbers proliferate; they have not co-evolved with their food sources and neighboring flora and fauna, so they may over-eat, trample, or diminish the ecology. But this situation does not last forever. Over time, other predators may learn that a feral species is good to eat, and begin predating them. The hardier plants that can survive being trampled and [eaten] by these species proliferate. In general, feral animals are eventually woven into the ecology; they cease to be invasive, and become native.
Becoming biologically native is a process that often takes thousands of years. Culture is a means by which we can speed that process considerably. When the Indians’ ancestors entered the Americas, they did so as an invasive species. While the “overkill” hypothesis has been vastly overstated, it’s also undeniably true that the introduction of a new invasive species of alpha predator tipped many species over the edge. The process was difficult and many species that were already ailing were tipped into extinction, but ultimately, this invasive species became native. Culture allowed humans to enter into relationships with other species far more quickly than genetic evolution alone would have allowed. American Indians are in every meaningful sense “native”—they have a relationship with the ecology, or to put it more strongly, they are part of that ecology.
Indeed, this explains the colossal destructive capacity of the dominant civilised culture because we steadfastly refuse to blend in, become indigenous or rewild, and until we do there will be the same fundamental difference between us and most of the other cultures that have ever existed; between us and all creatures that have survived and continued to exist in the long term. Godesky again:
While the Inuit and related peoples came as wild humans seeking a new home, and making themselves native to it by using their culture to create new relationships there, the domesticated system did not come to migrate, but to conquer. Domesticated humans use their culture to precisely the opposite end: to actively resist becoming native, and to remain as invasive as possible, as long as possible. We do not seek to weave ourselves into a new ecology, but rather, to uproot that ecology and replace it with our own, to plow it under and plant rows of our own crops there, instead. Naturally, such goals can never be perfectly realized, but we have succeeded far more than we have failed, and it explains why, given the same amount of time, there is no doubt that the Inuit and their neighbors are native, while there is equally no doubt that Europeans remain invasive. (ibid.)
I recently came across a book with lots of useful material in it pertaining to this subject. It seems there is now a whole academic discipline dedicated to exploring the relation of human cultures to ecosystems – called ‘Historical Ecology‘. The editor of the book (a collection of pieces by writers and researchers from many different fields called Advances in Historical Ecology), William Balée has a very interesting opening chapter detailing the ‘premises and postulates’ of the discipline. Here are the latter, briefly stated:
(1) Much, if not all, of the nonhuman biosphere has been affected by human activity. (2) Human activity does not necessarily lead to degradation of the nonhuman biosphere and the extinction of species, nor does it necessarily create a more habitable biosphere for humans and other life forms by increasing the abundance and speciosity of these. (3) Different kinds of sociopolitical and economic systems (or political economies) in particular regional contexts tend to result in qualitatively unlike effects on the biosphere, on the abundance and speciosity of nonhuman lifeforms, and on the historical trajectory of subsequent human sociopolitical and economic systems (or political economies) in the same regions. (4) Human communities and cultures together with the landscapes and regions with which they interact over time can be understood as total phenomena.
I recommend reading the whole article if you’d like to see these points fleshed out in a more readable fashion – it’s online here (pdf). The juicy part for me was where he compares two rival views of humanity: ‘Ecologically Noble Savage’ vs. ‘Homo Devastans‘:
The Ecologically Noble Savage doctrine holds that it is human nature to be custodial of the environment, the relationship becoming corrupted only after the rise or intrusion of civilization. The doctrine of Homo devastans, in contrast, holds humankind itself accountable for the destruction of natural habitats and of other species. These opposed dogmas have been applied to non-state-level societies from which some researchers have sought to promote or deconstruct specific viewpoints on human nature. Both views require the demonstration of sociocultural universals; either would become a mere shibboleth with proof of a single counterexample. It is clear that both views have converts in the scientific community today. Yet research in historical ecology seems to support neither view, just as sociocultural universals based on the juxtaposition of biology, language, and culture have been continuously proven to be erroneous since the time of Franz Boas.
