Society of animals


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A moment of reflection in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia

I just finished Carl Safina’s new book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. I found it utterly engrossing and thought-provoking, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested. He writes with a terrific, highly engaging balance of scientific knowledge and personal sentiment, and I found myself repeatedly pausing to chew on the metaphors he creates. Like this one from the end of the book:


“Anyone can read about how much we are losing. All of the animals that human parents paint on nursery room walls, all of the creatures depicted in Noah’s ark, are actually in mortal trouble now. Their flood is us.”


His point is that the lists of endangered species, the numbers of decimated populations, and the miles of lost habitat—immense as they are—are still only tabulations of what and how many, and his aim was to show the reader who we are losing when we lose each intelligent individual, each personality. And when Safina spends so much effort describing in wonderful detail the stories of animal personalities—whales and dolphins who play with bubbles and feathers and invite humans to play with them; wolves who grieve; animals who outthink each other, their prey, their competition, and their human observers at every turn—it’s hard to disagree. Our understanding of animals and of ourselves deepens tremendously when we remove the artificial barrier that segregates us from them. When we view ourselves as members of the community and part of a continuum of intelligence rather than as outside observers of a natural world from which we are somehow set apart.


But when pondering all of this, I am invariably led back to the same question: how do we change? How do we stop the flood that is us? Is it even possible?


The conservation issues that face us are both complex and massive. There are issues of poaching, habitat destruction, and a slew of different types of pollution. And arguably greater than all of those issues is global warming, which is right this moment changing the whole planet, water, earth, and air, in ways we do not entirely understand. (Perhaps more on that later. The point is, scientists understand the gist of global warming very well. The sticky part comes with pinning down the details and predicting fine-scale timetables on an experiment no one has ever run before. “We’re making the planet hotter” is a statement we can make with the greatest confidence because the mechanics are well understood and explain the observed phenomena very well. “Which means that in July 2020, there’ll be two inches less rain in eastern Nebraska” is a lot harder to predict with any accuracy.)


What is clear is that in order to stop consuming more than the planet can provide and in order to minimize the effects of climate change, we would need to dramatically reshape just about every aspect of our lives and societies. And that isn’t the hard part. Humans are a limitless wellspring of creativity and have reshaped their lives and societies countless times in our history. The hard part is that this time, we’d have to do it quickly and globally.


How do we effect an enormous sea change in all aspects of human life—and arguably all aspects of human aspiration—so that we don’t entirely lose or spoil the gifts we were given when we came into being on this singular planet? Can we ever go back to feeling that world is vast and expansive? Or will we only ever make it smaller and dirtier and more crowded until we finally find that there is no more room for us either?


I don’t have a solid answer to these questions any more than anyone else does. But for what it’s worth, I think that the answers that are on the right track boil down to changes in three basic aspects of human life: incentives, opportunities, and most fundamental of all—education. To take ivory poaching of elephants as an example: the poaching industry flourishes because, with all the cash that buyers are willing to spend, it is rich with incentive, and illegal opportunities abound when what laws exist are not enforced. But it also thrives because there is a dearth of education. On the supply side, communities in poverty cannot afford the basic schooling that would open the doors to economic opportunities beyond subsistence farming and would counter the appeal of quick cash made by shooting elephants or protecting those who do. On the demand side, uneducated buyers can be led to believe that the ivory trinket they covet comes from an elephant who died of old age. That it’s not really that bad and no big deal.


So let’s start with education for everyone. (Noting, of course, it’s always easier said than done.) But let’s start with enough education so that the uninformed have a chance to learn. Enough so that the liars and cheats and those would manipulate the system to their own selfish ends don’t have a place to hide, enough so that they can’t obfuscate the truth. Enough so that people living hand-to-mouth can acquire the skills, or give their children the chance, to improve their own lives. And lastly, enough education so that when we city dwellers paint a cartoon elephant on a nursery wall, we have a genuine understanding of what and who that image represents. And for that I look to ideas like those in Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, which not only argues that exposure to nature is vital to both the physical and emotional growth of children, but provides examples to act on. Before Aldo Leopold, the famous conservationist, developed his concept of a land ethic and saw a wolf through the eyes of a mountain, he was a hunter “full of trigger-itch” who only became educated through his immersion in nature. Today’s children deserve the same chance to be immersed in a natural world that seems vast and wondrous, because only then can they appreciate as adults how precious it is.


The geologist in me sees that life on this planet has survived being frozen, baked, and blasted by meteors, and so it will likely survive us, as well. In some form or other. But the ecologist sees the fragility of countless evolved interactions in communities and ecosystems and knows that however life manages to survive us, it will not look like the life that existed on Earth before us. And humanity will be poorer for every piece and every personality we destroy with our actions.


Before we can decide what to do with our world, we have to decide what is “our” world, anyway?

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