For many of us, an appreciation of nature is a fundamental part of who we are. Without periodic exposure to wild places and free-roaming creatures, the weight of life bears down upon us and we sink into a form of depression.
Not all of us think this way, of course. For some, the endless ability of humans to invent clever new technologies brings excitement and confidence in human capacity. People of this persuasion often possess little interest in things not created by humans.
The latest apps for our cell phones, impressive as they may be, pale, however, beside the complexity and sophistication of the natural world that surrounds us. My phone may do some wonderful things, but it has yet to fly to the arctic and replicate itself, something my garden’s white-crowned sparrows do each summer.
Years ago, when I worked as a ranger-naturalist for the national parks and led nature walks for visitors, a participant on one of my hikes asked me a very good question. I had been talking about the wildlife we were seeing and explaining how each creature had a particular niche in which it lived – a physical habitat and lifestyle that provided the animals with what it needed to survive.
“So if that’s true,” asked my questioner, “then what is our niche as humans?” That was a fine question, and it took me a while to work out an answer.
Unlike most other creatures, we humans don’t live in a single, preferred habitat. We’re not forest dwellers exactly, or limited to prairies. We don’t just live in large colonies or just scattered in small family groups. We do all that and more.
But there is a commonality to all this variety – something that we can discern that defines our “niche” in the broader community of life. The human niche is this: we take hold of the places where other organisms reside and remodel them for our own use.
We call such places cities, or farms, or reservoirs, or a hundred other man-made things. The key point is that we take over and modify the habitats of other creatures big and small so that we can prosper.
This is not exactly news, but we seldom look at it in exactly this way. Our ability to take over and convert environments is key to our biologiucal success. That is how we have managed to create a human population of over seven billion people.
Some of you will tell me at this point that this is God’s will – that we are “to be fruitful and multiply.” But that same source gives us other instructions as well. We are also told that we should “replenish the earth” and “keep it” in honor of its creator.
This brings us to the heart of our modern dilemma. The power to convert habitats – the key to our civilization – is also the power to destroy other forms of life. How do we balance our needs against the needs of other life forms?
Put another way, are we entitled to take everything?
Such a goal, when you think about it objectively, pervades much of what we do to survive in Central California. In the name of human needs we take not most but ALL of the water in our Central California rivers. We spray pesticides that often kill not just their targets but most other life forms as well. When we log the Sierra’s forests, we are told that it is more efficient to cut everything down and start over,, and so we do.
In this Christmas Season, I propose there is a moral here for us all to consider. No one denies that we must make use of much that our planet offers. But are we entitled to take it all – to destroy everything around us in the name of our short-term prosperity? For those of us who find solace and peace in the natural world – and there are many of us – this proposition is simply a leap that goes too far.
We humans have the unprecedented intelligence to modify the earth so that it better meets our own needs, but that also means that we ought to have the intelligence – and the wisdom – to manage our planet so that its other life forms can survive as well.
If we’re not smart enough to do that, then our latest phone apps will do little more than remind us that there is a huge gap between mere cleverness and true wisdom.
© Wm. Tweed