Many modern environmentalists seem most likely to assume the existence of Homo devastans. When referring to some “panhistorical, cross-cultural, and ultimately destructive human ‘nature,’ ” according to Alice Ingerson, her environmentalist students really meant the world capitalist system. Many environmentalists, evidently, do not consider the peoples of nonstate, egalitarian societies to make up part of that abstraction formerly called “Man.” (pp.16-17)
I guess that puts me firmly in the ENS camp then… The examples of beneficial human activities include fire setting (when this results in niche ecosystems and/or minimisation of catastrophic wildfires), the creation of rich shell midden mounds by coastal foragers, species-rich ‘anthropogenic’ forests in Africa and the Amazon (see also: terra preta) and increased diversity in cultivated crops (eg: potatoes). The ‘devastans’ crowd have the overkill theory (such as it stands), and extinction of island species in Polynesia, Melanesia and Australasia. However:
[...] this increased poverty of the flora and fauna did not result solely from human nature, for it can be demonstrated that humans have not everywhere been associated with diminished diversity of other life forms [...] Rather, Polynesia suffered lowered biodiversity partly because of the peculiarities of island environments [...] Individual islands, unlike regions and continents, tend to be high in endemic species over small expanses of land. In Polynesia, may of these species evolved over millions of years before human arrival within the last 2,500 years; therefore, many species were unusually susceptible to extirpation by perturbations of the environment caused by humans and perhaps other animals (especially introduced animals). (p.22)
Otherwise the people arguing this way will find most of the evidence to support their viewpoint by looking first and foremost to their own societies:
With the exception of certain island societies, therefore, the only solid evidence for a human association in certain regions with reduced biodiversity and decreased habitability for other life forms comes from state societies, old and new. (p.23)
(Though this was published in 1998, so there may well be more examples to draw upon by now – something tells me leavergirl will drop by to remind me about the depredations of settled forager cultures in the Middle East 10-12,000 years ago – set us straight V!) Personally speaking that’s the only thing I feel injecting me with venom and scraping at my soul on a daily basis: being born into this culture with so few redeeming features and on such a clear warpath against the rest of the living world; with no choice but to accept its dictates if I want food and a roof over my head, and with my every activity within its confines connected in some way to a cluster of appalling, routine atrocities.
I’d better finish with the ‘implicit racism’ charge. Hopefully those of you reading this will know by now that modern indigenous people are not ‘living fossils’ subsisting in exactly the same ways as prehistoric hunter-gatherers**. I really doubt, however, that the majority of the public understands this point, so when articles get published depicting early man as a ruthless, unthinking killer, this characterisation spills over effortlessly in most peoples’ minds onto those tribal people that are still managing to cling onto survival today. Pretending that all humans and human cultures behave in the same way (destructive, ecocidal), obscuring essential differences between types of social organisation, and ignoring evidence of beneficial relationships between humans and the rest of the biosphere provides an important propaganda function because it gives the current perpetrators of environmental dismemberment carte blanche to continue as they have been doing – because “it’s just human nature, whaddaya gonna do?” Similarly, while not always in a position to refute their arguments, or even when persuaded by their logic and the evidence they present, I still feel very uneasy when I read popular science writers like Jared Diamond, Charles Mann, Tim Flannery etc. on subjects like smallpox epidemics and the false illusion of fecundity in post-conquest N.America, or alleged ecological damage by early aboriginal Australians, because I can see how these discussions are a gift to those who want to minimise or deny genocide, justify ongoing abuses against tribal people, or again excuse the behaviour of the dominant society because of that kind of destructiveness being supposedly built into our DNA. How irresponsible to refer to aborigines as ‘future eaters‘ at a time when their fragile communities are under renewed assault from the Australian state††! We don’t have a surviving indigenous population in the British Isles, so George Monbiot can get away with saying what he says without a direct response from them; without studied examples of positive aspects of their way of life springing instantly to the minds of his readers. What a curious silence when those who would disagree cannot because they are extinct. And how strange that some should feel the need to kick them so many millenia after they passed. There must be something really subversive about this ‘state of grace’ idea… Anyway, for now I’m happy to take offence on their behalf (!), and will continue to look into how they lived in this place and see what lessons they still have to teach.
* – I don’t mean this as an ad hom, just as a worrying example of the kind of ‘ingenuity’ GM considers acceptable. Check out his reasoning in these articles if you like, or if you have the time (he first ‘comes out’ as pro-nuclear in March 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster).
† – ‘The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.’ (link)
‡ – And which I refuse to abandon!
** -If this is news to you I recommend reading about the response of various indigenous people to Jared Diamond’s recent book, The World Until Yesterday in this article.
†† – Read John Pilger: ‘ Once again, Australia is stealing its Indigenous children‘ or track down his recent documentary film, Utopia.