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The World Is in Overshoot

Steve Nicholls is a wildlife film producer and through practicing his art has seen a lot more of nature than most of us ever will. Alarmed by the declines he had perceived in twenty-five years of looking at the natural world through a lens, he turned to writing to lay out a sweeping panorama of what North America has lost in the centuries since the first explorers wrote back to their European sponsors of an exuberant nature so bountiful we can no longer imagine it.

Nicholls is by no means alone in attempting to convey these concerns to a wider public. David Wilcove’s The Condor’s Shadow (1999) covered some of the same ground, as have other less finely written books. What distinguishes Paradise Found is its comprehensiveness and region-by- region approach. The result is a well- researched and readable book of twenty chapters, eighteen of which recount the history of discovery, exploitation, and, finally, exhaustion of the wildlife resources in North America. We move chronologically from the earliest discoveries along the East Coast to the extractive economies that made possible the rise of the colonies, then across the North to the Pacific, finally ending in the mid-continent prairies, the last region to be settled.

Originally from the UK, Nicholls has a Ph.D. in entomology, so he possesses a deep understanding of natural processes that serves to enrich both his filming and his writing. His message is conveyed on two levels, emotional and philosophical. The emotion is a restrained outrage at the wanton and often savage slaughter of wildlife—cod, salmon, seabirds, curlew, beaver, bison, passenger pigeons, sea turtles, oysters, seals, walrus, and on and on. One feels it viscerally. And that drives home the philosophical point that all the excess and destruction were ensured by the cast of mind of the European colonists, the conviction that God created the wealth of nature expressly for man’s benefit.

Europeans thought of themselves as separate from nature whereas Native Americans believed they were part of it. The European mindset created a willful blindness to the consequences of overexploitation and justified mind-blowing profligacies, such as squandering cartloads of salmon or passenger pigeon squabs to fatten pigs. All the while capitalism and the pull of markets provided irresistible incentives to maximize short-term profits. The combination of attitudes and markets was deadly, and continues to be, as we well know but seem powerless to correct, for the juggernaut of heedless overexploitation continues wherever untapped resources are still to be found.

I recently traveled across a small African country. Everywhere I went, foreign commercial interests were exploiting resources after signing contracts with the autocratic government. Prodigious logs, four and five feet in diameter, were coming out of the virgin forest, oil and natural gas were being exported from the coastal region, offshore fishing rights had been sold to foreign interests, and exploration for oil and minerals was underway in the interior. The exploitation of resources in North America during the five-hundred-year post-discovery era followed a typical sequence—fish, furs, game, timber, farming virgin soils—but because of the hugely expanded scale of today’s economy and the availability of myriad sophisticated technologies, exploitation of all the resources in poor developing countries now goes on at the same time. In a few years, the resources of this African country and others like it will be sucked dry. And what then? The people there are currently enjoying an illusion of prosperity, but it is only an illusion, for they are not preparing themselves for anything else. And neither are we.

Pre-settlement North America was a place of fabulous natural abundance, with wildlife spectacles as remarkable as the mass migration of wildebeest in Serengeti—now one of the very last great aggregations of large mammals to survive on the planet. Huge herds of bison roamed the Great Plains in numbers estimated between 30 and 60 million. But there was much more than bison. Vast salmon runs crowded the rivers of the Northeast and Northwest. Waterfowl migrated to Chesapeake Bay in clouds that darkened the sky. Green turtles, perhaps 60 million of them, were so abundant on the sea grass flats of the Caribbean that sailors complained that bumping into them slowed their ships. Audubon witnessed a flock of passenger pigeons so enormous it took three days to pass. And prior to human exploitation, whales so dominated the top of the marine food chain that they may have consumed 60 percent of the ocean’s productivity. Nowadays that number would be less than 10 percent.

In an ironic twist, the most impressively abundant species often proved the most vulnerable. The passenger pigeon, great auk, and Caribbean monk seal are now extinct, millions of bison were reduced to a few hundred survivors, the great salmon runs have all but disappeared, and the Atlantic right whale barely hangs on with a population of three hundred individuals. What all of these species have in common is that they “aggregated,” i.e., they formed large concentrations of their species, at least at certain times of year. Aggregation is a basic defense against predators, most of whom stick to their own territory and do not aggregate themselves. Thus, if the prey aggregate in large numbers, the predators are easily sated and most of the prey escape. This is true of the wildebeest of Serengeti, for example, and is true of caribou in the north. Lions can eat their fill of wildebeest and wolves of caribou, but if the numbers are large enough, the predators are unable to make a dent in the populations. Passenger pigeons and bison also followed this pattern. But what works admirably against non-human predators confers extreme vulnerability to human predators because humans are able to act cooperatively and to use technology—driving herds of game into prepared traps, for example, or using fire.

