By Bill Drelles, Lee Hall, and Matt Shaw
On Earth Overshoot Day, which inches earlier each year, we exhaust more resources than Earth annually regenerates. #Pledgefortheplanet, we tweet! But what of the root-level change needed to address “over-exploitation” of Earth and its living communities?
Sometimes we pause to focus on our most blatant, direct exploitation of other living beings—say, in heavy agribusiness. But the problem is bigger. Throughout our range across the Earth’s surface, we deem ourselves nature’s managers. Managers usually have to account for themselves in performance reviews. What if Earth Overshoot Day prompted a performance review of humanity? Let’s try it.
Specific Evaluation Areas: Shares Accurate, Complete Information; Is Committed to Act Upon It
Standard not met. We sideline thinkers who challenge the supremacy of Homo sapiens, while agribusiness and extractive corporations dominate “sustainability” conversations. Politically influential charities support the quest for profit if it’s “just this far.” Rather than pondering how many marine biocommunities we should exploit, can’t green groups ask their donors to leave fish in the water?
Communication: Listens Carefully.
Not happening. Consider the climate crisis. Public figures (those who do acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change) treat nature’s response to us as an enemy force.
Climate change is the loudest message Earth has ever sent to us, yet we cannot humble ourselves to listen. If we listened, we wouldn’t push untamed animals into ever-smaller fractions of the Earth’s finite surface. Our cows alone outweigh all the free-living land mammals combined.
Competently Approaches Problems
Needs work. It’s not that we lack ways to solve our species-version of manspreading. We could shift government support for human procreation to adoption. We could remove loopholes allowing drilling, grazing, logging, commercial explorations, and other human intrusions into current public lands and wilderness areas. We could undertake a shift away from animal-derived foods, excessive residential footprints, private transportation, and disposable items and packaging.
Immediately needed are goals and assessment methods to stop sprawl—everything from fracking to pasture-based farming. Policy must be written to support community participation. We could start now.
To start, we must admit we know little about the biosphere—the ultimate example of complexity. We humans are ill-equipped to predict a variety of consequences of our activities.
Take microfiber clothing, now a mainstay of outdoor fashion. What could go wrong? Production is cheap; no pesticides; low energy and water input; “vegan”; and the end products are easily spot-cleaned and air-dried.
We put a few million garments into the environment, and the experiment began.
It’s a case study at the intersection of technology and ecology. A useful material for many people in societies and states driving global trends, whose impact isn’t perceived in our real-time observations. And when it finally comes to our attention—when an ecologist releases a study of these modern garments as possibly the biggest source of plastic in our oceans—nobody wants to deal with it.
What’s going on with nano-tech materials? There’s a technology with multiple known potential failure modes prior to the launch into the consumer sphere. Lots of hand-wringing. Yet it’s full-speed-ahead as new applications proliferate. A cautionary tale for high-tech advancements in the quest to “combat climate change” as well?
Collaboration: Encourages Mutual Support
Could do better. The stress humans impose on each other is mind-boggling. Many of us nurture pets. But “man’s best friend” should be humanity itself.
Not that it’s OK to “get rid of” our pets. Let’s not be moral jerks. But we should have the maturity to stop breeding new animals into being to become our unwilling children. Learning to love each other could be an element of a paradigm shift that also effects animal liberation.
This root-level response to Earth overshoot would remediate the impacts of housing and feeding domestic animals, covering wildlands with yards and paddocks, and creating conflicts between pets and untamed animals; it would halt the generation of waste from tens of millions of pets.
And can we stop relating to untamed animals as though they were pets?
On an asphalt path in Rocky River Reservation in suburban Cleveland, a squirrel watches expectantly as we approach. “How cute!” Maybe we could feed the squirrel, take a close-up and post it to Facebook! It’s our conditioning that tells us buying a feeder is in birds’ best interests, that we should nurture raccoons, rabbits, and bees, rather than the habitat and natural foliage that would support them as they nurture their own.
Perhaps the issue here is that we, the generation that grew up with Walt Disney, have yet to articulate an ethic of respect for the untamed.
Promotes Awareness of and Respect for Cultural and Individual Values and Differences
Unacceptable in part. In the sphere of studies called ethology, we anticipate the thought processes of other beings, sometimes to learn about our own cognition, sometimes to learn about theirs. Either way, ethologists persist in holding these beings captive.
We also market a scientifically approved form of privilege to stare at animals, to enter their own territories.
Case Sample: Other Primates as the Focus of Tourism
Why ravage nature when we can monetize—er, save it? To save the apes, we’ve introduced “habituation” to nonhuman primates. The proximity of humans to chimpanzees at Gombe alone has resulted in outbreaks of tuberculosis, pneumonia, and numerous other diseases.
And now, in Uganda, invoking the support of Jane Goodall, the Magic Safaris company boasts of rehabilitating Uganda’s trafficked chimpanzees, presenting the feeding of the apes as photo opportunities for tourists.
Studies discussed by Craig B. Stanford in Planet Without Apes (Harvard, 2012, at 177) found more aggression in gorillas near tourists. Another issue, noted by Michele L. Goldsmith, is that a lowered sense of alarm in the presence of humans can spread beyond the targeted group as habituated apes move.
Conclusion and Major Recommendation for Self-Improvement
Many among us, spanning the entire political spectrum from left to right, have insisted that humanity’s status on Earth is unique, that we are the measure of all Earthly things. They’ve feared that to challenge our supremacy would initiate a wholesale transformation of civilization. Yet such a deep transformation might well be exactly what we need to evolve from here.
To call our biosphere’s predicament severe is to understate the case. Climate change is picking up speed, changing habitats worldwide, causing migrations of humans and other living beings, basically rendering talk about both “invasive species” and “illegal immigrants” babyish.
Only a true paradigm shift will have us live in a manner reconcilable with ethics and the undeniable reality that we are part of the very biosphere that’s now rejecting our famously clever selves. If we want to live, we need to heed the loudest message Earth has ever sent.
Bill Drelles is a member of the Cleveland Vegan Society, and can be reached at [email protected]. Lee Hall is author of On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Century (2016): [email protected]. matt shaw is a student and activist in Tucson and can be reached at [email protected].