Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Requiem for Nature?

In 1999, ecologist John Terborgh, of the Duke University environmental program, published a book, Requiem for Nature, in which he convincingly made the case that few of us wanted to hear: There is no hope for the survival of wild nature or wild biodiversity. The conclusion was similar to that of Diane Ackerman, whose book I reviewed in an earlier essay, only Terborgh shows us the dark side.

In 1999, every indicator showed that the forces of destruction, especially in the tropical rainforest, were accelerating. But Terborgh presented plenty of examples from the United States, as well.

Yes, there were many tropical national parks. But many of these parks were “paper parks,” that is, they existed only as designations on maps. (You could now call them “Google parks.”) Many of them had no guards, some had just one guard. Settlers encroached on the parks. The government could take credit (and possibly receive foreign aid) for protecting nature, without spending anything on it. Many of the parks, far from being located in biodiversity hotspots, were in areas that were unsuitable for agriculture and low in biodiversity: they were the easy ones to “protect”.

Even the parks that were protected suffered from “empty forest syndrome.” The adult trees still stood, but (1) young trees did not germinate to replace them, and (2) many animals were missing, producing an eerie silence. The parks existed, they had a certain area, but they were oddly shaped. In 1989, I visited Jatun Sacha in Ecuador, and it was a skinny corridor of land. As a result, most of the forest in the preserves is very close to human-dominated landscape. The human effects therefore penetrated into the protected area, making it unnatural. The landscape was fragmented. Strange ecological imbalances happen in small parks, and on small islands (such as an explosion of leaf-cutter ant populations) that would not happen in a large protected area.

In this photo, a graduate student from Europe classifies orchids rescued from the branches of rainforest trees that had been cut down. There was no time to do anything else at Jatun Sacha except make records of what was killed.

Terborgh used examples from all over the tropical world, and the story is everywhere the same. There were a few exceptions—some nature preserves on Madagascar were respected and protected by local people—but such examples were rare. Wild nature is threatened even in countries that have “charismatic megafauna” wildlife, in Africa and in Nepal, where tourists spend a lot of money.

Many proposed solutions were not working. One idea that was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s was to support the rubber tappers, who made a sustainable living off of wild rubber trees, without killing them, and without plantations. These were the people championed by the charismatic Chico Mendes, who was assassinated in 1988 by a gunman hired by a large land-owner. But the rubber tappers remained poor, and their product could not compete in the marketplace with commercially-produced rubber. Another failure has been forest protection by edict. When the Thai government, alarmed by the loss of watershed forests, prohibited logging, the price of lumber increased, thus making illegal logging more profitable.

In some cases, land degraded by human activity can recover. The processes of ecological succession are amazing and were among the earliest things that inspired me, as a child, to be interested in nature. But it doesn’t always work. If a tropical forest is cut down, and is then invaded by alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica), a cycle of fires can then prevent the forest from ever growing back, that is, in a time frame meaningful to humans.

For many of us, the modern mantra is “sustainable development.” But sustainable development does not require biodiversity. Agroforestry and plantations can be sustainable, even when dominated by just a few species. The conclusion Terborgh reached is that the human future does not depend on biodiversity; humans, and human civilization, can survive just fine without the high levels of biodiversity found in nature. We cannot honestly use “human survival” as a justification for protecting biodiversity. There is no shortcut: we have to save it for its own sake, not ours. “Whether we like it or not, tropical forests are worth more dead than alive,” Terborgh wrote. In strict economic terms, that is—which are the only terms that matter to most governments.

Things have only gotten worse, at rates and in ways that Terborgh did not, apparently, imagine. He wrote, “I am confident that objectivity and popular opinion will eventually prevail in the United States to bring conservation and development into balance.” But even if the Obama Administration might have encouraged this, Donald Trump proclaims loudly that conservation is the enemy of prosperity. Whatever hopeful trends Terborgh saw have been deliberately smashed by people who, perversely, call themselves conservatives. Terborgh called for a redesigning of democracy. Well, we’re getting it: it is being redesigned into a system in which the president can do whatever he wants with no constitutional restraints. I don’t think that’s what Terborgh meant.

The situation can only get worse, as populations increase and conflict over resources escalates.

This does not necessarily mean that the world will go as far as it did in RenĂ© Barjavel’s novel Le Voyageur Imprudent, in which the human species 100,000 years from now evolved into males with claws, with which they had dug away all mountains and valleys and made the Earth into one vast plain, and females as large as mountains, with thousands of teats, from which the males fed. But a few generations from now, the phrase “natural world” may simply mean a municipal park. “I hope I am wrong,” Terborgh wrote, “but if I had to bet, I would wager that the last gorilla will die in a zoo.”

It is not good news, but Terborgh wanted conservationists to be honest about the problems and not pour time and other resources into lost causes.

To find good news, you can only, at best, read about individual success stories. The United States government refused to protect an endangered species of beetle in Oklahoma. So, the Cherokee tribe stepped in and did it. And, as I took a break from reading Terborgh’s bad news, I opened the May 2019 National Geographic and read about Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where nature is thriving, full of wildlife, because of the support of local people, 180 of whom it employs. Sometimes human ingenuity can surprise us (this was the same issue that had a long article about Leonardo da Vinci). An isolated example the Gorongosa may be, but what else am I supposed to think about? As a writer, I look for the individual stories. It is too depressing to do otherwise.

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