19 August, 2005

Bring that beast back

Some idiots at Cornell* proposed in Nature this week to "re-wild" the American Great Plains with mega-fauna. Their argument is "justified on ecological, evolutionary, economic, aesthetic and ethical grounds," they say. So they're going to bring in creatures from around the world, including Bolson tortoises, Asian wild horses, bactrian camels, elephants, lions and cheetahs. The authors say, "[H]umans were probably at least partly responsible for the Late Pleistocene extinctions in North America, and our subsequent activities have curtailed the evolutionary potential of most remaining large vertebrates. We therefore bear an ethical responsibility to redress these problems."

But why stop there? After all, the real victims are the animals we drove out and replaced. I have a better proposal, similarly justified on ecological, evolutionary, economic, aesthetic and ethical grounds. Let's truly atone for our crimes; let's bring back the mammoth. This isn't ridiculous, after all. There's probably plenty of available mammoth DNA. They only were wiped out 10,000 years ago, and plenty of nearly intact carcasses have been preserved in ice. Now that the Siberian permafrost is thawing and massive numbers of mammoth carcasses are unfreezing, there should be ample opportunity to recover mammoth DNA and to reconstruct the mammoth genome. Actually, given the sample of DNA likely available, we should be able to recover a substantial fraction of mammoth genetic diversity. Thus we should be able to reconstruct a very robust mammoth population, and if we continue seeding it with individuals for several generations we should maintain a healthy amount of variation. Such a population would already be well-adapted to the North American climate. Providing, of course, that they aren't killed off by global warming in the first few decades.

In fact, this scenario provides for even better ethical opportunities, viz., poetic justice. Hopefully, after we resurrect the mammoth, we ourselves will be wiped out by plague, drought, or some other type of holocaust. Somewhere down the line, mammoths will then develop intelligence and civilization. Eventually, when faced with their strange history, and that of their destroyers/re-creators, they'll have to ponder the conundrum of whether they should resurrect us (using DNA from bodies preserved under layers of snack-food-cake wrappers). And when they ultimately decide, "No, they're better off dead," a big bell will ring somewhere to signify how beautifully ironic this really is.


Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of conservation efforts, and I think human beings should indeed keep an eye out for the health of other species' populations. But there's some hard realities we just have to acknowledge. Foremost is that we ARE a cancer on this planet. We are a scourge that MUST destroy other species. It's simply impossible for us to consume the level of resources we consume and not affect the balance of life. Especially for megafauna, which require elaborate webs of creatures spreading beneath them to sustain their bulk. For all their size, they're delicate, and our voraciousness means they cannot survive. Period.

The other is that the past is past. Justice does not mean merely undoing the mistakes of the past. Time only flows in one direction; it can't be made to turn around. What's justice is learning from the past and living better now and in the future because of it.

Life WILL survive on this planet. And whenever we happen to die off - whether in a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand or a million years - life will continue. Living things will continue to evolve, and grow. And grow larger. That's inevitable. That's happened many times in the past - massive extinction events followed by regrowth. Of a different flavor, to be sure, always fresh-faced. But that's the way life works. Death, rebirth, growth.

If, on the other hand, we want to be around to see it, the way to do that is not to attempt to unravel the skein of history. It's simply to be less voracious.

* Specifically, one graduate student Josh Donlan, who I predict will have one hell of a time trying to get a faculty position anywhere better than Seton Hall University.


forget bringing back various species; it at least makes sense to give back the american west to nature (and occasional mining/farming/drilling/eco-tourism/railroads/highways). small-town america isn't viable economically or environmentally (and dare i say, culturally), and we should all live in places somewhere between portland and manhattan.

this would happen naturally with gas that was $20/gallon, though, so my opinions here are probably unnecessary. 

Posted by aram

Aram - sorry pal, but when gas hits $20 a gallon, the oil shales of Colorado, the coal-bed methane of Wyoming, and the remote natural gas patches of Montana will become economically "viable," which will do little to forward your "re-wilding" concept.

