One of the critiques of the environmental movement has been that it’s too much gloom and doom. The facts and statistics can be so depressing that people just turn off. It’s understandable that proponents use these facts to try to scare people into action. Unfortunately, the people who really do need to take action—politicians and those in charge of corporations—seem motivated only by one thing: money.
In fact, those same groups, and people who support them, have taken up the depressing facts and engaged in misinformation campaigns. They pour money into advertisements and supposedly informational flyers that put the blame for environmental degradation back on individuals. These groups like to take up and amplify statistics, like if everyone only engaged in meatless Monday, the world would be a far better place. Or plastic bags are ruining the environment so it’s up to each of you to buy reusable bags and take them to the store with you. Or the plastic straws are evil campaign which had everyone going out to buy metal straws. It’s not that these actions are bad, or that they can’t make any difference; it’s just that they divert the blame away from large scale manufacturing. It’s the corporations who don’t want to put in more expensive methods for cleaning the air before it’s released into the environment who are most committed to pointing the finger back at individuals. These corporations also have their fingers in the pockets of many politicians, which means those politicians won’t vote for stricter governmental regulations.
So I suppose that’s the first thing this post wants to do: to absolve you of some of your guilt over your own particular environmental weaknesses. That time you forgot your reusable bags in the car and went ahead and got a plastic bag at the grocery store. That time you were too lazy to wash off your aluminum foil and recycle it. That time you purchased a drink in a Styrofoam cup because you were so very thirsty and there were no alternatives. Believe me, if you think about the environment at all, if you care and make some choices you know are probably better for the environment, you are doing far more than most CEOs.
But more than that, what I want us to realize is that we are on the cusp of true understanding. Humanity can get better. We can improve the way we interact with the rest of the world—including plants and animals. I came across a fascinating article recently about how feral donkeys and horses dig wells in dry and desert areas. These animals are not native to these areas, and yet researchers discovered they help the ecosystem. Other animals come and benefit from these wells. Plants grow because these wells are dug. And because some researchers decided to just really take a look and find out what the true effects of these donkeys and horses were, despite prevailing ideas that any non-native animals must necessarily be bad for a local ecosystem, we now know that we can manage these animals in a much more humane way—while still supporting the environment.
Coming across this article was a revelation for me. I had stopped reading the book Sapiens after I got to the part where the author claimed humanity has been trashing the environment for thousands of years. When humans got to Australia, for example, they may have driven the local megafauna to extinction. Before humans got there, Australia had 6000 pound wombats. In fact, across the earth, megafauna may have been wiped out primarily by humans—wooly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant sloths.
I am fascinated by the evolution of humanity. I suppose I keep going back to look for where we went wrong. I was so excited when I discovered, for example, that hunter gatherers most likely did not live short, brutish lives; in fact, researchers estimate that hunter gatherers had far more leisure time than people did once we started growing crops. They also had fewer diseases, since many of our diseases came from living in close contact with livestock, and the hierarchy of their groups was likely far less rigid and oppressive than agrarian societies: the subjugation of women may not have been as necessary, since lineage was not required if there was no land to inherit.
But the book Sapiens makes the argument that humanity was always severely affecting the environment—controlled fire to change the landscape, over-hunting, out-competing other species for resources. Or at least after the “Cognitive Revolution,” which the author places at 70,000 years ago.
And I found this incredibly sad. There was never a time when we were better, the book seemed to be saying. And with all the information that we have now about the environment, its fragility, and the extinction of species due to human activity, I certainly didn’t feel like we are better right now.
But! Here we are making discoveries that our cast-off animals from the past, animals we thought of as merely tools, could potentially play the same role in the ecosystem as animals we helped kill off thousands of years ago.
Add to that hopeful fact this wonderful movement in the United Kingdom and Europe, which they are calling Rewilding. In England, someone who inherited quite a bit of land—the Knepp estate —decided to turn that land from traditional agriculture to wild land. He and his wife did research and connected with other people and realized that they might be able to help bring back some plant and animal species in England that have become very very rare, or that had not been seen in England for decades or longer. They stopped farming. They encouraged native plants. They gradually introduced animals who were from that area, such as Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies. The result was a cascade of species coming back, so they have seen butterflies and birds that were thought to be, if not extinct yet, at least on the brink of extinction. The success of this project, faster than people expected, grew into re-wilding. And, like some of the land bridges that have been built across highways in the United States, the people in charge of the Knepp estate in England realized they needed to build areas that connected. They needed not just to have islands of wild land that supported native plants and animals, but to have connections so that the whole area could come alive again.
Although England tends to do farming better than we do in the United States, privileging smaller farms and carting their meat and produce across shorter distances, they could nevertheless use their land more effectively. We know this from seeing the way people have grown marijuana. You can grow a lot of food in a small footprint, using technological innovation. Then more land could be converted to wild land.
Rewilding is happening in Europe as well. All these small and very separate countries, many with a violent history of disagreement, are recognizing that they have to join their wild areas in order to attain the kind of sustainable living required for a healthy ecosystem and for healthier humanity. As some people have recognized, being better stewards of the earth means we’re also better stewards of humanity. And sustainable technology can even be financially rewarding.
There are, of course, organizations that have been doing this type of work in the United States as well. It’s a bit more of an uphill battle in the United States, due to the values of rugged individualism, unregulated capitalism, and a sense that there is always more land. But we can move forward, have hope for the future, as the new-to-me genre of Solarpunk attests.
My point is that we can evolve in our thinking. We catch glimpses of the best that humanity can be—in scientists, in artists, in activists. All the frightening and negative news, the widening wealth gap, the decline in education, the climate crisis—yes, that stuff’s true. But so are the possibilities, new ways we can think about the world and ourselves. I urge you to remember those possibilities. I know I need to remember them. Who couldn’t use a little hope?