The Northern Bobwhite Calls for a New Ethic

For the past few weeks we have heard a Northern Bobwhite singing in our neighborhood. This is a bird we associate with Southern New England, so we were surprised to hear it in Eastern Maine.  My first thought was,  here is yet another bird whose range has moved north in response to climate change, a pattern we see with Turkey Vultures, Wild turkeys, Cardinals, and the Tufted Titmouse.   The natural range of plant and animal species in North America is clearly changing in response to human-induced climate change.  So I checked with a couple of experts to confirm my suspicions.

I was wrong.  I find that the Bobwhite cannot overwinter in Maine and is not migratory.   My experts explained the birds we are hearing were likely released, either to provide a hunting experience this fall or to provide a target for training young bird dogs.  It turns out in Maine there is even a hunting season established for Bobwhite even though the bird is not a natural inhabitant of the state.  All of the released birds not shot during the open season are likely to die from starvation over the winter.  (If I released Muskox into my woods, could we get a hunting season for them too?)

The release of Bobwhite into the Maine woods is an excellent example of the coming of the Anthropocene, the idea humans are now the most significant force for change on the planet.  For all of human history until now, humans needed to accommodate themselves to the vagaries of nature.  Catastrophic storms, droughts, insect infestations, and other natural events were termed “Acts of God,” reflecting the idea that nature was beyond human control.  In the Anthropocene, the name some geologists are giving to this new epoch, humans are increasingly causing the changes in nature, good and bad, that affect both us and other species with whom we share the planet.

In the previous epoch, the Holocene, when humanity was at the mercy of natural processes, we developed an ethic where nature was seen as a source of human wellbeing and a force that needed to be conquered.  Humans worked to push the frontier, the line between what we control and what was beyond our control.  Once there was no more frontier, we had brought all the natural world into the service of humanity, hence the Anthropocene, literally, the human epoch.

Two concepts characterize the ethic that we adopted in this process, utilitarianism and commodification.  The utilitarian perspective is that nature exists to create human wellbeing.  So the value of nature is measured in terms of what utility it creates for humans.  In modern environmental economic language, we use the tools of ecosystem service valuation to determine whether or not natural systems are worth protecting.  This leads to the commodification of nature, putting nature in the same category as everything else traded in the marketplace, toothpaste, shoe laces, gas grills, and hot dogs, for example.

So, in the Anthropocene, we take Bobwhite from their natural environment, breed them in captivity, and release them where they cannot survive.  All this to serve a human purpose.  This is part of the broader approach we call wildlife management , which always sounds to me to be a contradiction in terms.  Can something really be wild and managed at the same time?  Apparently it can in the Anthropocene.

The old ethic served humans well before the Anthropocene.  But the coming of the Anthropocene is such a profound change that it calls for us to develop a new, fundamentally different ethic.

First, we need to recognize that nature exists not solely to satisfy human needs.  Nature is valuable for its own sake, whether or not it generates utility for humans.  Nature is more than toothpaste.  So protecting nature from human actions is worth more than the dollar value of services natural systems provide for humans.

Second, recognizing this intrinsic value of nature means that some places should be set aside for natural processes to work without human interference.  This is the idea behind rewilding.  Wild areas are those without human management so rewilding calls for humans to get out of the way so that nature can be as it will.

Third, when natural events wreak havoc with human culture, we can no longer place all the blame on “acts of God.”  We now must look to ourselves and understand how human actions may have contributed to the change in natural systems.

Fourth we need to acknowledge the first law of ecology, variously stated as:

Everything is connected to everything else… or

You can never do just one thing.

Our actions have consequences and usually lead to unanticipated effects.  When it comes to the natural world, we are not as smart as we think we are.  Who knew that burning fossil fuels to move our cars around would contribute to deadly storms on the other side of the planet?  More caution is called for as we work to satisfy human needs and wants in the Anthropocene.  We are responsible for the effects we cause, whether those effects were intended or not.

Earlier I wrote of the need to develop a field guide to help us recognize this new epoch, the Anthropocene.  From recognition comes understanding of how we need to change.  When I hear the Bobwhite call I hear a summons for us to find a new ethic to guide us to a way forward.  This way will have a place for both humanity and the rest of the natural world.



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.