What It Means When Humans Impoverish Nature

In Henry Beston’s eloquent classic of nature writing, The Outermost House, he worried about the decline in birds he was seeing on the Great Beach of Cape Cod.  Even in the 1920s when he spent his year on the Beach, humans were adversely impacting birds and other parts of nature.  Beston identified a “new” danger:   “An irreducible residue of crude oil, called by refiners “slop,” remains in stills after oil distillation, and this is pumped into southbound tankers and emptied far off shore.  The wretched pollution floats over large areas, and the birds alight in it and get it on their feathers.  They inevitably die.”

We might congratulate ourselves for stopping the intentional dumping of oil refinery byproducts at sea.  But human impacts on birds remain.  Now such impacts are subtler and much more insidious.  Vast quantities of plastics end up in the oceans every year, strangling birds and other marine life.  Most plastics are not dumped intentionally in the oceans, yet they end there none the less.  Each of us is responsible for some of this mountain of waste, measured in many tons a year.

Ocean shipping, bringing us the products that fill our stores and on-line shopping carts, strikes marine mammals and moves invasive species around the globe.  Increasingly offshore energy projects disrupt migratory birds in their seasonal journeys around the globe.  Runoff from highways and parking lots and overflow from storm drains and sewerage systems makes their way downstream and into the oceans, contaminating beaches and wetlands along the way.  Nutrients in this runoff change the marine environment, usually in ways that disrupt nature.

We harvest marine organisms to eat, to feed aquaculture fish, and as bait to catch the crustaceans we eat.  All of this takes from the oceans food that would otherwise nourish other animals.  The herring we catch and use to bait lobster traps is not available for other fish or birds to eat.

Most insidious of all is, of course, climate change.  Nowhere was this clearer to me than in a recent episode of Bob Duchesne’s radio show, Wild Maine.  The weekly radio show hosted by Maine Legislator and birder extraordinaire Duchesne is always provocative.  This one, Bad News for Maine’s Oceans, is must-listen radio for Maine citizens.  The danger now threatening Maine’s birds at sea is not the intentionally spilled oil residue that Beston saw, it is the cumulative effect of human-induced changes in the planet’s climate systems.  Same plot, new characters.  Humans are now the major drivers of natural change, including declining bird life – welcome to the Anthropocene.

There are different responses to the changes in nature wrought by our behaviors.  The all-too-common response in the 21st Century is, “whatever…”  The growing indifference to the consequences of our actions is disappointing, to say the least.  Too many people are so disconnected from nature that they are unaware of what is being lost, a phenomenon that Beston noted nearly a century ago.  Today’s disconnect is enhanced by electronic communications, artificial “intelligence,” and our growing reliance on machines to structure our lives.

Another response is to care about damage to our natural systems for purely utilitarian reasons.  This is environmental concern in the tradition of Gifford Pinchot, the so-called father of American conservation.   For these people, nature is seen as support for human consumption, so the loss of birds in the gulf of Maine is a loss of duck hunting opportunities.  A typical response of utilitarians to environmental harm is to call for better management.  So, for example, wildlife agencies manage game species and their habitat so that more of the desired species are available for “harvest.”  In Maine, we manage coyote (that is encourage hunting coyotes) because of the belief that coyotes reduce the number of deer for hunters.  My questions about this approach were part of any earlier blog on wildlife management which I subsequently discussed with Bob Duchesne on his radio show.

A utilitarian approach to declines in species diversity and other natural disruptions caused by humans is the “indicator” concern.  This is the so-called “canary in the coal mine” use of species.  If certain “indicator species” are in decline, like song birds or sea birds, this is an indicator of the unhealthiness of the environment.  Since the birds may be more sensitive than we are to environmental disruptions, their decline shows that if we are not careful we are next.  Coal miners used caged canaries to indicate dangerous air quality.  We can use declines in eiders to identify threats to our wellbeing from human-induced environmental disruptions in the oceans.

Finally, and most fundamentally, the declines in a given species should be a concern simply because that species has intrinsic value, value without reference to any aspect of human existence.  As I pointed out in an early blog, Open Season on Chickadees, feral cats and cats whose owners let them roam outside kill hundreds of millions, maybe a billion, song birds each year.  Why is it that we get to choose that a species we domesticated is more important than wild birds?  The ethics of concern for nature as something intrinsically valuable are rooted in humility.  It says that we humans see ourselves as part of the natural world, not above it.  Our existence is not the point of nature and our comfort and wellbeing are not the ends for which nature exists.  So when species decline, habitats are destroyed, oil is spilled, or the atmosphere is soiled at our hands, the reason we should be concerned is simply put:  It is the wrong thing to do.

In the spirit of this ethic, the least that we can do is to set aside some parts of the natural world where we do not tread.  We have the power to destroy.  The question is whether we also have the humility, wisdom, and insight to get out of the way.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.