My Turn: Desire for perfect, neat surroundings is taking its toll on planet


Friday, November 03, 2017

Bill Danielson’s article “Where Have the Birds Gone,” reminded me of the recent article by Caspar Hallmann, et al. documenting the loss of three-quarters of the insects in German nature preserves over the last two decades. There is much talk about species extinction, but little attention is given to the tremendous drop in the number of once common species across the globe.

Often there simply isn’t good data, so we are left to rely upon anecdotal evidence. For things like flying insects, we have “windshield” evidence. Fifty years ago, a driver had to stop frequently to clean his windshield simply to be able to see through it since the insects were so abundant. Today, they’re virtually gone. There aren’t anecdotal tests for crawling insects, spiders or microbes so we don’t have any reminders of their dwindling numbers. Not even the scientists are keeping track since grants don’t support long-term monitoring of non-commercial species.

Some see this destruction as a good thing. After all, a house without spiders or a yard without ants is desirable today. In our homes, we are conditioned to kill germs and every creature other than ourselves and our pets. We extend it to our yards, where we kill every uninvited organism. We seek ornamentals that are “pest resistant,” which is simply another way of saying that nothing can live on them. We douse our grounds with poisons to kill any organisms we don’t see, but which might be there. We use mechanized tools and a suite of herbicides to destroy every plant other than the few we planted. We enact town regulations and empower officials to force this systematic killing on private properties and public ways.

The most dismaying thing is that no real purpose is served by all of this effort. Mostly, it’s built upon the human obsession with control that must be reinforced by an appearance of “neatness.” Moles in yards leave mounds of soil that mar the absolute uniformity of a lawn. Moles eat the grubs that damage the grass, but people have poisons to serve that purpose, so the moles must go. Brushy growth provides havens for a multitude of invertebrates, which then provide food for the birds, but it looks “messy,” so we buy bird seed and the brush must go. The fact that bird feed is grown on commercial fields doused with sufficient poison to turn them into biological deserts doesn’t bother the bird fanciers who want their neat lawns, and will demand that the town force their neighbor to kill enough things to satisfy nebulous standards of neatness.

None of this might matter if man could survive without other species, but every effort to artificially create a sustainable human environment, from controlled ecological life support systems to Biodome, has failed. In spite of our massive assemblage of knowledge, we simply don’t know what parts of the biosphere are essential for the maintenance of human life. In light of that humbling conclusion, it seems the height of folly for people to continue to indiscriminately kill things. For our sake and for our children, we should be encouraging life of every sort to thrive, flourish and increase its numbers, even if it means giving over control of land which we “own” to nature rather than forcing our unconsidered compulsion for order upon it. It might not look neat. It might not look pretty. It might involve sharing space with ants and spiders, wasps and weeds, but it might also be what we need to survive.

Another danger comes from the phenomenon of “shifting baselines.” To old people, it was normal to have windshields splattered with bugs, and piano keys made from abundant elephant ivory. For people long-dead, it was normal for fish to be so plentiful, they could be scooped up from the shore, and for flocks of birds to darken the skies. Young people today live in homes and yards devoid of every form of life other than a few cultivated species and they view this as “normal.” Never knowing what once was, they won’t quickly see what is being lost, nor will they have any inclination to recover it since, to them, a world teeming with life would be odd and vaguely disconcerting.

Mankind has always sought to improve things, but throughout most of history, his ability to fundamentally alter the world was limited. Fortunately for man, much of nature has always managed to escape his pogroms and maintain pockets of fecund “wildness” even in his homes and towns. But modern technology now empowers billions of individuals to casually destroy life at a previously unknown scale. Our misguided effort to “perfect” the world is destroying its ability to support us. We implicitly teach our children that what we create to surround them is “normal” and “healthy,” even as the world slowly sickens and dies.

John Blasiak lives in Greenfield.