The absence of mankind

While I was on St. Kitts and Nevis, I visited a wild beach -- it is completely undeveloped and rarely used at all by people, because it is so exposed. There is no shade from the tropical sun, and the Atlantic surf is so rough that it is impossible to go in the water.

On the sand, there were turtle nests, plover nests, and tern nests. The upper beach platform had all kinds of fascinating maritime plants growing there, the cliffs were amazing -- it was gorgeous.

There was some plastic trash washed up of course, but other than that there was not much sign of humans. What makes a natural place the most lovely is the absence of people and their deleterious effects.

I believe E. O. Wilson is right to suggest that us humans should occupy only half of the surface of the planet's land masses, and leave the other half completely to Nature.

When I worked at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1980 to 82, fairly often I used to be able to sit with Wilson in the tearoom, and have wide-ranging conservations. He is one of the most brilliant and kind people I have ever met.

We should listen to his words.

Nature is our original mother. We have to cherish our planet and all the organisms which are our family of living things. If we don't do that we harm ourselves irreparably, and we destroy our only home.

Posted by susanhewitt susanhewitt, May 31, 2016 11:52

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It is so exciting and rare to find such unspoiled gems these days. Your description makes it sound like paradise. I find we often have discussions about the destructive influence of man on the planet and lament the loss of wild places and species, but all to rarely address the root cause: overpopulation. There are simply too many people on this planet and too few meaningful conversations about solutions to that (beyond the coffee shops of Santa Cruz).

Words like Wilson's often come to mind when I am listening to news stories about people complaining that seals have taken over a favorite beach, or hearing rants about sea otters eating their abalone. We have so taken so much and still begrudge our non-human neighbors what they need. I'd have surely loved to have those conversations with Wilson over tea....

Posted by gbentall over 4 years ago (Flag)
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Hello Gena. Yes , overpopulation is the real problem. At least I can say I never had children, that's a step in the right direction.

I am amazed at how many people think that the only real purpose for their lives is to reproduce; that is sad.

Society fatuously dangles an empty promise in front of people -- that having children and grandchildren will make them really happy -- that they will then feel satisfied and fulfilled. In reality, most people do a bad job of raising their kids, and the task makes most parents less happy, not more happy, not to mention producing children who grow into adults who are also unhappy, and who will make other people around them unhappy.

We go out of our way to try to make sure that everyone can have babies on demand, instead of encouraging people not to reproduce.

It seems to me that it is not difficult to learn to love all organisms as if they were your own children, a much better solution.

Posted by susanhewitt over 4 years ago (Flag)
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We are sisters in the Vestigial Womb Society! Welcome!

It is a touchy subject to discuss reproduction on nearly every level unless you are congratulating new parents on a baby or friend on a pregnancy. I am somewhat notorious for not holding my tongue ("Really?You're want to have another one??") but still manage to get invited to baby showers. The older I get, the less interested I am in being appropriate.

Many of my friends are ecologists. They should (and do) know better but the drive to reproduce is powerful and there is a long list of society-sanctioned excuses for doing so (and often societal judgement for not), and so they meet their 2 child self-replacement maximum.

Posted by gbentall over 4 years ago (Flag)
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I agree with you Susan and how absolutely wonderful that you have actually met E.O. Wilson.

I feel that cherishing nature is a vital first step, but I also feel that it isn't enough. Often times, people who appreciate nature ONLY appreciate nature. They use her without giving something back or aiding in sustainability. It's like comparing people who takes care of their pets to people that only play with their pets. There's also a need for people to perceive nature from an historical context; not only how nature IS, but also how nature WAS for the effects of the shifting baselines theory is taking hold on the majority of the population.

I also agree with Ms. Bentall that overpopulation is the main cause towards the problems faced today. Consumerism also plays a pivotal role. Humans are bleeding the Earth dry. No invention or artificial altering of biology by man can extend our carrying capacity on Earth to finite numbers. Is it radical for me to feel that something devastating needs to happen to the human race to finally wake all of humanity up before it's too late?

Posted by cedric_lee over 4 years ago (Flag)
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I agree with you, Cedric, that people have to learn that if they think that they are "fond" of something, it doesn't actually mean anything unless they give, give and give, and be prepared to do without, in order that other organisms may flourish and that nature may be healthy.

I am not sure that one or more devastating events would necessarily change the way that people think of their role in the health or illness of the planet. It would shake people's complacency for sure, but devastating events can sometimes cause people (at any rate the most nervous people, people who feel they have the most to lose) to become even more self-centered, not less.

Posted by susanhewitt over 4 years ago (Flag)
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Ahh yes Susan! Events like the "tragedy of the commons" also occurring had slipped my mind. Perhaps our best solution is education.

Posted by cedric_lee over 4 years ago (Flag)
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If we could interview the planet, I suspect we would hear that she laments our transgressions, scoffs at our solutions, and is planning to fix things herself. That being said, education is our best solution, especially in cases where education can have an effect on birth rate. Now if we could only educate First World denizens to want less, consume less, waste less, in addition to having fewer children, then we might be on to something, but that is sacrilege in a nation founded on Capitalism.

As a scientist now turning my attention to outreach as a tool, I am finding passion in fostering a sense that we are not separate, or other, but part of a community in which all life are considered our neighbors. The good news for this kind of preaching, is that there is abundant science to support this contention. It does often become necessary to address issues from a "What's in it for me" standpoint, no matter how great the plea for empathy and unity.

