Tag Archive | nature

Thoughts on Environmentalism and an Anthrocentric World

Elephants in Laikipia

Elephants in Laikipia

My friend recently asked me if I thought that “humans were more important than other species.” I sent him back a rambling reply, the question was thought provoking to an extent that I turned it into a blog post, which, unfortunately, still rambles.

I think that rather than ask whether humans are “more important than other species,” we have to explore the human-nature dichotomy itself. Unfortunateley, discussions on environmental issues seem to start from an assumption that one exists. These discussions, which put humans at odds with nature, generally lose me on three points (though, again, this is not my field of expertise):

1) The intense focus on large mammals. If we are going to convince ourselves that “nature’s” needs are more important than our own (or simply worth considering) we have to eliminate the idea of a hierarchy of species and consider all living things as equally important. It often seems that conversations become less holistic and more mammal-centric. Given that we are mammals and hard wired to like cute and furry things (particularly those small and weak), this is to be expected. However, the urge to protect things like ourselves makes it impossible for humans to objectively rank the importance of living things.

How often do you hear about people screaming to save snakes? Perhaps it happens and I just don’t hear about it. Clearly, big furry animals are an easy sell.

2) The idea that “species” are distinct entities, the number of which needs to be maximized at any cost. Preserving more species is seen as a goal, when in fact, the word itself is not uncontroversial. “Species” is a rough and artificial concept created by humans to assist in our understanding of the world. Even scientists can’t agree on what a species is, given that the situation that determines how a species is defined differs by type of animal and context (and history).

Take the Zebra, which comes in three main flavors, though I’ll focus on two. The Grevy zebra is Equus grevyi and the plains zebra is Equus quagga, different “species” by classification, but able to breed with one another and create offspring which are able to reproduce. The two “species” are distinct from one another only in superficial morphological features (stripes and size) and behavior.

Gravy’s, though genetically indistinct from plains zebras, are listed as endangered, which gives them certain benefits and allows Kenya (for example) to legally restrict grazing for Maasai goat herders, with the support of international groups. It’s a simplistic example, but it makes little sense to me to ask that humans make sacrifices based on a flawed concept of what makes a “species.” It also makes little sense to create policy which impacts the lives of Africans based on a false paradigm created by 19th century Europeans (“Gravy” was a French President). Yet, here we are.

An aside, but I often think that people really believe that “species,” particularly large mammals, are individuals with distinct personalities and collective thought patterns. From the animals’ standpoint, extinction isn’t an issue. Rhinos don’t hold regular meetings and worry collectively about extinction. Individual rhinos are merely concerned with eating enough grass and mating when necessary.

3) The concept that nature is a fragile and static entity which would be ultimately benefit from our non-existence. This stems from traditional dichotomies of “man” and “nature” where man operates in his (male) world and nature operates in an entirely separate and unchanged sphere. In the West, this goes all the way back to Genesis. It is a simplistic and useless concept and does more harm than good.

Nature is a dynamic and constantly changing system of which we are one part. We create nature “reserves” which are thought to “preserve” the “natural” state of “nature” but even these are artificial, human constructed spaces, as we have dictated the location and killed all our large wildlife. We approach them are “preserves”, but forget that we have altered the system (by, for example killing the wolves or cutting all the pine trees in Michigan). Thus, arguing for the “preservation” of nature is somewhat disingenuous, since even by advocating for what part of nature needs to be preserved, we are writing its rules.

The question of whether the world would be better or worse off without us is fairly moot since humans are defining the terms of “better” and “worse.” Moreover, from the German cockroach’s (Blattella germanica) standpoint or the Black rat (Rattus rattus), humans could be considered a great thing as we tend to migrate and take our pests with us. If it could, Plasmodium falciparum should worship us like a God, since it wouldn’t exist without us.

I don’t see man as separate from nature. For better or for worse, we are a part of it. But after we have run our course, the world will go on without us. “Nature,” however it may be defined, has shown itself to be a tough beast in the past. Even if the entire planet became desertized (is that a word?), life would continue to exist. One day, with or without us, all life on Earth will cease to exist.

The most salient questions should revolve around how our environmental impacts affect our long term survival for humans. Focusing on our own needs is the only sustainable strategy (though I despise the word).

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What I’ve Learned about Camels

DSC_0144Life throws some odd curveballs at times. I never thought I’d be out with a team sampling blood from camels, but here I am. I now know more about camels than I know about cows.

Camels are common throughout North Africa, both for food and as labor. There are many different breeds of camel. So far, I’ve seen the Pakistani, the Somalian and a one eyed example of a breed with a furry mullet.

Camels usually only have one calf. The mothers leave the herd to remain stationary until the calf is large enough to travel with the herd. Generally speaking, a camel is nearly full sized within about a half a year, though females don’t become pregnant until they are about four.

Males are massive creatures and can be highly aggressive. They are known to fight and most bear scars to prove it. Humans, however, have bred them to not bite their keepers despite ample teeth. Camels can kick in a circular motion, handy for fighting off lions. They are hesitant to kick humans, for some reason.

