We Are All Environmentalists

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So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, “We are all environmentalists.” I know it’s become uncool to identify as an “environmentalist,” but isn’t it true? Let me explain.

“Primitive” societies have, without exception, recognized the importance of their environments for survival. They needed to know when berries would ripen, they needed to know where to find fresh water, and they needed to know how to clothe themselves against the cold. They were, generally, much more aware of the living organisms that shared their homes and the relationships between themselves and those organisms than the majority of us are today. To survive they needed to have an intimate knowledge of their ecology — or as we call it “science. But “primitive” societies learned about ecology through experience and oral traditions. Their knowledge was reinforced by daily experience and dependence. And necessity often breeds inherent respect. It’s natural to respect and revere what we need.

In the 21 century, the majority of Canadians live in manufactured environments. We may still, and often do, complain about the weather or the mosquitos, but very few people, even in Canada, die of the weather and even fewer die from mosquitos. For the vast majority, these are irritations and nothing more. When we think of the non-manufactured environment we are more likely to think of it in terms of recreation rather than anything relevant to our survival. When do we leave our urban conclaves it is to go camping on the May long weekend, to go snowboarding at Marmot or to go quadding in the bush. Enjoyable but trivial pursuits — hardly necessary for our survival.

Now that we have technology to depend upon, we are able to live in comfort without any knowledge of or respect for the ecosystems that support us, and yes, they do support us. Without air, we suffocate. Without food, we starve. Without water, we die of thirst. Yet we take these basic necessities for granted; we’re disconnected from our basic needs. The air is just there. If we turn on the tap, water comes out. If we go to the store, there is always food. We have nothing to worry about.

But air, water and food do not appear magically. They do come from somewhere. They come from our environment.

Our environment is made up of interconnected ecosystems — put together, they make up the biosphere.

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To think of a system, think of the heating system in your house. During the winter, the furnace supplies heat to your house: that’s the input. But your furnace needs to work continually throughout the cold months of the year because of the heat loss through through walls, door frames, and window sashes. This escaped hot air is output. As long as your furnace continues to work, you don’t need to worry because the cold air will always be replaced by warm. But what happens if your furnace stops working? Well, maybe you are fortunate and own a wood stove. This can replace the heat that you are no longer getting from your furnace. Your woodstove is a redundancy that is built into the system. It makes your system more stable and less likely to collapse. Ecosystems are the same, only more complex. An ecosystem will often have many built in redundancies. We call these redundancies biodiversity.

What’s really cool about most ecosystems is that they have a lot of redundancies, so they can sustain many traumas and keep working. But these redundancies are not limitless, and we still don’t know the effects of the mass extinctions that our planet is currently facing due to habitat loss, pollution and global warming. In his book The Diversity of Life, E. O. Wilson writes this:

“There might be an answer to the question I am asked most frequently about the diversity of life: if enough species are extinguished, will the ecosystems collapse, and will the extinction of most other species follow soon afterward? The only answer anyone can give is: possibly. By the time we find out, however, it might be too late. One planet, one experiment” (1999, p. 182).

What I find so fascinating is our cavalier attitude toward the destruction of vast numbers of species. When you think about it, it’s a bit bizarre. Perhaps our attitude comes from egocentrism or narcissism or hubris, but it seems the root of our attitude comes from a our lack of knowledge. There is also the sheer magnitude of the problem. Here, let me give you an example.

E. O. Wilson (1999) writes about keystone species. Keystone species are specific species that, when removed from their ecosystems, causes a chain reaction of disasters within that ecosystem. It’s often difficult for scientists to predict which species are in fact, “key” to their ecosystems. When a keystone species is removed, “a substantial part of the community [changes] drastically. Many other species decline to near or total extinction or else rise to unprecedented abundance” (p. 164).

Wilson supplied a compelling example, which I’m going to quote in its entirety:

“The most potent keystone species known in the world may be the sea otter. This wonderful animal…once thrived among the kelp beds close to shore from Alaska to southern  California. It was hunted by European explorers and settlers for it fur, so that by the end of the nineteenth century it was close to extinction. In places where sea otters disappeared completely, an unexpected sequence of events unfolded. Sea urchins, normally among the major prey of the otters, exploded in numbers and proceeded to consume large portion o the kelp and other inshore seaweeds. In otter times, the heavy kelp growth, anchored on the sea bottom and reaching to the surface, was a veritable forest. Now it was mostly gone, literally eaten away. Large stretches of the shallow ocean floor were reduced to a dest-like terrain, called sea-urchin barrens. With strong public support, conservationists were able to restore the sea otter and with it the original habitat and biodiversity. A small number of the animals had managed to survive at far opposite ends of the range, in the outer Aleutian Islands to the north and a few localities along the southern California coast. Some of these were now transported to scattered intermediate sites in the United States and Canada, and strict measures were taken to protect the species through its range. The otters waxed and the sea urchins waned. The kelp forests grew back to their original luxuriance. A host of lesser algal species moved in, along with crustaceans, squid, fishers and other organisms. Gray whales migrated closer to shore to park their young in breaks along the kelp edge while feed on the dense concentrations of animal plankton” (p. 164–165).

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Now, lest we assume we can, given the determination, fix our mistakes, here’s an example in which we have been unable to turn back time: the Atlantic cod stocks. Canada placed a moratorium on cod fishing off the east coast in 1992. I remember it well. Fishers were outraged. Many lost their livelihoods. The Department of Fisheries said it would be a short-term ban: five years. After five years, the ban was increased to ten years. It’s been over twenty years since the ban was put in place, and the stocks still have not recovered. We can never entirely predict the outcome of our actions, but that outcome can be very severe indeed. And with less of biodiversity comes weakening ecosystems — the ecosystems that sustain all life, even ours.

The fact is that whether we drive an SUV or take public transit, whether we love nothing more than a double-quarter pounder with extra cheese or eat a strict vegan diet, whether we are a Wall Street stock broker or a Kumbaya-singing hippee, we are all environmentalists. We all depend upon our environment. We all starve if we don’t eat. We all die of thirst without water, and we all suffocate without air. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all depend upon our environment and its ecosystems. We are all environmentalists.

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