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Nature’s Tipping Point—Part 1

Over the next several weeks I’m going to intersperse my usual kinds of blogs with a series featuring Michael Soule. Michael is widely considered the “father” of conservation biology, a field he helped establish in order to bring scientific rigor to conservation practices. I profile him in depth in my book, The Spine of the Continent.

In today’s blog, Michael confronts the paradox of human success. As a species we have proliferated partly due to what he dubs “pro-life” impulses including humanitarianism; animalism; and conservationism. Our deeper rooted impulses – the emotional brain, which really controls our behavior – always misleads us and has resulted in monumentally destructive consequences.

Please join Michael in dialog about these vital questions. Comment on his blogs, post your own, and disseminate widely across various social networks! Part of the solution is creating a wider discussion around the issues that assail us, so we can make better decisions together.

Note: This and some subsequent blogs are excerpted from “Perverse Compassion: The Faith-based, Trickle-down Model of Conservation,” by Michael Soule, the full text of which is available on his website:

Nowadays, the pace of environmental degradation is staggering. Planetary change is happening perhaps 100 times as fast as a century ago. Everything is affected by the speedup – digital communications,, stock trades, how fast we walk, and the rate of species extinction. Assuming that commerce and growth carry on as usual, virtually all wild rivers will soon be dammed, most tropical forests replaced by commercial plantations, marine fish stocks will continue to be depleted, oceans increasingly acidified, deserts “improved” with desalinated water, wind farms, and solar collectors.

Our species achieved its near-absolute dominance over nature linked to a series of cognitive and cultural breakthroughs between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, beginning with artisinal innovation, the refinement of language, and cooperation within and between clans. For good and harm, there is little question that humans are without peer in many cognitive and behavioral realms. Compassion is one of these realms, and so is the moral impulse to care about the well-being of others – at least some others. Humanitarianism, the promotion of human welfare, has greatly improved the human condition overall.

But humans are not angels, and the ideal of a universal, loving humanity is still beyond our reach. Intergroup aversion and hostility are ubiquitous, and human groups are often rivals. Racism, patriotism, and religious fundamentalism constrict and distort our humanitarianism. We all have biases, dissonant beliefs, stuff we hate, ideologies to which we cling and those that we despise.

Our clannish nature contributes to an “us-against-them” estrangement between human beings and other life forms, particularly those creatures, such as wolves and prairie dogs that might unconsciously challenge our hegemony. A related bias is “resourcism,” the exceptionalist notion that nature has little value except as a human resource and that non-resource creatures have no value or “purpose.” Our impulse to dominate nature reflects this resource/non-resource dualism and is one of the darker hairs on the underbelly of humanitarianism.

Questions: Many scientists call for us to rename the current geological epoch the “anthropocene,” to reflect the fact that human behavior is impacting Earth processes on a par with great geological forces. Is renaming a sober confrontation with reality, or is it throwing-in-the-towel? What do you think of the evident preference humanity has for its own kind above that of other species? And what of “resourcism”? Is nature here purely for our own use, or does it have an inherent right to exist?

Next week’s blog discusses what some are calling “the new environmentalism,” which says that current trends are nothing to worry about, and in fact create opportunities to help improve the standard of living for more people. This view expressly places nature in the position of servant to human master.

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