'When nature dies - the impact of the human species' - Mark Fisher


#1

I’ve been meaning to wrestle with this Mark Fisher article from back in July:

http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/articles/traditional_knowledge.htm

Lots of contentious stuff on ancient & modern indigenous practices of ‘domesticating’ fire, ‘farming’ reindeer and other things which strongly hint at a conclusion of intrinsic human destructiveness, with the only solution being conservation via nature reserves where humans are totally excluded. Jean Dorst’s book from the 1960’s, ‘Before Nature Dies’ provides the background:

Dorst understood how dangerous the human species had been since its first appearance on earth – “Human beings have always exerted a far greater influence on their habitat than any other species of animal and, even in the remote past, they upset the balance of nature to their own detriment”. It is a theme he constantly returns to, noting that “if it was possible to regard humans in the distant past as a natural element like any other animal, it was a purely temporary condition” because although ancient humans may not always have exerted a dominant influence on their environment, it was nevertheless an influence often prejudicial to its own interests – “Unlike most other animal species, man is capable of destroying his habitat long before feeling the effects of this wantonness”. Thus man, because of his intellect, could not be “a simple element in a truly natural habitat once he has crossed a certain threshold of civilization”

He saw this threshold as being the transformation from hunter and berry-gatherer to shepherd and farmer — “As the earth in its primitive state is not adapted to our expansion, man must shackle it to fulfil human destiny. In order to satisfy our elementary needs, especially for food, we have to transform certain habitats to increase their productivity directly or indirectly”. In this, Dorst recognised that our “activity has tended to simplify the ecosystems, to channel their productions in a purely human direction” and that our impact on nature would “never be comparable to that of any other zoological species, since, in addition to the instinctive biological behaviour common to all animals, man has cultural traditions and beliefs capable of modifying his simple actions and reactions”. Thus he saw that “primitive, pre-industrial societies had already gravely injured a number of natural habitats, and some animals doubtless vanished during this period. The ravages were, of course, limited, but humanity already possessed the germs of self-destruction which developed dramatically during subsequent phases of its history”

I guess this is why Peter (or Urban Scout in one of his mischievous moods!) labeled him a ‘species hater’ in an old discussion on his blog :wink:

http://www.urbanscout.org/book-review-forgotten-fires/#comment-35823

Anyway, the bit that got my goat was this subtitle and the following discussion about indigenous practices with reindeer in Scandinavia:

The privileging of indigenous people

I have a real issue with an alleged subsistence way of life being dependent on the export and sale of a natural resource, a so-called traditional living of indigenous people being propped up by an international trade in fur. The Inuit, however, are not the only indigenous people to be privileged in Europe, the rights of the Sámi people of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland are seemingly more important than the rights of wild nature in what are often strictly protected areas, something that Jean Dorst would likely not endorse (see earlier). I came across this a few years ago, when working on drawing up a register of wilderness areas in Europe for the European Commission (39). Wilderness is not a legal definition in the protected areas of Europe (40) not even in the state-owned Erämaa of Finland, the so-called wilderness areas designated under Finland’s Wilderness Act 1991, but which are to preserve the cultural heritage and reindeer herding livelihoods of the Sámi people (41). Instead, in compiling an initial list of protected areas that may have a wilderness characteristic, a proxy was used of strictly protected areas across Europe classified under the IUCN Categories Ia & b that met a minimum size criteria of 3,000ha. Large protected areas in IUCN Categories II (National Park) and VI (Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources) that could contain a strictly protected core area of sufficient size were also identified. Local knowledge was then needed to appraise those protected areas against a set of wilderness criteria that included no habitation or settlements, no habitat management or wildlife management, no motorised access, no road building and no extractive use of natural resources. On the basis of that appraisal, two categories of protected area were sifted from the initial list: those meeting all eight of the criteria were assigned to Category A as wilderness; and those meeting five or more were placed in Category B and considered to be wild areas that have the potential to become wilderness if measures were taken to remove barriers to that transformation (39).