Conversely, small-town America is very viable economically, culturally, and environmentally, so long as it grows more of its food in the nearby fields, rather than producing everything for agribusiness and reimporting it. There is nothing inherently problematic about small towns, in fact they are more efficient than cities in many ways -- they can compost their waste nearby, they don't need massive fossil inputs to maintain everyday life, etc. The problem is how they have developed for the past 50 years toward increasing dependence on the global and petrol economy.  

Posted by hedgehog

Aram, if there are going to be farms, mines, and tourist spots, why not have towns? Where will the farmers go to trade? To buy new equipment? I agree that the whole highway system isn't a very good way to transport people or goods, but we can build railroads to move between towns. We used to have them.

If it weren't for small-town America, how would the urban people eat? Will 10,000 people share a P-Patch? As petroleum-based agriculture gets more and more expensive, farming is probably going to become more labor intensive. This was Cuba's experience as the cheap-Soviet-oil era ended.

Small towns aren't the problem, it's sprawling suburbia. Fucking Route 9 and the Natick malls. 

Posted by Dan

I guess by "viable economically," I was assuming that people would want the standards of living vaguely like those we're used to in the developed world. I agree that subsistence farming ("grow[ing] more of its food in the nearby fields, rather than producing everything for agribusiness and reimporting it") would be totally sustainable. I just don't think enough Americans would want to do it.

In rural America, people often have to drive tens of miles to get to everyday destinations like school, the grocery store, friends' houses, etc.. Going to the doctor, or a movie theater, or whatever can mean much more driving. In Manhattan, there are dozens of everything within walking distance, and even taking a cab is more efficient than in the countryside.

Economies of scale also make it cheaper to deliver food and other goods, though sadly I have no statistics on this.

Finally, eating locally is to some extent an independent question; people in NYC could choose to eat only food that's seasonally available from the Northeast. The fact that they (and people in Iowa) choose not to doesn't mean that big cities are less efficient than rural towns. 

Posted by aram harrow

One more thing.
It's true that some people will still have to live there to run the mines, farms, train stations, etc. But not very many are necessary, and government should do what it can to encourage people not to live there, or if they do, not to spread out over very much space.

Historically, we've done the opposite. First settling the West was linked with conquering nature and establishing American glory. [Cadillac Desert talks about how this sort of thinking justifed many of the large dams built in the West.] Now "small town America" is supposed to be some repository of moral values.

Throughout, policy is based on nationalist sentiment and not what makes sense economically (as evidenced by depopulation and poverty despise massive subsidies) or environmentally.

Oh, one last environmental argument. For larger wildlife, esp. kinds with small populations, like predators, it's essential to have huge areas over which to roam. Thus, even a community of 100 people can be incredibly disruptive environmentally if they're connected to the road system (cf. settlers in Gaza). Perhaps this is what the linked Nature article was talking about (I still haven't read it...) By contrast, 100 people could fit in two floors of a small apartment building in NYC.

Aram, we've both listed a couple arguments for cities and small town living. At this point, I think we start needing to go to numbers and examples in order to make any progress. But I'll go on anyway because I don't have them.

First, are you distinguishing between small town and the surrounding areas? I've been in nice small towns where you could bike or walk everywhere you need to go. Sure, there aren't as many places to go as the city, but there are some kinds of places you'd never get in the city. In the surrounding areas, I know people who find it normal to go to town once a week to pick up supplies and stay at home otherwise.

Yes, if you want city living in a small town--and this seems to be what you call "standard of living"--it will be difficult.

"Economies of scale makes it cheaper to deliver food" is bullshit, esp. if as Hedgehog says, farms diversify. What is this based on? Big cities are by necessity further from their sources of food, as they'd have to be entirely surrounded by farmland in order to grow enough food to meet their priorities. Where do you make up for the extra shipping of food this requires? The vastly greater food wastage (have you ever checked out the Trader Joe's dumpsters?) The extra shipping of water? As Cadillac Desert also points out, single cities regularly reshape a vast swathe of the landscape around them in order to get water there.

I'm not saying that we should depopulate the cities and move everybody out to small towns (although I think that in many cases as smaller farms become more economical again, you will see urban-to-rural migration, as in Cuba and Venezuela). And, obviously, we both agree that there's a vast amount that both small towns and cities can do to become more environmentally efficient. But to go from there to trying to depopulate small towns seems crazy to me.  

Posted by Dan

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