I’m not asking whether the present human presence on planet earth is good or bad for the ecosystem. The answer to that is screaming at us from every clearcut and every Superfund site on the planet, from the smog over Beijing and Mexico City, and from the stifled holocaust of the Sixth Extinction.
There’s no question that humans are a blight on the planet, but does it have to be that way? Is it “us or them”, or can we coexist with a flourishing biosphere? Or, better still, is it possible that humans could become benevolent stewards of a planet more abundantly diverse and more richly productive than the abundantly diverse and richly abundant planet that humans were born into some hundreds of thousands of years ago?
Michael Rosenzweig is a sage in ecologist’s clothing, who has made the subject of coexistence the focus of his research for the last two decades. Within the context of urban landscapes, we can create parks and preserves, ecotourist sites, even backyards that assure a friendly environment for birds and fish and an interdependent network of species.
Charles C. Mann has written about the cultures and ecology of the American continent before the arrival of Europeans. The Americas were at least as populous as Europe before Columbus, and its cultures were richer, more diverse, and more ancient than Eurasia.
Among the indigenous cultures of the Americas, there were some who practiced a lifestyle that may have looked at first blush like primitive hunter-gatherering; but in fact, there was so much more to hunt and gather because of their management of the semi-wild environment. They burned forests to create grasslands for the bison, which ranged all the way to the Atlantic coast, and which they harvested with due restraint. They planted forests rich with American Chestnut and fruit trees, not monocultured orchards, but sustainable forests with a symbiotic mix of tree species. (Later the American Chestnut has been driven near extinction by a blight imported from Europe.) There is even a theory that the vast richness of the Amazon habitat exists only because of indigenous tribes that periodically burn and plant small sections, then return them to the wild. This style of land management supports many more people per square mile than pure hunter-gatherer methods, and is far less labor intensive than agriculture.
Rebecca Bliege Bird is an anthropologist who has documented the relationship between indigenous Australians and animal populations of the Australian desert that once (indirectly) depended on them. The Martu are a desert people whose presence over many centuries became a keystone in the balance of the fragile ecosystem, regulating predator populations and keeping out invasive species.
Charles Eisenstein is a visionary philosopher, workshop leader, and author of four books describing the present human situation, how we got here, and how we can see our way clear to a more beautiful world. (Hint: It’s nobody’s fault.) It was Eisenstein who introduced me to the idea that humans have a purpose in the Grand Plan, that domination and killing off the ecosystems that preceded us cannot last much longer, and that we are acquiring the knowledge and skills we will need to manage a world of abundance, diversity, and natural beauty, which will support humanity far more comfortably and far more gloriously than our extractive technologies now permit.
Conclusion: I suspect that any activity by a top predator can support a rich ecosystem underneath, given only that the activity is sustained (and therefore sustainable) over a long enough time for other species to evolve in response. In the case of present humans, that leaves us out. But for future humans, it suggests that we need not become wise about the rich and subtle interplay of ecological forces in order to “manage” it consciously, but only that we act with the restraint and consistency that will soon (within decades) be forced upon us in any case. The world’s ecology will beat a path to our cities.