Man, the intruder species


    The LA Times did a big story Tuesday about how people are building retaining walls all up and down the coast to protect their homes from the impact of the ocean. The obvious message of the story was: This is a bad thing. We were tinkering with Mother Nature, which is naughty and will produce consequences, dire consequences.

    Underlying it all was an attitude that somehow there is a natural nature of which man is not a part, and somehow when we get involved, we persist in messing up this natural nature.

    To which I say: Hey, what are we? Chopped liver? Aren’t we part of nature?

    There are more than 34,000,000 of us in California, and within a decade there are going to be 36,000,000 plus. Does that change our natural nature, which is nature without man? You bet it does.

    Is that a bad thing? Are we supposed to apologize because we’re a particularly fertile species?

    If there really is a Darwinian battle going on for space and food and territory, should we feel bad because we’re winning?

    If the price of losing is extinction, isn’t that part of nature’s plan also?

    If the steelhead trout is rapidly becoming extinct, isn’t it arguable that the reason is they’re insufficiently adaptive to exist in a changing environment?

    If a new Ice Age descended on us, some species would make it and others would become extinct. We wouldn’t pass moral judgment on those that survived or go around blaming the ice. We’d accept it as the natural evolution of life.

    It’s very hip in some circles to think of us as the great despoilers. How about changing the paradigm and thinking of ourselves as the great providers? After all, we produce more, at least in the U.S., than we can ever consume. For many species, our wasteful abundance is a veritable treasure trove of bounty. You don’t see the coyotes complaining; they’ve never had it so good. The ants in my kitchen must think they died and went to ant heaven. Why should I be upset about the steelhead?

    So back to the original theme. Is it bad that we build retaining walls to protect our homes? Does it shift the sands someplace else? Probably.

    Is that a bad thing?

    Is this an issue of morality, or have we created some idealized version of nature? Sort of a noble nature, a natural nature that man is not supposed to touch. At times, it sounds vaguely religious.

    The fact is, there is no way that 36,000,000 people can live in this space without impacting nature, some of it for good and, I’m sure, some of it for bad, very bad. It’s indisputable that man is a big pig, and more often than not will grab everything there is to grab just because it’s there. Certainly our environmentalism should restrain our natural tendency to piggishness. But let’s not turn this into a cult, and let’s not kid ourselves. None of us is so pure that we aren’t part of the problem. You go to your average Sierra Club meeting and the parking lot is filled with SUVs the size of WWII tanks.

    I guess what bothered me about the article, what was implicit in the story, was the unspoken belief that if God had wanted a seawall there, God would have created a rock bluff, and man putting one there conflicts with a great natural plan. The way I see it, if God had some great natural plan to keep nature natural, God wouldn’t have made us so fertile, so there wouldn’t be so many of us.