Saturday, May 05, 2007

Nothing Stays the Same

Out in the yard, sticks are beginning to give way to leafy green, and in the nearby woods paths are beginning to close in as bushes reach out and trees tower over like cathedrals.

All is good --- this kind of change is a comfort and welcome, for it marks the change of season. Give it two months, and it will be a jungle down by the river.

Other changes are not as comforting. A new sign has appeared at the edge of one of my farms -- the future site of a church it says. This is the second version of this sign over the last five years, and I am hoping it means fundraising is not going well. I have it on good authority that God would not approve of a parking lot going up on this land.

Near the bend in the road I notice a new plant nursery is going in, and down the road a ways, next to the old stone house, there is a sign advertising a subdivided plot. None of this is good. Though a great deal of land in this area is protected by conservation easement, I watch all signs of change with trepidation.

I suppose I am not alone. Like most environmentalists I am most comfortable with stasis: trees should probably not be cut down, dams should probably not be built, introduced non-native species should probably be extirpated, climate should not shift, and genetically-modified crops should be treated with some degree of skepticism.

I worry when I see any animal or plant species decline in numbers, but by the same token I am also a little alarmed if they dramatically increase in numbers. If a mountain appears to be "naturally' bald (as in the Smokies) I think it should probably not be allowed to reforest. I wonder out loud of two animals from widely different locations, such as two species of falcon or parrot, should be allowed to hybridize. I am not a fan of mining and I worry about aquaculture.

I realize I am stupid, unrealistic and silly. The world is not static and never has been. This planet has been terraformed by the plants and animals on it since the very beginning, from the oil sands of Alberta to the White Cliffs of Dover, from the stinking mess of the Sudd to the twisting corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Yet I fear the current speed of change and the awesome power of modern technology.

But what is there to fear? The planet is littered with the remains of ancient civilizations that have disappeared, from Tikal to Stonehenge, and from Zimbabwe to Angkor Watt. Humans overshoot carrying capacity and common sense all the time, and when that happens God plays clean up and the world moves on. If New York and London sink into the morass, the same as ancient Rome and Athens, I will not be there to care. Get over it. Things change.

Besides, things may not get worse -- they might get better. While the ancients of Easter Island were captive to their own narrow set of experiences, the modern residents of Easter Island have access to three internet cafes and can glean information from other locations and other times. Not only can they download satellite maps of their own island, they can also import food and materials, to say nothing of ordering a few dozen copies of Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse" to tell them how it all ends.

One result of having so much information on hand is that we in the Modern World are much more careful than the ancients. Before Columbus reached out shores, stone age man, unaware and uninformed, pushed the giant mammoth, camel and sloth over the edge of extinction with nothing more than clovis points and a few flint rocks.

In the 500 years since Columbus arrived, however, not a single North American mammal has been pushed into extinction and only a few birds -- the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, the Passenger Pigeon, the Caolina Parakeet, the Eskimo Curlew, the Great Auk, and the Labrador Duck.

And while, by all rights, things should be getting worse, they actually seem to be getting better, at least by some common measures.

Today we have more forests in North America than we did 100 years ago. We also have more black bear, more deer, more elk, more wolves, more grizzlies, more turkey, more red fox, more Canada geese, more alligators, more raccoons, more groundhogs, more cougars, more coyotes, more bald eagles, more osprey, and more whales.

More land is under protection as wilderness than every before, and more land is protected as National Parks and National Forests as well. Millions of additional acres are protected as State Forests, Pittman-Robertson land or under conservation easements, to say nothing of the scores of millions of semi-protected acres under the Conservation Reserve Program.
So perhaps my anxiety about the fate of the world is irrational. Maybe it's a medical condition that needs to be treated by something made by Pfizer or Glaxo.

All that is absolutely guaranteed in this world is that everything will change. Nothing we know today will be the same for our grandchildren, anymore than it is the same now as it was when our great grandparents were alive.

Things change. Get over it it. Easier said than done.


Henry Chappell said...

Good post. It's the pace of the change that scares me. I have this nagging fear that we're really just like jackrabbits, but with much longer boom/bust cycles. Dispite our large brains, we can't help but overrun our available habitat. It's a little hard to think about a correcting "bust."

H. Houlahan said...

Carolina parakeet.

Wood bison.

PBurns said...

100 percent right on the Carolina Parakeet - just a brain burp on this end that I will fix that right away. Thanks!

On the Wood Bison front, they are not a species but a subspecies of Bison bison. A subspecies is, by definition, not a species. I have written a little about the species loss debate here >> A similar situation with the Wood Bison is the so-called "Heath Hen" which was really just a subspecies of Prairie Chicken. The Heath Hen is gone, but the Prairie Chicken is still holding on.