It was when the final check was being done, during a verification process with national data managers of each country, that the implications for these privileged rights within protected areas became apparent. In the case of Sweden, Olle Höjer of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, upgraded the Category B rating of four of its national parks to Category A - only one of its national parks had met all of the criteria - and while none of the restricted nature reserves (IUCN Cat. Ib) had qualified for Category A, he upgraded 28 of them from Category B to Category A. He justified this by example of Sarek National Park, which he described as being a vast natural landscape that had a significant level of restriction of activity. He guessed at the reason why this park had been put in Category B:
“Perhaps this is because of the Sami people have rights to have reindeer herding and use snowmobile in the area? However even so there are large areas of Sarek that is not under such regime/intervention”

Sámi given exceptions to regulations in protected areas

While the regulations for Sarek National Park do contain a range of restrictions, and which also cover the other three parks he upgraded, there are exceptions in the regulations to those restrictions for Sámi people in exercising their “immemorial rights” under the Reindeer Husbandry Act (42). The same is true for Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve, one of the 28 reserves Olle upgraded to Category A, where “Reindeer husbandry may be undertaken without hindrance of the above regulations…in accordance with the Swedish law on reindeer husbandry” (43). Thus it should have been up to Olle to substantiate what parts of the national parks and nature reserves are unaffected by the Sámi people because if you or I were to visit Sarek or Vindelfjällen, we would face a range of restrictions, such as not being able to disturb grazing reindeer, climb in trees containing nesting predators, fell trees, fish, hunt, operate motor vehicles or motorboats, take off and land aircraft, take a dog, or conduct commercial activities. However, the Sámi are given exceptions in these regulations for national parks and reserves such that they can pretty much do all of these, including using off-road vehicles like snowmobiles.

It is the Reindeer Husbandry Act that privileges the Sámi people in Sweden, since as well as establishing the right, based on “immemorial custom”, to the “use of land and water to sustain themselves and their reindeer” it also defines the reindeer herding area where the rights are exercised irrespective of ownership of the land (44). Since this covers a contiguous area of 33.5% of northern Sweden (45) then all protected areas in that region will be affected. Olle, however, was keen to point out that not all wilderness areas in N Europe are protected – “I believe the basic analysis ultimately should be applied on all known areas irrespective of protection level” his approach being to “divide the analysis, i.e. separate [the] degree of naturalness and ecological qualities from management regimes and restrictions”. This would be very convenient for Olle because it would allow him to overlook the exceptions to restrictions on activity afforded the Sámi. It also fitted the assertion he made that Sweden “has the majority of both protected and unprotected wilderness and wild areas in Europe (except Russia)”. If Sweden has so much wilderness, even if not protected, then why does it consider that it has the capacity to support a wolf population of only 210? Could it be that the wolves are a threat to reindeer herding?

That this is the case is evidenced by the intransigence of Swedish authorities to adequately address its failings in the strict protection of wolves under the requirements of Annex IV of the Habitats Directive (46). Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren was warned in December 2010 (47) that a letter of formal notice for failure to comply would be sent if Sweden did nothing about the unfavourable conservation status of the Swedish wolf population; the ceiling of 210 set for the number of wolves in Sweden under A New Predator Management Act 2009 (48); the licensed hunting of a strictly protected species under the same Act without the conditions for derogations set out by Article 16 of the Habitats Directive being met (46) and the risk that repeated licensed hunting could lead to an erroneous cull of up to 15% of the wolf population each year. The most telling indictment in their breach of the Habitats Directive was that Sweden has reduced the area in which wolves can freely distribute within the country by excluding their presence, presumably by lethal control, from the reindeer herding area in northern Sweden, a parliamentary decision from 2001 on the distribution of wolves that was reconfirmed in a later report of the predator survey Goals for Predators (49). In reaction to the Swedish government allowing the licensed shooting of a further 20 wolves in a hunting season opening a few weeks after receipt of the warning letter (Sweden had already allowed the licensed hunting of 28 wolves in early 2010) a formal infringement procedure was launched by the EU with a Letter of Formal Notice being sent (50). This was followed up six months later with a Reasoned Opinion the next phase of the infringement procedure, and which requested Sweden to amend its wolf policy, giving it two months to comply (51). Fast forward four years to this June and Sweden is delivered a second Reasoned Opinion because it is considered to have established a systemic practice that infringes the Habitats Directive, by allowing a licensed hunt in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015, and which threatens the growth of the local wolf population in reaching a favourable conservation status (52). Sweden has again been given two months to respond with measures taken to remedy the situation, or the Commission may decide to refer Sweden to the EU Court of Justice.

