Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C./Art Resource

Albert Bierstadt: Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868

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.


Subhankar Banerjee

A fledgling gyrfalcon flexing its wings before taking its first flight, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 2002; photograph by Subhankar Banerjee. A series of Banerjee’s photographs showing the effects of climate change and industrial development on the Alaskan Arctic, and a video featuring the voice of Gwich’in elder Sarah James, will be on view in the exhibition ‘(Re-) Cycles of Paradise,’ at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen, December 7–18, 2009.

The breathless pace of exploitation continued unabated so that by the beginning of the twentieth century more than a million tons of fish were being harvested annually. The ability of the fishery to sustain such intensive harvest gave it a mystique of inexhaustibility that deceived no less a sophisticate than Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog.” Huxley had served on three fisheries commissions, yet in 1883 was so imbued with hubris that he could say, “I still believe the cod fishery…and probably all the great fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish.” He was dead wrong, and so were several generations of fisheries commissions to follow.

Cod is one of a group of so-called groundfish—they live near the bottom, along with such familiar fish as pollock and haddock. On the Grand Banks, cod was overwhelmingly dominant and fed principally on capelin, a small fish in the herring family that must have been abundant beyond our imagination. Cod are enormously fecund, and so for more than four hundred years were able to withstand a steadily increasing harvest. But abruptly, and with little warning, that bounteous period came to an end, for nothing alive in nature can withstand the crushing pressure of global markets and modern technology.

If all fishers on the Grand Banks had been subject to some reasonable limits on their harvests, cod would still be abundant today. But capitalist competition created incentives to devise more efficient technologies that progressively altered the balance between man and fish. At first, hand lines were used. These were successively replaced by long lines, gill nets, and huge nets sunk to the bottom. Concurrently, there were improvements in the design of vessels used in the fishery. Schooners, invented near Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the early eighteenth century, revolutionized the industry by providing fast, agile transport.

Later, the advent of steam power precipitated another technological revolution. No longer limited by wind, the new generation of steamboats could haul huge nets that could sweep up entire shoals of cod. When yields began to drop off, “tickler” chains were attached to the nets to guide fish into them. More recently factory ships replaced the steamboats in yet another generational transition. These factory ships were so large that just one of them could corral enough cod in two thirty-minute hauls to equal the harvest of an entire summer season in the sixteenth century. In the end, insatiable markets, human ingenuity, and the cowardice of regulators broke the back of the fishery.

The Canadian government responded by imposing a moratorium on fishing for cod that put 40,000 people out of work. All concerned imagined that the fish would return if they were left to recover for a few years. But even now, seventeen years later, there has been no general recovery. Why not? There are many opinions and no emergent consensus, but as a bystander with some knowledge of ecological systems, let me venture an answer.

There have been huge shifts in the abundance of several key species on the Grand Banks that suggest that the ecosystem has passed a tipping point and lapsed into an alternative state. Instead of cod, the role of groundfish has been taken over by skates and dogfish (a small shark). Other species that were formerly uncommon have become abundant, notably snow crabs, shrimp, and lobster. In fact, the lobster fishers of Maine have the collapse of the cod to thank for the generous harvests they have enjoyed of late, for cod eagerly snap up young lobsters.

Under the current altered state of the ecosystem, cod may be unable to recover. Recall that wildebeest are largely protected from predation in Serengeti by their own great numbers. Where wildebeest are confined to small parks and unable to aggregate into herds and migrate, they suffer much higher per capita rates of predation. When cod were abundant, they produced billions of eggs and saturated the continental shelf with their larvae. Under these circumstances, enough larvae survived to replenish the adult population, even when it was being intensively exploited.

But now the adult population is tiny, 3 percent of what it was when Cabot first sailed the Grand Banks. This being so, the population may now be at a severe disadvantage with respect to the species that prey upon larval and juvenile cod, and this may explain why recovery is faltering. If my conjectures are correct, the alternative state in which the Grand Banks exist today could persist for decades. Don’t count on seeing inexpensive cod fillets in your supermarket anytime soon.

This lamentable situation exists because politicians, including the commissions they appoint to set quotas and other regulations, have been unable to impose restraint on the fishing industry, a condition that continues right up to the present and is not confined to North America. The European commissions that set terms and quotas for the harvest of cod in the North Sea and of blue-finned tuna in the Mediterranean have been just as guilty of ignoring the advice of fisheries scientists and of setting overoptimistic harvest quotas, to the continuing jeopardy of dangerously dwindling stocks. Such blindness to the obvious persists even in the knowledge of the disaster that befell Canada in 1992.