Today, when a herd of peccaries—piglike animals with tusks—is detected in the vicinity of an Amazonian village, the news is quickly passed from household to household. The men grab their guns and a generous supply of ammunition and spread out to surround the herd. Then, no matter which way the animals attempt to flee, they run into positioned shooters who add to the slaughter and deflect the herd toward another waiting group of hunters. Solitary animals could never be harvested wholesale like this.

As a scientist by training, Nicholls knows that species don’t exist in isolation from their ecosystems. Thus, decimating whales in the ocean or bison on the Great Plains must have consequences beyond simply the loss of a dominant species. Scientists don’t yet know what all the consequences are in a particular case, or how to predict them, but a larger picture is emerging and this picture bears a striking resemblance to some aspects of economics.

Like the economy, ecosystems are fundamentally “nonlinear” in the sense that a small push can have a big effect on a delicately balanced object. In the economy, human psychology is the leading nonlinear element. Investors in the securities market are driven by both the optimism (of the bull) and the pessimism (of the bear). There is often a thin line between them, and all it takes is a little shove in the form of seemingly good or bad news to switch from one psychological state to the other. The news doesn’t even have to be directly related to the price of a given stock. It is the mood that counts and moods are highly volatile. Many people understand this. But there is little public understanding that many biological and physical systems operate in a similar fashion, except that human psychology does not enter the picture.

The analogy can be continued without distorting reality. Stress in natural systems, whether caused by humans or other factors, is like news to the stock market. It can push one way or the other. But the market, like natural systems, displays the property of resilience. If the mood is generally positive, then bad news may have little effect. We are seeing the opposite situation now as the market responds to little bits of good news—or rather, less bad news—like the slowing down of the rise in unemployment. The general mood acts as a buffer, equivalent to ecological resilience. When there is confidence, then a bit of bad news can be absorbed without effect, but when people are nervous, then the same bit of news can have a big effect. Many natural systems operate this way.

When these natural systems are put under stress, all it may take is a little shove to shift a biological or a physical system like the earth’s climate to an alternative state. Some alternative states are familiar, but just not recognized as such. One example is the way that overgrazing of desert grassland by cattle farmers in the Southwest led to a thorny scrub of yucca, cactus, and agave. Once such an alternative state exists, it may be slow and difficult to reverse. Grasslands can be restored in the Southwest by excluding grazing, but the process takes decades.

The Grand Banks cod fishery is another case in point. I found Nicholls’s chapter on cod to be the most hard- hitting and illustrative of the whole book, for it covers a period of nearly five hundred years and highlights the failure of human institutions as well as the complexities of a globally important biological system.

The great cod shoals of the Grand Banks were discovered in 1497 by the noted explorer John Cabot, and for most of the ensuing five hundred years provided a seemingly inexhaustible bounty of protein that nourished Europeans and Americans alike. In the early days, cod swarmed over the Grand Banks in such vast abundance that they could be easily caught with the most rudimentary technology.

I experienced this myself when I visited the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in the summer of 1954. All one had to do then was lower a gang hook weighted with a blob of lead to the bottom and then jerk the line. It was called “striking for cod.” Sometimes the cod bit the unbaited hook and sometimes the hook snagged a passing fish in a random part of its body, but in either case, a few jerks, three or four, was all it took to hook a cod. Such experiences are now stuff for the history books, because the Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed, prompting the Canadian government to declare a moratorium on cod fishing in 1992 and precipitating the worst social and economic disaster in the country’s history.

The story of the collapse of the cod fishery is one that conveys lessons in both science and politics. The waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River were described in 1534 as “the richest in every kind of fish that anyone remembers ever having seen or heard of…great numbers of mackerel, mullet, sea bass, tunnies, large eels.” News of this abundance quickly spread in Europe and set off a rush to reap the benefits of this bounty. By 1747, French boats were sending home fish worth £1 million, a huge sum at the time. And by 1783, 1,500 boats from several nations were working the banks.

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