Posted by gbentall over 4 years ago (Flag)
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You are so right Gena, "if we could only educate First World denizens to want less, consume less, waste less, in addition to having fewer children, then we might be on to something, but that is sacrilege in a nation founded on Capitalism."

But at least some people are beginning to realize that "having it all" does not make them happy after all.

Posted by susanhewitt over 4 years ago (Flag)
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What do you two think about corporations or illegal operations outside of the United States that don't have tight regulations? Certain resources have been largely exhausted in the US and EU. Those corporations argue that for other countries to dictate what they can or cannot do in their country is unjust considering that the more developed countries have already profited. They want their share of the pie. In South America, thousands of acres of rain forests are being cut down everyday for cattle ranching, agriculture, timber, etc. Illegal poaching and fishing are also rampant around the world. I don't think educating the heads of corporations or individuals who are bent on making the most profit possible without even caring about the ecological repercussions is going to solve this problem. We can educate the public to reduce demand on supplies that harms the environment, but to change the mindset of millions of people who are accustomed to a life of luxury isn't an easy task. In addition, millions of other people are living in poverty, cannot afford an education, and have to work to make ends meet. How can we change their mindset to care about nature when all they are worrying about is paying off next month's bill or feeding themselves? Changing and enforcing government policy, on the other hand, might be more effective in some circumstances.

Posted by cedric_lee over 4 years ago (Flag)
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Top-down change (creating new laws) often doesn't work, enforcement being a big stumbling block. And an even bigger problem is the fact that the threat of punishment is simply not an effective deterrent. Punishment does not work well at all as motivator of behavioral changes -- B. F. Skinner proved that. On the other hand, grass-roots change, change from the bottom up, fueled by a shift in people's perspective, is often the most effective way to have more sweeping changes happen.

In developing countries you need to find a way for the poorest segment of people to improve their lives, and perhaps be able to make some money out of conservation, rather than eking out a living using slash and burn or other destructive methods.

We desperately need more global sharing. The wealthiest and most wasteful segment of the global population needs to learn to live simply, so that others may simply live. We need to demonstrate to the wealthier people (including you and me) that caring and sharing, both personally and globally, delivers more joy than hoarding and consuming.

It is easy to feel that as an individual you are powerless to help change this situation. But in reality there is great power in being a happy, living demonstration of the way of life that you believe is the right way.

Posted by susanhewitt over 4 years ago (Flag)
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Grassroots movements can be effective too, but maybe not always? For instance, how can local grassroots movements effectively combat widespread corruption and exploitation in their region, often putting their lives, as well as those they care about at risk because certain corporations or individuals will snuff out anyone that they view as obstacles? I know that some people are willing to die for their cause, but that sort of mentality is rare.

I definitely agree with "In developing countries you need to find a way for the poorest segment of people to improve their lives, and perhaps be able to make some money out of conservation, rather than eking out a living using slash and burn or other destructive methods." In Africa, rather than cutting down trees for money, locals are conserving their environment because they can make a living off of ecotourism. In general, I don't think humans have an intrinsic need to destroy their environment.

Although I am actually considered living in "poverty", it might be perceived as a "luxury" in other countries. For instance, when I visited China over a decade ago, my first realization at how great we have it over in the U.S. was when I saw the bathrooms which were literally holes in the floor. We take our luxurious toilets and plumbing for granted. I also consider myself low in the bracket of consumerism. I'm still regularly using jeans and jackets that were handed down to me by my older brother over 7 years ago, having only bought few sets of new clothing over the past years out of necessity with most others coming as gifts, and I take pride in this. Unfortunately, not many people living the life of luxury feel the same way I do, but I do believe that if given a choice, a lot more people would be content living a more simple life. Back in 2011, my psychology class and I took a survey that scored our "tendency to consume" and I got the lowest score. To my surprise, I was given an ovation. Like I said earlier, I think it's really difficult to change the current situations of people accustomed to the life they are already living in, especially when they have obligations to their families and other people around them. If I could live a much more simpler life and just escape from all the "luxuries" in which I've been accustomed to, I would, but I can't. I've already been assimilated to American society and this is the only way I've learned, thus far, to live, and even if I did learn to survive on just the most basic of needs, I am still tied down by my obligations. I am sure alot of people feel the same way.

Let's say that in the end, even if humans do so much damage to Earth as to cause our own extinction, I think life will still persevere. Earth has survived through 5 great mass extinctions. Surely, she will survive the sixth. But of course, every effort should be geared towards preventing this from happening, for the sake of humanity and the life around us.

Also, thank you Susan for starting this lively conversation.

Posted by cedric_lee over 4 years ago (Flag)
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I think people pursue more and more luxury, and more and more wealth, because they believe they will eventually reach the point where it will give them permanent happiness and fulfillment, lasting joy. So they become more and more grasping and more and more self-centered, less and less generous.

I live in Manhattan, in NYC, and there are parts of that island that are a temple to Mammon.

I am not saying that we should live in a grass hut and use a toilet that is a hole in the ground, but if we can show others by our own life that greater simplicity can free us to be more giving, more generous, more caring and kinder, and thus more happy, that is the best way to spread the word.

Posted by susanhewitt over 4 years ago (Flag)

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