Philosophy and Ecology

Niagra Falls - 1

I was in fifth or sixth grade, the first time I questioned mankind’s desire to control Mother Nature. Teacher talked about Niagra Falls and how the fast flowing water was quickly eroding the beautiful Falls.  Two countries of engineer and experts set about to stop this from happening.  I raised my hand:

Might we be stopping something even more beautiful from happening?

After all, isn’t that the way the Grand Canyon got here? Teacher gave a now familiar expression.  The one that communicates “you ask too many questions.”

Years later, Dr. Koch, a PhD in ecology, spoke to my college class with the answer to my question:

Ecology is studying organisms and how they relate to one-another and their physical surrounding.  It’s not about mankind making things happen.

At the same time, mankind is, indeed, one of the organisms in the physical surrounding. In some ways, we are like the waterfowl carrying vegetation to new lands. Or like a bear carrying seeds on her coat, scruffed off, to take root acres away.

Our landscape would be much different without mankind inadvertently changing the environment.

We would be without honeybees.  The honeybee got here via Europe. Beekeepers say that

 “Every third bite we eat is from Honeybees.”

Before honeybees, pollination, for the most part, depended on wind.  Many of the foods we eat could not survive without the honeybees. And now agribusiness threatens bee colonies across the land.cone flower - 1

Europeans also brought earthworms. Without earthworms, the forest is covered with decaying leaves, which fed many plants and animals.  Earthworms make short work of leaf litter, changing the forest forever. Although an earthworm stays within the same acre of land throughout his life, it’s difficult to put a spade in the ground anywhere without finding one today.

Before the Pilgrims, cultivation as we know it didn’t exist.  Clearing land changed the ability to hold moisture and nutrients. Forests of Elm and Chestnuts disappeared due to changes in the ecosystem that mankind - 1

And what about the Carrier Pigeons? Hunting caused these native birds to become extinct.  These birds were so prevalent in the 19th century that migrating flocks darkened the sky from sunrise to sunset.  When they perched for the night, they left whole stands of trees limbless and the ground covered with rich, albeit nasty “fertilizer.” I can’t help but wonder what filled the space they left. Would we have as many English Sparrows?  What about Indigo Buntings and Scarlet Tangiers? Would we have as many Cardinals?

Zebra Mussels, Asian Carp, Kudzu, Moss Balls.  All invasive.  All changing the environment.  All introduced my mankind by accident or  on purpose.

Mankind seems to be the only sentient being that tries to control the ecology.  Two interesting reads on the subject are

As we go about trying to correct some of the problems mankind creates, it’s probably a good idea to remember the law of unintended consequences:

intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.

English: Erosion caused by rabbits in a gully ...
English: Erosion caused by rabbits in a gully in South Australia. Category:Images of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some unintended consequences might be positive, like vineyards in California. Some might be neutral, like the sparrows.  And some might be perverse.  Introducing rabbits for hunting in Australia, seemed like a good idea at the time.

As we try to undo some of the harm we’ve created by our attempts to control our environment, it is wise to remember we are part of the environment.  We don’t exist aside from the ecology in which we live.

It only takes observing a blade of grass poking through a sidewalk to realize it’s nothing but hubris to believe we can completely control our environment.