Pando Clone and conservation

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Pando Clone, Fish Lake National Forest, Utah
context: The Pando Clone is a giant stand of genetically identical aspen trees, making it the largest organism on earth. It’s also declining steeply due to disease and climate change (warmer winters mean that parasitic organisms which used to be killed off survive the winter to prey on the trees). We were divided into two groups—art and science. As part of the art group, I spent half a day wandering around taking pictures of the trees.
Aspen trees are gorgeous, especially now when the leaves are starting to turn. I’m so glad I got to see and photograph that and spend a day relaxing somewhere so beautiful. Is it bad that seeing beauty like this makes me care more about restoration? It’s such a stark contrast with yesterday, where we saw trampled streams and cowpies everywhere. The healthy trees here are beautiful, striking, even worthy of a postage stamp. But sometimes, what’s right ecologically doesn’t look as impressive aesthetically. So many exotic species were introduced because someone thought they would look better. How can we get people to care about more than appearance? How can we fight for the endangered dung beetles and seaweeds of the world when everyone’s focused on polar bears and tigers? I’m biased towards those charismatic megafauna just as much as everyone else, but I’m not even sure about ecological roles. I suspect large mammals generally play fairly key ecological roles, so perhaps our focus on them isn’t entirely misguided. But I don’t know that for a fact. Either way, they need research and money and habitat and PR, so maybe a public concerned about baby polar bears is better than a public indifferent o eubacteria or rare Amazonian lichens. But I want to believe we have more options than that. I want to get people to care about everything and the whole ecosystem, more than the sum of its parts. I want them to care because these things matter, not because they’re beautiful or they have potential for pharmaceutical research. But isn’t any kind of caring better than apathy? I’m not even sure why I care anymore, except a vague notion that my life depends on a planet in balance. I’m starting to think that balance is more subjective than I thought. I see balance in enclosures, but not the whole forest. Balance in the US, but not Brazil. How much balance do we need? How many functioning ecosystems? Is it ok to sacrifice the rest once we get there? In August, I would have shouted, “NO!” Now, I say no quietly, a bit hesitant. So many things I don’t know…

Biotic potential and existence value

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon

Today, we cut willows to plant by the creek tomorrow. Willows remind me of biotic potential. They’re the natural source of salicylic acid; they’re the reason humans discovered aspirin. I’ve always been a bit wary of drugs. I’ll take hardcore things for serious problems—horse pills of ciprofloxacin when I got sick in Ghana—but I’m not a fan of NSAIDs (aka non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) in general. I feel irrational, because I’d gladly take a tincture of willow bark to relieve pain. Chemically, there’s no difference. So why the hesitancy? Part of me just wants to be a hippie, and part of me is a competitive masochist who wants to push through the pain and let it wash over me. I had to re-evaluate this philosophy over the summer, when my cramps got so bad I couldn’t stand up and was on the verge of passing out at work. I took two tiny pink pills and magically felt better. I felt good, amazing, but it seemed like I was letting the pain win and forgoing the humility I was supposed to learn. It’s healthy to know we’re human. It’s healthy to feel out of control sometimes. To feel weak.
But humans don’t like to feel weak. We always want to be in control, both as individuals and as a culture, a civilization. The most common reason I hear for preventing species extinction goes back to that same willow. If we lost another plant, frog, insect or fungi, we lost their unique DNA. We lose the opportunity to study them, to reproduce and mass produce their compounds, We lose the cure for cancer, the keys to medical progress, the fountain of youth. All this and more, lurking unsuspectingly in the Amazon or the great trenches of the Pacific Ocean. How many lives could we save, if only we brought back the habitat?
This defense reeks of arrogance and pragmatism. We have a long and bloody history of assuming we’re the only species that matters on this planet. Even those who’ve gotten past that idea act as though we have a right, a responsibility, to manipulate nature as we see fit.
I want to cry foul. The rainforests aren’t here to cure our diseases. I think most of us know that. But to expect people to care about things for their own sake—how far can we get with that? We care about things almost perfectly based on how much we will be affected. Even Ed Abbey spoke of wilderness as a place for men to retreat from civilization, a place to wage guerilla warfare against a fascist government. People cry over our disappearing rainforests, so charismatic and colorful. People care about polar bears, pandas, tigers, wolves. Who loses sleep over endangered snails or spiders? Who cries for the lichen?
And should we care? It’s easier to say that a polar bear has an intrinsic right to exist. Does a tree have that same right? How far are we willing to extend it? Until it interferes with a human life? A human’s ability to make money? Or merely dislike and distaste? If the planet we make is one we can support ourselves on, does anything else matter for its own sake?
I want to say yes. I believe in those rights, at least until they interfere with human safety. But it’s so hard to see the world from the perspective of another species. I hope we can get there. Because we need to wake up, and I don’t want to live on a world of only us and the things we immediately need.