Like cows, camels chew cud. They regurgitate their food and continue chewing for hours. The males have a sack in their throat that becomes engorged when aroused or angry. When they scream it can come out their mouth like a fleshy balloon. The saliva it produces has the look and consistency of milk.

Camels are generally not concerned when older males are threatened, but will get stressed when younger animals are being handled. Females are extremely protective of young.

Handling a camel is a multi-person affair. The camel is surrounded and scared into submission, one of the legs is bound, and a rope thrown around the head. The head is pulled down so that the lips can be grabbed by a partner and the rope is looped through the mouth. The camel is then brought down on it’s front knees. The tail is prone and the rear legs soon follow. The head is then twisted around to the buttocks so that the camel can’t breathe efficiently. The sound that the animal makes is unbelievable.

The jugular of the camel is about two inches in width. It’s pretty hard to miss it.

Female camels enjoying sniffing each others genitals during urination. They will raise their heads straight in the air and close their eyes afterward. Males will also smell each other during urination, but appear to enjoy rubbing necks more. Male camels will much at other camels’ humps.

Camels only need to drink once every four days, and will consume a fifth of their body weight in water within 15 minutes when they do drink. Drinking that much water that rapidly would kill a human.

Camels, though aggressive, can also be very gentle. They enjoy sniffing at humans and will play with their hair.

That’s all for now.

Climbing on Things and Other Evolutionary Pursuits

KenyaRunnerI had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.

Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.

We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.

All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.

Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.

The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.

Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.

Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.

We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.

I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.

Kenya Day 4: Reflections on fish and global capitalism

FIsherman along Lake Victoria

Fisherman along Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is a rich source of Nile Perch and Tilapia. Both fish are recent introductions to the lake. The Nile Perch, as a top predator, is associated with extensive ecological damage to the Lake’s ecosystem. Extensive fishing of the Nile Perch has led to a decrease in size, and the comeback of several types of local fish fauna.

Local fisherman on hand made boats use crudely fabricated nets to pull a few fish out of the water, they then sell either whole fish or smoked chunks to dealers. Dealers in turn sell the fish to processors, who then sell the fish to European, American and Japanese distributors. The distributors sell the fish to large supermarkets, who, of course, sell the fish to you and me.

Where the fish may bring as much as $20 a kilo in giants such as Whole Foods, a local fisherman can expect approximately $1.00, but the price is set by the world market and also subject to the whims of dealers. Without a union, fishermen have little means to negotiate prices.

As the lure of quick and plentiful cash is hard to resist, local fisherman have abandoned traditional fishing practices to enter the cash economy. This, of course, in itself is not a bad thing, but the money often gets spent on alcohol and prostitutes, rather than school and health fees for children. The nutritional profile of Lake communities suffers, and children are malnourished in an area that brings nearly $500 million dollars in revenue to Kenya.

Worse yet, ready cash creates a new market for sex work and positions are easily filled by poor women from the rural areas with no other options. The result is that the fish trade, and its destabilizing effect on families, is fueling HIV transmission here. Up 40% of people in any community along Lake Victoria may be HIV positive.

The trade has brought people from the inland areas to Lake Victoria, which has led to displacement of indigenous populations. Displacement has serious implications for security and livelihoods but in this area of intense malaria transmission, displacement and encroachment both impacts human health. The movement of populations has changed the genetic profile of local communities. Millennia of interactions between locals and parasite had led to at least some minimal level of genetic balance, which may have been disrupted by the introduction of new humans not acclimated to local strains of the parasite which causes malaria. This present added risks of serious disease.

Now, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am pro-economic development, pro-market and see no merit in suggesting that developing countries uselessly stick to old, antiquated and oppressive ways. No matter how nostalgic we may be for an idyllic past that may or may not have ever existed, the reality is that economic development in many cultural contexts has extended human life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, freed women to not be treated as cattle and reduced the subjugation of social minorities. But being pro-development means that one must support, err, development, which is only occurring slowly here.

The fishing communities suffer for a number of macro level factors.

  1. The nature of global economic disparities means that the government cannot step in and help negotiate fair prices for fish. The producers live entirely at the mercy of the market. The government would probably not be successful in artificially raising prices, but could help reduce price volatility by negotiating a yearly floor.
  2. There is no reliable means of taxing earnings to make sure that money is invested in schools and infrastructure (instead of alcohol). Say what one will about taxation, but the truth is that without it, power lines and roads don’t get built.
  3. The economy here is insufficiently diversified. The entire economy relies on fish, that developed countries may or may not buy. There is sadly little agriculture here, almost no tourism and, like just about all African countries, no manufacturing. A concentrated economy like that along Lake Victoria, could easily bust overnight.

All of these things, however, are challenges that all developing countries are facing. The economy along Lake Victoria is hardly an exception, but the mechanism are at least somewhat more obvious.

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