In the preface to Nature Wars: People v Pests, Mark Winston writes that “Every kind of organism has defining characteristics by which it can be identified as an entity different from all others.” The upward turned wing
tips of the turkey buzzards that fly over the farm every day; the square lips of the white rhinoceros that identifies it as a grazer, separate from it’s hook-lipped, browsing ‘white’ cousin; the flashes of color as a family of
bluebirds takes off; the tail of a fox so distinctive from a distance; the strong smell of the Matabele ants so vivid in the memory of my childhood; the bouquet of different plants; the differing barks of the various oaks species ... each signals membership
of a distinct group.
These characteristics have been misinterpreted, sometimes with fatal consequences. The medieval Doctrine of Signatures, for example, held that every plant and animal was put on earth by the creator
to serve human beings and was marked with a signature that indicates the use to which it can be put. Thus the liver-shaped leaves of the liver wort indicated it could cure liver problems, and the ear-shaped hindwing of the earwig was a sign it could
cure earaches (crushed, and mixed with the urine of a hare!)
Humans too have signatures that make us distinctive to other species - an upright, bipedal posture, forward facing eyes and relatively hairless bodies.
These too have been abused, and variations within those characteristics - skin color, hair texture, eye shape, height - have led to judgment and divisiveness.
The most unusual aspect of being human however, as Winston
describes, is that we live simultaneously inside and outside of nature. We are subject to the same laws as other animals - our life span is finite, we vie for mates, we respond to variations of temperature and climate - yet unlike other species we consider
ourselves not only separate from nature but superior to, and more important than, the rest of life.
Justification for these feelings of eminence was found in the translation of the Hebrew memshalah as dominion,
as in having “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Does dominion mean ‘plunder and subjugate,’
or does it mean ‘care and look after’? A pronouncement by the Imperial Conference of 1926 described Great Britain and the dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in
no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs ...” Thus Canada was declared a dominion in 1867, as was Australia, New Zealand and South Africa within the next fifty years.
“Equal in status, in no way subordinate to another ...” Our relationship with fish, fowl, cattle and every creeping thing ‘doth changeth’ in the light of this interpretation compared to a definition which
justifies the conscious and deliberate remodeling of the globe to suit our needs and which is the core of our current environmental crisis.
Just as every organism has a defining characteristic so does it have a habitat,
a niche with food, water and shelter. We, by contrast, not only thrive in different habitats but can invent our own, whether it is the complexity of a city or the recent bio-dome built to test humans’ ability to survive in a Martian environment.
If we accept civilization as beginning 10 000 years ago with the development of permanent human settlements in at least four different areas of the world, then our society was essentially agricultural for 97% of that time, before the
scientific revolution drastically re-shaped our living standards and our environment. For more than 9500 years humans carved a few fields out of the forests and woodlands and fertilized them, if at all, with natural products. They burned a sustainable
amount of wood and traveled by foot, horseback or cart along essentially dirt tracks. Today we have token patches of natural vegetation which we need legislation to protect, and despite this, more than 150 million acres of pollinator habitat has been
destroyed in this country in the last 20 years. We burn so much fuel that we are modifying the earth’s climate, and asphalt highways are traveled by vehicles the emissions of which threaten the very quality of the air we breathe.
An aside. Fifty years ago, and four times a year, my drive to university covered 1400 miles, the first 400 of which took me through just one town. The parents of a colleague, Graham Henderson, realized after he had left for the same trip that
his passport was sitting on the dining room table and without it he could not cross the border at the Limpopo river. They phoned a rural police station 80 miles down the road and described the vehicle. The police put up a road block, recognized
the car (there were very few vehicles on the road anyway,) explained the situation and he returned home.
The danger did not come from emissions so much as from animals on the road, including, very occasionally,
elephants. Today, driving in the US, wherever I go, there always seem to be vehicles in front of me and vehicles coming up behind.
Honey bees are not indigenous to north America and were first introduced in 1623
as part of a western-based agricultural system. In the last 50 years they have been inundated with a number of viruses and parasites - tracheal mites, nosema ceranae, varroa mites and small hive beetle, for example, with more to come - which
not only straddle the world as the result of global transportation, but they exist in an increasingly toxic environment, as indeed do we. Speaking at the PSBA Conference in November, Mark Winston stated that 1.3 billion pounds of pesticides is used
in this country every year, which equates to about 4 pounds per person. Considering that most pesticides are toxic to humans in doses of one hundredth thousand to one millionth of a pound, that’s a lot of poison.
“Our ability to radically transform the world,” Winston writes, “has caught up with our historical, human-centered sense of dominance and distance.” Yet I would argue that we still do not have a grasp of the bigger
picture. Indeed recent elections in Europe and the USA suggest a return to divisiveness, confrontation, judgement and many of the elements of domination, defined as control and subjugate. Yet there continues to be a growing environmental ethic,
with local initiatives and national summits on climate change, although action can still be stymied by self interests.
If we are to be effective, indeed if we are to survive, perhaps we need to agree universally
on dominion as stewardship rather than as pillage, on interdependence rather than independence, on the web of life rather than a hierarchy. Action can be effective in a crisis - the response to the depletion of the ozone layer is one example - but stewardship
means being proactive rather than reactive, it means respect for all forms of life, it requires humility and requires a re-examination of what we mean by quality of life.
Rachel Carson concluded Silent Spring
by writing that “the control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” Or, as Mark Winston, would have it,
“Today’s growing environmental ethic exists because our impact on the globe is finally fouling our own nest.”