What Are Other Species For?

One of the best ways to stop a project that threatens to ruin your neighborhood is to prove it might harm some species of plant or animal threatened with extinction. After years of making these arguments, you learn the habits and idiosyncrasies of other species, sometimes rather obscure ones. Environmental advocacy is weaponizing biology to create legal arguments to save a client facing the death penalty for their whole species.

Living things develop amazingly unique ways to adapt to the demands of life and their range of behaviors stretches human imagination. Environmentalists care about each of the hundreds of species we lose every day because each is complex, unique, precious and irreplaceable. A frog incubates its young in its stomach to protect it from predators. A tidal creature incorporates minerals into its tongue so it can scrape algae off rocks. Some develop complex processes and molecules that are very useful to humans. Yew trees, for example, were routinely cut and burnt as by-process of logging until scientists discovered a complex molecule found in the tree that could cure breast cancer. If the giant penguin was not extinct, we might be able to figure out how it dove to depths of thousands of feet without harm. Plants and animals with fast reflexes and creatures that can walk on ceilings with dry feet give us new ideas about mechanical triggers and adhesives. The list of new medicines being found in tropical areas seems endless. But once any species is gone, their secrets can be lost to us forever.

In addition to losing the physical information when species go extinct, we also lose the ability to study the interactions of other species with them because species affect each other, and us, in little-understood ways. Three hundred years after the Dodo went extinct, people noticed there were few trees from a local hardwood species that were less than 300 years old. Apparently, the chances for seeds from this tree to germinate improved from passing through a Dodo’s gullet, where they were bruised and buffeted by the stones inside the gullet. Today the tree’s seeds must be run through gem tumblers to get them to germinate. Every day sees new discoveries about problems we create when we simplify the environment. Lyme disease may be on the increase because eliminating foxes increases the range of mice and causes more of them to carry Lyme disease. 1 Removing wolves from Yellowstone made elk more likely to graze willows in the open along streams which increased stream erosion and sped up flow which eliminated beavers.2

Bob Marshall said that the large roadless wilderness areas provide the “harmless excitement” of wild places, and by exposure to wilderness satiate man’s desire for “lurid diversions.”3 Experiences like climbing and hiking and experiencing solitude in natural settings was necessary to “save [us] from being destroyed by the terrible neural tension of modern existence.” His arguments for roadless wilderness were rooted in his concern that man would become uncivilized if we simplified the world and not simply from his wish to save rocks and ice for their scenic beauty.

Naturalist writings like Aldo Leopold’s and Bob Marshall’s argue that encounters with the topmost members of food chains—wolves, bears, sharks and lions, which are only possible if we retain large wilderness areas—have a beneficial effect on humans and are even necessary for us to preserve our humanity. They force us to confront our alienation from the natural world and realize that we are being domesticated, just like sheep and cattle. We revile the topmost members of food chains because their existence provides the possibility, however remote, that we, somewhere, may find ourselves considered as just another possible meal. The panic that we feel in the presence of predators makes us reach for the poison, the trap, and the gun.

Our relationships with other living things may be more complex than the trees’ relationship with the Dodo. They may even be a combination of physical and psychological or metaphysical. What if a person at the top of the food chain has interrelationships with other members of our food chain, like the Dodo had with its. The literature of anthropology furnishes much evidence that rites of passage and our spiritual life and higher qualities seem to be involved with other animals. Aldo Leopold’s nature writings sprung from such an encounter with the eyes of a dying wolf and natural science is replete with examples of other individuals having personal encounters with wild animals that changed the way they behaved towards everything for the rest of their lives.

Wild animals may run from wolves but they don’t panic and go crazy like domesticated animals do. Even a domesticated horse, who could kill a wolf, panics. When wolves come around sheep, the sheep panic and fall and climb on top of each other because they have forgotten how to behave like real animals. The fear and panic that people feel about wolves may be akin to the disturbed and confused behavior of domestic ducks when wild ducks settle down among them.

The worldwide attack on the environment is a two-pronged attack to extirpate all the carnivores at the top of our food chain and to domesticate the habitat where tops of food chains might survive.

It was only a few years ago that we learned about the critical relationship of fir trees, tree voles, spotted owls, and almost invisible belowground mushroom-like bodies that grow everywhere under the trees. The underground fungus is essential to the health of fir trees, as it allows nutrients in the soil to be used by the trees. Small mammals like voles eat the fungus and then the voles and the spotted owls that eat them distribute undigested fungal spores throughout the landscape in their fecal pellets. Without spotted owls and voles, after fires, new seedlings would not acquire the fungal inoculations necessary for them to survive. Thus forests, trees, below-ground mushrooms, voles and spotted owls do not just depend on each other; they constitute a single living system.

What if there is some relationship between us and all the tops of food chains that we don’t know about? If we allow these other species to wink out, we may lose something necessary for our own evolution. Perhaps wild animals preserve our humility. Possibly our adrenal system, that was developed through millions of years of interactions with the large animals, requires something that only they can give to us. Certainly, every other species is preyed upon by some other animals and this tends to improve their genetic stock. We act as if this phenomenon was recently, divinely abolished for us, but, until quite recently, we were continually subject to predation by the other top members of the chain.

Chaos theory says that in complex living and dynamic systems even a very tiny change in one component can have profound impacts over time on the entire system. Who is to know what interactions with animals do to us or for us. Technology is basically a multiplier. It has the ability of magnifying our abilities and inclinations by thousands and millions of times for good or for bad. Any bored kid can “go for it” and smash a watch with a hammer. It is so trivially easy for man to destroy things and it is even fun to do so. But to entirely extirpate competitors is something only a mentally disturbed species would ever attempt. It may not be until too late that we find that we were in some unknown symbiotic relationship with the wild things. Perhaps throwing spears at bears is okay but hunting wolves from airplanes is not okay. The Dali Lama said that you can’t have wilderness without wild animals running free. I doubt man’s free nature can exist absent some wilderness surroundings, albeit remnant.

Even if species interdependence is not a factor, what are we doing to our habitat? Certainly, an important factor for any species is the quality of its physical habitat. We seem to be engaged in a global experiment that is degrading the quality of habitat for all races of people while lengthening the life spans of some of them and greatly increasing our numbers. It seems that saving any other species from extirpation has beneficial effects on our human environment irrespective of the benefit that accrues to the species in question.

It is significant that the period of the domestication of our country, which has been eliminating naturally wild places, has been accompanied by an increase in the proliferation of synthetic excitements and entertainments, such as horror movies. Why are our children so attracted to them? I do not know anyone who watches them who has a genuine connection with wild things or vice versa. Chellis Glendinning, author and social-change activist, says that the feelings of spirituality and awe that sometimes arises from communion with nature have a synthetic analog in the mental “power” states that arise from driving a snow mobile or a motorcycle. It is not the same thing, but somehow one is being driven out by the other. Gresham’s law states that bad money drives out good money. Perhaps there is a Gresham’s law of emotion and awe. We might call this the “Snake River Jet Boat Syndrome.”

Paradoxically, removing all danger to humans may endanger humanity itself, while preserving some areas dangerous to us individually may actually preserve humanity.

It is only by realizing we are merely an animal that we can avoid becoming uncivilized and behaving like domesticated sheep when they encounter wolves. The 24/7 environment of synthetic awe and tawdry, mindless violence is leading us not to becoming too wild but rather to excessive domestication. The completely harmless and synthetic pseudo-danger we manufacture to stimulate ourselves is more dangerous to us than any wild animals we might find in the actual world.

Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at Britell.com.