‘Privileging’? That’s not right… When has the dominant culture ever privileged a native people without there being an underlying agenda? In this case I guess that would be supporting a (possibly) destructive, extractive activity in an attempt to ‘integrate’ these people into the civilised economy - with ethnic cleansing and/or genocide the predictable end result. It reminds me of the way some people blame N.American Indians for depletion or extinction of mammal populations due to the fur trade (I remember Ray Mears apportioning blame in this way in his Northern Wilderness series) which they were supplying. But if there hadn’t been that insatiable demand in the first place… I guess there’s a lesson in here about how human domestication works. Certain desired characteristics are encouraged (especially the sociopathic ones, it seems) while others are ignored or beaten down. Hand-to-mouth subsistence is unacceptable, but cash-crop farming or animal husbandry is okay if the produce gets hoovered up into the global economic system.

Anyway, I respect Fisher as a writer and rewilding advocate, even if it’s not quite the same kind of rewilding we talk about here. I’d be interested to hear what people think about his points above, though, especially anybody with deeper knowledge of the Scandinavian reindeer people and their history of interaction with the dominant culture. Maybe we can change his mind?? Or at least use it as an opportunity to clarify certain things about our own positions. The ‘domestication’ of fire for one thing - was that really the first step on the slippery slope down to full-scale agriculture and industry as some writers argue (eg: John Livingston in ‘Rogue Primate’)? Or did the shamans manage to get it under control and harness it to a positive end?

cheers,
Ian


#2

I remember this man getting angry at our use of the word rewilding. So much of how people behave is based on their world view. For instance, looking at the same information, one could see the world the way he (and many other conservation rewilders) see it, or one could see it through the world view of human rewilding. It makes me wonder about the deep myths of civilization spelled out by Daniel Quinn in Ishmael as the voice of “mother culture” saying, “Humans are flawed.” I wonder how much of that perception clouds the minds of those conservationists who have little to no understanding of animals that transform landscapes on large levels. It’s strange to me for example, that someone like him could rave about Wolves and Beaver, but not see humans as another animal along those lines. Of course, ecological systems change over time. It was only 90,000 years ago for example, that there were only 10,000 or so Homo Sapiens on earth. I laughed reading that old blog post of mine, and his response, which basically claimed that he was more well-versed than me in (outdated) data (that came from the same perspective of humans being flawed) because of his standing in acadamia (a world riddled with inanimist science). I was pretty articulate back then. I may not have even responded to him these days. I have a lot more to say, but it will take me some time.


#3
So much of how people behave is based on their world view. For instance, looking at the same information, one could see the world the way he (and many other conservation rewilders) see it, or one could see it through the world view of human rewilding

Yes, you’ve always got to be on the lookout for confirmation bias where you pick and choose the facts to support a conclusion you’ve already made. The perennial favourite pleistocene overkill theory being a case in point: if you want to believe that all humans are irredeemably flawed and have been from the birth of the species, then you’ll leap at any evidence implicating h/gers in mass extinctions. On the other hand a ‘noble savage’ devotee would run a mile from any such evidence because it wouldn’t confirm the view of ecological saint in a totally static ecology. And yes, I would think it definitely ‘clouds the minds’ of conservationists as much as regular people. The scientific method has controls in place to defeat confirmation bias pretty effectively, but then it’s just a case of picking which scientific paper you need to support your (pre-formed) argument! And who decides which papers get mass publicity and which fall by the wayside? Monsanto has done a great job of burying studies revealing the toxicity of its products over the decades - even those produced by its own scientists. The whole public discourse is dominated by confirmation bias, and those who manipulate it to suit their interests. Mother Culture’s stomping ground as Quinn showed so well…

It's strange to me for example, that someone like him could rave about Wolves and Beaver, but not see humans as another animal along those lines.

