Saturday, May 30, 2009

Static and Dynamic Views of Ecology

I read this Reuters article about the growing population of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades:

Wildlife biologists say the troublesome invaders -- dumped in the Everglades by pet owners who no longer want them -- have become a pest and pose a significant threat to endangered species like the wood stork and Key Largo woodrat.

"They eat things that we care about," said Skip Snow, an Everglades National Park biologist, as he showed a captured, 15-foot (4.6-meter) Burmese python to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was on his first fact-finding mission to the Everglades since the Obama administration took office.

Emphasis added. I found it fascinating that this scientist labels the python as "bad" and the wood stork as "good". Why? Why does the python not have a place in the Everglades ecosystem?

Yes, humans introduced these snakes when pet owners decided that they grew too large. So what? Humans are a part of nature, too, right?

Right? Well, perhaps not everyone agrees. There seems to be a view of ecosystems as static entities, pristine Edens in which inhabitants leave in peace until Big Mean Humans intrude. Species die out only because of human activity. Change, such as the introduction of new species to an area, is inherently bad.

Why? I'd like to know exactly why it is important to kill off the python population. Why does this species have to die to make room for others?

Why is change bad?

Related thoughts: On Earth Day, Geek With A .45 pointed out that eventually, Mother Nature is going to kill us all. The sun will go nova and kill all life on earth:

I submit therefore, that while stewardship of our resources is a laudable and necessary thing, that ultimately, our planet is 100% expendable, down to the very last molecule towards the goal of our ultimate escape...Nature is pleased to eat us, or kill us in any of a number of lingering, nasty, painful ways.


David said...

Check out State of Fear by Michael Crichton if you haven't already. This is a very telling piece on just this topic.

Anonymous said...

I can't speak for an entire movement, but I don't think I know any committed environmentalists who hold to that sort of "static" view of ecology. I don't know any of the particulars of this python case, so I can't really comment on that. Personally, while I do see an intrinsic value in "nature" in and of itself, I have a bias, if you will, for the welfare of human beings (who are, absolutely, a part of nature). It's not about the Big Mean Humans coming along and ruining things which would have otherwise been joyously Edenic. It's about human beings having much more ability to impact the environment, human beings being the only species capable of looking at their actions on a wide scale and rationally choosing to behave differently, and human beings making choices which are bad for human beings. If I'm bothered that European farm animals (rabbits, goats, etc) being imported and released into Australia, Africa, etc, tend to wipe out native species, I'm mostly bothered because those native species evolved together over millions of years to create a balanced ecosystem; when the balance is thrown off too quickly, you have all kinds of bad things happening TOO PEOPLE-- crops not growing, desertification, erosion, flooding, natural disasters, etc. Call me selfish. I care what happens to people. I happen to be one. My family is mostly people, as are my friends and coworkers. So I'd, you know, like to see us do well.

The "Geek" comment strikes me as kind of silly. It's similar to what you hear from the guy who smokes three packs a day, lives on twinkies and zingers, drinks and drives, hasn't exercised in the last sixteen years-- "hey, I'm gonna die someday, it's not like eating healthy and giving up cigarettes will make me live forever; plus, I could be hit by a bus any day now." True, true. But there's something to be said for quality of life in the meantime. For the impact we have on others in the meantime. For the amount of time we might have.

In millions or billions of years, the earth will be gone. And in the meantime, Mother Nature might eat us with lions or plagues or lightning strikes or tornadoes or landslides or flesh-eating viruses. But we do have control over some things. Nothing wrong with using it for the good.

John said...

I can't find much in your comment to disagree with -- although I might scale back some of the degree -- for it is well-argued.

I think that it's important to not simply dismiss environmental concerns (as some do) or buy into every doomsday ecological scenario (as others do), but to ask and answer why a change is bad. If species X dies out, will that harm humanity's prosperity?

As for the view that humanity is a blight upon nature, one might start with the removal of Native Americans in 1879 who were living in Yellowstone National Park -- an intentional removal of one element of the ecosystem -- for despoiling the natural wonders of the park with their presence.

More recently, you have Jonathon Porritt, who called upon the UK to reduce its population to a mere 30 million for environmental reasons.

This fear, and even more so the forced removal of Native Americans from Yellowstone (to name only one such incident in the history of the US National Parks) is predicated on the notion that humanity is separate from nature, and not a part of it. If humans remain in an ecosystem, or worse, grow within it, it is a bad thing.