Here we have a social phenomenon that can be described as a political tragedy of the “commons”—referring to Garrett Hardin’s widely known essay on the conflict of interest between individuals and society at large in exploiting an open resource like fish in the sea.* Individuals in the business of exploiting nature stand to gain at the expense of the many by taking more than their share. In the absence of regulation, this behavior leads to predictable consequences that are well recognized by the players on all sides. Yet politicians routinely fail to set quotas and other limits that protect the resource, and by not doing so, violate the precautionary principle. Why is this universally observed?

The reluctance of official bodies to protect natural resources manifests a failure of political systems, particularly of modern democracy. This is because both the regulators and the regulated are inextricably linked as each side pursues its self-interest. Fishers, many of whom are paying mortgages on expensive boats and gear, fear a loss of income if limits are imposed. Staying afloat financially in the present takes priority over prospects of a more bountiful future. Thus, the industry reflexively resists any imposition of limits and makes sure the politicians understand this priority. In turn, the politicians fear losing their seats if their constituents rise up in wrath against them. The upshot is that the resource loses nearly every time. There are of course exceptions when industry associations are given exclusive control over a resource and the authority to manage it. But such arrangements of exclusivity are restricted to resources with certain favorable characteristics, such as a life history that is completed within a nation’s continental waters.

However, many commercially important marine species (such as tuna, swordfish, whales, and sea turtles) migrate long distances, crossing international boundaries or entering the open ocean beyond two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zones; or (as with salmon, shad, herring, and eels) they are anadromous—migrating between the sea and fresh water. International regulation is particularly difficult because it involves conflicts of interest on two levels, international and national. Attempts to regulate open-water resources have mostly been ineffective, although the International Whaling Commission has successfully curbed overexploitation of these charismatic giants and saved some whale species from extinction.

Maybe what we need to break out of the trap created by the convergent interests of regulator and regulated is something akin to the mechanism created by the US Congress to circumvent a similar political trap that paralyzes decision-making about closing unneeded military bases. A member of Congress who voted to close a military base lying within his or her district would be committing political suicide. Everyone in Congress recognizes this, just as they recognize that closing obsolete bases can be in the national interest. On this one issue, Congress has done what was necessary. Instead of engaging in futile debates in committee on the merits of individual bases, the relevant committees appoint an independent commission of experts that is given the charge of producing a comprehensive proposal for base closings covering many political jurisdictions. Congress then votes yea or nay on the entire package of closings, a process that provides sufficient cover and anonymity to members whose districts may be affected.

Such frank acknowledgement of one’s own weaknesses is rare in public life, but if decisions about the management of renewable resources could be handled in a similar manner, many of the failures of the past could be rectified. Until new ways are found to effectively decouple science from politics, I’m afraid that more and more renewable resources will collapse in a continuing story of too little, too late.

There is another side to Nicholls’s story, one he barely considers, but it is relevant to how one interprets his book. Just suppose that our forebears had been more prudent and restrained in the use of wildlife resources. With respect to the present, would it have mattered? The point is seriously arguable. The mass nestings that sustained the passenger pigeon required unbroken tracts of mature forest. Today, the upper Midwest, where many of the documented nestings occurred, is intensely agricultural and only scattered small woodlots hint of the pre-settlement forest.

Similarly, fencing and plowing the Great Plains would have ended the dominance of bison, even if they hadn’t been shot from train windows for sport. And how many North American rivers could support the sturgeon and salmon runs of old in their current dammed and polluted states? It is true that a few species like white-tailed deer and beaver have recovered spectacularly, but others are on the endangered species list for contemporary reasons quite distinct from the excesses of past overexploitation. The diminution of nature is a price to be paid by a society obsessively dedicated to unending economic growth. To lay the blame on the past obscures the lesson for our own time.

Recently, while listening to NPR one evening, I chanced to hear an interview with Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. The interviewer asked Diamond, “Is it true you have said the earth is in overshoot?” I shall never forget Diamond’s reply. “Of course the earth is in overshoot. Everyone knows that.” The reply was cleverly phrased. Not everyone knows we’re in overshoot, but everyone should know it.

Overshoot occurs when demand for renewable resources exceeds supply and resource capital is being depleted to make up the difference. Humans are depleting capital stocks of every conceivable renewable resource—forests, fish, game, fossil groundwater, and topsoil among them. Ecological theory teaches that overshoot is an unsustainable condition and that there is no soft landing when the stocks of resource capital are finally exhausted. Diamond is right that the world is in overshoot. All of us should take heed.

This Issue

December 3, 2009