Yes, why aren’t these ‘wilderness areas’ praised for containing some of the last populations of wild humans on the planet? Ah, but Fisher would argue they don’t count as ‘traditional’ if they aren’t operating a 100% subsistence economy but also ‘conduct commercial activities’ and deal with the external capitalist economy. He may have a point. I think that kind of trade and the subsequent flooding of native cultures with civilised goods, money culture and all the related values does erode their ability to remain indigenous in the sense of being integral to the local landbase. History shows this in numerous cases. All the same there’s something ridiculous, and quite offensive when you think about it, about non-native scientists and policy planners assuming the right to decide how ‘wilderness’ areas get designated and whether the indigenous occupants have the right to exercise their ‘immemorial rights’ or not. Presumably if the decision is ‘not’ then that means outlawing them, arresting them, forcibly relocating them etc… Genocide in other words. What gives them the right to make that decision? They might have more of a case if they came from a culture that had shown itself capable of protecting the earth and integrating itself successfully into ecological systems over a long period, but clearly that’s not the case! They’ve trashed everywhere they’ve been and now they want these human-free spaces, it seems to offset their own guilt. I think the same thing happened in a lot of the US national parks, if memory serves. Native people pay the price for the civilised desire to have clean, unspoiled conservation areas and are excluded from their traditional, often sacred lands.

cheers,
I


#4

My view on impacting the environment (for any species) is that nearly every individual will try and continue consuming what is available until the resource(s) are exhausted. Then they move on if they can and eventually may die from shortage. And usually, at least a few individuals have survived long enough to make sure there will be a next generation. If not, a group (or even a whole species) goes extinct.

The effects can be shortlived and spectacular (a locust swarm), or slower or less obvious. Humans are no different, it looks like they’ll devour and burn everything, only it takes a bit longer than for locusts. The painful thing is that many of our friends will suffer and die as a result. Whether the locusts feel sorry for the other creatures that were depending on the same resources, I don’t know. I do know that it hurts me to see so much life and beauty devastated. That is why it is not enough for me to know that even when humans cause most of life on Earth to die out, in a million years Mother Earth will have donned a new beautiful cloak with new species… I feel the desire to help create a world where humans realize that there are other ways to behave that make the world a better place for all living. I also think that much of what is called progress isn’t helping.

So yes, I think humans are a source of much devastation, but that individuals are generally uninterested and/or clueless as to what other options are available.

Regarding the “first step on the slippery slope”: could it be that we stopped doing one or more certain things, rather than started doing them? E.g. maybe we stopped dealing with adversity in a good way, in particular when our expectations were not met.
Or perhaps it was becoming susceptible to feelings of guilt. Or the use of words like “no” to stop others in their tracks… I’m curious to more thoughts on these subjects.


#5

Have been corresponding with Mark about this. He says that it’s been a popular article on his site but there hasn’t been much in the way of responses, curiously enough. Also he apparently tried to join up to the forum to respond directly, but wasn’t able to for some reason.

Anyway, his main point was this, which I’m assuming he doesn’t mind me quoting:

It is that human exceptionalism that drove us into the Anthropocene and is, in the context of ecological restoration, the immediate priority that we face. From the poisoning of lions by Masai in Africa to the shooting of beaver living wild in the Tay catchment in Scotland, there is no difference in the human exceptionalism that persecutes wild nature today if it is inconvenient to human exploitation […] you must see the Scandinavian situation in such a light. Voluntary restraint, which Monbiot thinks is the panacea, is subject to the incorrigible fallibility of the human species.

He was also keen to state that he doesn’t accept the overkill hypothesis, for reasons mentioned in a more recent article:

While I lay much at the feet of the human species in being the cause of destruction of wild nature since the Neolithic, I have never been much convinced that the small number of hunter gatherers that came before, a people with a primitive technology, were the sole cause of the death and extinction of hundreds of millions of both megaherbivores and megacarnivores, when we would have been prey ourselves for the latter. This is the “controversy space” in to which a very recent paper dives, reviewing the many purported causalities for the extinction (48). The conclusion is that elucidation of the cause(s) is suffering from a “conceptual blockage” because it is clustered around only two major paradigms, of environmental (climactic) versus anthropogenic causes, in a “sometimes, inflexible disputational fashion”, whereas a more inclusive and general theory of extinction should explain both the causes of extinction and of survival, as well as the disparate rates of extinction in biomes, islands and continents. http://self-willed-land.org.uk/articles/free_for_all.htm

