Global Problems, Personal Unwilding


From the book, Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff

Bereft of contact with wildness, the human mind loses its 
coherence, and the human heart ceases to beat.
— David Abram

We have conquered the biosphere and laid waste to it like no other species in the history of life. We are unique in what we have wrought.
— Edward O. Wilson

Humans are an unprecedented force in nature. We are all over the place, and there are far too many of us.

There is hardly anywhere on Earth, in the water, or in the sky that has not been influenced by us. No need to look for mythical Bigfoot: We’re here! We leave huge footprints wherever we go, which create all sorts of urgent global problems that so far we have been rather unsuccessful at solving.

Let’s take a look at some of these problems and, just as important, their emotional effect on us. Much has already been written about the messes we make, and so I will only summarize them briefly, but it’s important to describe what needs fixing. However, the main message is simply put: It is essential that we stop ignoring nature. Animals aren’t “ghosts in our machine,” invisible objects with whom we can do whatever we choose. And landscapes aren’t infinitely resistant and resilient. We must pay close attention to what we are doing and to the incredibly wide-ranging influence we have on our planet. Geologically speaking, the human species is just a blip in time, but there is no doubt that we are the most influential species, in good and bad ways, that has ever existed. Changes to our planet for which we are directly responsible are happening more rapidly and are more widespread than ever before.

Biologist Robert Berry fears we’re simply “running out of world.” Others argue that we have created a world that is so technologically and socially complex we simply cannot control it, while others claim that in our rapidly changing world concepts such as “natural” make little sense. Perhaps the same can be said about wild, wildness, and wilderness. Certainly, if we define “wilderness” by what the Earth was like even two or three thousand years ago, we’ll never see that again so long as humanity survives, and it does us no good to fantasize about what the good old “wild” days were like. What we consider “wild nature” today is largely artificial.

Then again, one suggestion has been made to create a “world park” using “the last remaining 12 percent of healthy natural areas, wilderness areas, primary ecosystems, mini parks, and hotspots.” This is the sort of idea that could be part of a global rewilding strategy. It is important to keep the wild as wild as it can be (see Keeping the Wild, edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler).

At a symposium on biodiversity, conservation, and animal rights held in March 2012 at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, ecologist and award-winning filmmaker Michael Tobias referred to the places on Earth where we have had the most devastating effects as “pain points.” He noted that there are many “pillars of pain” on Earth, some right in our own backyards. It can be very hard to acknowledge this pain and accept our responsibility for it, which leads to the alienation and denial that often undermine efforts to fix these places. Yet our omnipresence and power call for humility and responsibility; this is the attitude of rewilding. Thankfully, connecting with the natural world, and caring for it, comes naturally and feels good. It heals the Earth and us from the inside out.

Overpopulation and Overconsumption
Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity….Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as “an act of suicide on a grand scale.”
— Paul and Anne Ehrlich
While overconsumption has been a hot topic for years, many people remain hesitant to address overpopulation. But the plain fact is we are making too many babies. Until the human species stops growing, it will be virtually impossible to cut back on our overall consumption of the Earth’s resources. Both issues go hand in hand. Talking about and doing something to curb the rapid rise in human numbers is an essential part of the process of rewilding the world.

Overpopulation is the perfect example of a thorny global issue that is overwhelming for individuals to consider and that defies our ability to develop a coordinated response that everyone will like. Nevertheless, it is occasionally being addressed head on, such as in the book Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, edited by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist. We need to face the fact that there are too many of us and that we must do something about it right now. The world population is currently over seven billion people, and by 2050, we should reach about nine billion. So, over the next thirty to forty years, that’s two billion more mouths to feed and people to house. Where will they live, and how much will they consume? Where will we find the energy, timber, clothing, food, and space? It’s also well-documented that as there are more of us there are far fewer of “them,” that is, other animals. Overpopulation is a key factor in species extinction (see below), so to solve the latter, we must solve the former.

Our supersized brains should caution us that we cannot go on living as we have, but something doesn’t seem to click. For one thing, it is not just sheer numbers that should concern us, but the exponentially faster rate at which we are multiplying. As a species, we are expanding too fast to keep up with ourselves and establish a sustainable equilibrium. I like how Warren Hern, a local Boulder physician, puts it:

The human population continues to grow and grow and grow and grow….We have added the most recent billion people to the human population in less than 12 years, [and] the human population has doubled in the past 44 years (or less). But in prehistory, it took 100,000 years or more to double. At this rate, we will reach about 13 billion by 2050 and 25 billion by the end of this century. Most population experts dismiss this possibility, but population experts in 1925 said that the human population would never reach 
2.5 billion. We passed that number in 1949. My mother, who is 94, and her sister, who is 97, have seen the world population quadruple in their lifetimes. I was born in 1938, and it has tripled in my lifetime. Before now, no human being ever saw that happen. This is a unique time in human evolutionary history.

So, it’s essential that we take lessons from nature and other animals and find a way to manage our own population so that we live within our means. If we don’t regulate our population size proactively on our own, nature will eventually and surely do it for us. This is the lesson of other species that have overrun their environments. As a species, our current reproductive strategy is really insane and unsustainable and clearly spells doom for us, and it’s a prime cause of the rampant collateral damage to the Earth and other creatures. To get us to think about overpopulation and its ecological effects, the Center for Biological Diversity is now giving out condoms in colorful packages depicting endangered animals.

These are the sorts of connections that rewilding makes. Using birth control is not just a matter of practicing safe sex; it can be seen as one very personal way to save the environment. In itself, increased worldwide access to birth control for everyone would help tremendously, as it would curb unwanted pregnancies, but it’s equally important just to draw the link between having babies and environmental impacts, climate change, and species extinction. If smaller families were presented as an ecological good and even a necessity for our ultimate survival, more people might choose to have fewer or no babies. Few people want or enjoy family limits that are imposed on them by government, as China has done by enforcing one-child families. To succeed, any request of personal sacrifice needs to be seen as fulfilling an undeniable, agreed-upon social good. This is the challenge of rewilding, and perhaps of the future of our species. It’s why we must make personal rewilding all the rage.

Michael Soulé, founder of the field of conservation biology, perhaps captured our population predicament the best: “We’re certainly a dominant species, but that’s not the same as a keystone species. A keystone species is one that, when you remove it, the diversity collapses; we’re a species that when you add us, the diversity collapses. We can change everything, dictate everything and destroy everything.”

From the book, Rewilding Our Hearts © Copyright 2014 by Marc Bekoff. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.