I’ve been putting to him the Quinnian notion that ‘we are not humanity’ and that:

Man was born MILLIONS of years ago, and he was no more a scourge than hawks or lions or squids. He lived AT PEACE with the world … for MILLIONS of years.This doesn’t mean he was a saint. This doesn’t mean he walked the earth like a Buddha. It means he lived as harmlessly as a hyena or a shark or a rattlesnake.It’s not MAN who is the scourge of the world, it’s a single culture. One culture out of hundreds of thousands of cultures. OUR culture. http://anotherwayofknowing.blogspot.co.uk/2005/11/daniel-quinn-great-forgetting.html

While accepting that it’s problematic when native peoples start to trade in a big way with the global capitalist system. Am awaiting his reply…

In the meantime I saw another Ray Mears show where he interviews members of the Sami people, including a reindeer herder:

Points of note for me were his use of a snowmobile and the consequent connection (possibly dependency?) on industrial production and the oil economy. It’s described as ‘the toughest job in Sweden’. He says, ‘It’s my life, the reindeer. It gives me food and it gives me money, everything.’ and when Ray asks him how many reindeer are in his herd he jokingly replies ‘Then I must ask you how much money you have in the bank’ - an amusing rebuttal to the intrusiveness of the question but also potentially revealing of how he views the animals as a source of cash as well as basic subsistence needs. Hate to say it but it recalls the lumberman D.Jensen quotes as saying ‘when I look at trees I see dollar bills’, indicating the barriers put in the way of being-to-being relationship when one becomes a cash commodity to be sold.

The point isn’t to denigrate him for these choices, which will have emerged from the specific history of interaction between his culture and the outsiders, or to attack him for a lack of purity for the misdemeanor of not supplying all his own needs in a totally self-sufficient, self-contained way. It just shows the slipperiness of nativeness or indigeneity as a concept, and how it’s something that doesn’t define any of us 100%, but might instead be something we have to work on and nurture to make sure it doesn’t disappear. Judging by this viewing the Sami seem to be well ahead of the rest of us in this regard, and this would (or should) provide a strong argument for not further undermining their traditional practices.

The question becomes: when did the Sami or any other native people start to think of earning money as a necessity above and beyond the meeting of the their everyday needs? How did this happen? And how heavy was the influence of civilisation in persuading them to make this choice?

cheers,
I

PS:

To which I would ask: Why is the whole world not completely desertified? And: How do individual species and ecological groups manage to persist in the same places often for many thousands of years with a minimal extinction rate? Watching robins while gardening I see that they only carry on hunting & eating the various worms and other insects I dig up until they’re no longer hungry (although they do have a voracious appetite!) And yet these ‘resources’ are far from ‘exhausted’ in my experience. The ecological explanation would be that the populations of worms & robins exist in a dynamic equilibrium: as one goes up the other goes down and then vice versa when it reaches a point where the balance can’t tip any further in favour of one side.


#6

When you look at the analogy between locusts and people, the difference lies in the scale. Where a locust swarm passes through, probably some other species may well be diminished for lack of food that year. Humans seem to do a similar thing on a much larger scale. Then likely many species will suffer from that and that it will take I don’t know how many years to grow/evolve back, especially since we’re not likely to leave any space around us alone as a refuge.


#7

Did some reading up on the ecological role of locusts. Most of it is along the lines of ‘OMG look at how much a swarm of these things damages our crops!’ - the typical species chauvinism of civilised humans. This site is interesting to look at for the mention of all the other species that benefit from swarms in Australia:

http://savethelocust.com/

From their intro page:

Locust migration or “plagues” as they are commonly called have been a part of the natural world for millennia. As they naturally occur in grassy landscapes, their presence has often created difficulties for agriculture. However locusts are also important wildlife species and should not be viewed only as pests. The question has always been, “how do we most efficiently get rid of these pests?” rather than stepping back and considering their place in the ecosystem.

Locust migrations are a natural ecological event; they have a profound influence on the function of ecosystems, not dissimilar to climatic events in their effects over a large area. This is especially true in endangered grassland ecosystems in Australia where cycles of drought, flood, fire and locusts would have shaped the evolution of the environment as we see it.

Whilst locust swarms may seem abundant and impossible to destroy, this is not the case. The American Rocky Mountains Locust - went from “plaguing” to extinct in a matter of decades. Australian Plague locust (Chortoicetes terminifera) swarms have been dramatically reduced in frequency and extent in modern times. This may seem like a triumph to some, but to the more ecologically minded, it should be serious cause for concern.

There needs to be a balanced view where environmentally sustainable methods of living with locusts are investigated. Yes, there will continue to be some crop damage in the event of a “plague”, but the environmental benefits that such a “plague” brings need to be considered.

And this interview with Jeffrey Lockwood, author of ‘Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier’ (referring to the now extinct Rocky Mountain Locust) finishes by considering a reintroduction of locusts to N.America as beneficial for ecological processes and even potentially for agriculture:

http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/25/serlin.php

Are there people who would like to revive the Rocky Mountain locust? Are there any scientific or commercial applications for which the Rocky Mountain locust or one of its more pernicious cousins would be useful?

I suspect that there are many scientists who would like nothing better than to have a living colony of the Rocky Mountain locust for a whole range of reasons. Of course, the number who would like them as a laboratory colony is probably far greater than those who would like them as an extant species in the natural world, especially if the insects went back to their dastardly deeds. There is probably some misanthropic strain of scientists, perhaps including me in my darker moments, who would say that if the Rocky Mountain locust did come back, it would be a solid reminder that our sense of control is always in question. In North America, we believe that we’ve beaten the insects and, except for the summer cicada, we don’t have any reminders of the sweep of the biological world. Perhaps some of the members of the environmental and conservation communities would say that the return of the locust would be in miniature the return of an ecological process that’s been lost. There are those who made that argument with regard to wolves, which were seen as a missing part of the natural process, but the Rocky Mountain locust probably played a far greater role in ecological processes than wolves ever did.

So would you argue that there were benefits to having the Rocky Mountain locust as part of the ecological world? Did they provide any kind of balance in a much more contained environmental cycle?

Even the in the nineteenth century, people observed that the crops in the years following locust invasions were abnormally abundant. It probably had to do with the enormous amount of organic material that the locusts added on a local basis to the soil. In one way we can think of locusts as a short-term disaster and a long-term benefit. They were a phenomenal source of free fertilizer in an era in which production was often limited by nutrients. Even today, the net addition of both carbon and nitrogen to relatively poor soils in Africa via a locust swarm is a tremendous boon for local agriculture. The key is to enable people to survive the destruction of a given year’s crop because the longer-term ecological benefits are so significant. Our inability to appreciate the difference between short-term and long-term gain is something that pops up often in our lives, in our society, and in how we make trade-offs. Consider global warming and how the short-term costs of moving toward an economy not based on fossil fuel are balanced against the long-term gains that we might achieve. Some version of that story plays out in how we interpret locust swarms.

So things are not always as they seem…

Looking back to your first post I see that you use ‘humans’ to refer to the actions of all humanity, rather than to the civilised cultures that are dominant today, as when you write: ‘Humans are no different, it looks like they’ll devour and burn everything, only it takes a bit longer than for locusts.’ What about prehistoric peoples and the native tribes all around the world, many of whom have lived in their lands for thousands of years with minimal apparent damage to the wildlife? I recommend Kat Anderson’s book, ‘Tending The Wild’ for an exploration of how native Californians worked to enhance the productivity of the landscape in a way that did not exclude wildlife or cause extinctions but arguably benefited the ecology which they were a part of, again for many thousands of years. (Although I would accept that ‘benefits’ are always relative - a desert-loving species would not benefit from a fertile, moisture retaining landscape, for example.)

There might be an analogy with locust swarms in that for most of our history human beings have not been settled creatures, but have made regular migrations from camp to camp, following the abundance of various wild foods. This allowed for the ‘recovery’ (if any was needed) of the land they inhabited until they returned. Probably they enhanced the fertility in a similar way to the locusts, if you know what I mean…

cheers,
I


#8

Yes, woozletracker, I totally agree, if only all members of the human species had continued to live in cyclical patterns… So perhaps I had better written ‘civ’ to avoid misinterpretation. The topic title was the line of thought I was following…


#9

Ok, I see. Happy to hear we’re in agreement :slightly_smiling:
I