The End of the Wild (Pt.1)
In this blog post, I will analyze Stephen M. Meyer’s book, The End of the Wild.
First, I will highlight Meyer’s thesis and outline the reasoning of the book, paying particular attention to the arguments that work in Meyer’s favor. Then I will look at the environmental narrative Meyer takes in his book, namely anthropocentrism.
The situation is much worse than you think.
The End of the Wild
The central thesis of The End of the Wild is that the world is beyond repair and that many species will inevitably go extinct despite our efforts of preserving them. Put simply, Meyer argues that recovery and restoration for biodiversity are “an illusion.”
In order to argue for this thesis, Meyer first distinguishes between different types of species. Then he looks at some of the policies that Western countries have adopted to help preserve nearly extinct species. Meyer argues that these policies are not as efficient as legislators hoped for. In fact, there is a strong consensus in the biological and ecological community that many of these efforts have gross limitations; instead, he argues for “protected areas” that would shield animals from within the ecological community. Meyer explains the concept of sustainable communities in some detail; I will outline his reasoning on the issue below.
The natural next question, then, is why we should deal with species extinction at all if their extinction is inevitable? Meyer believes that there is some utility to protecting relic species. I will look at his argument for protecting relic species after I examine Meyer’s reasoning in detail.
Species Are Becoming Extinct Fast
Meyer starts his book by showcasing the rate at which species are becoming extinct. The current extinction rate of non-human animal species is one of the most alarming components to the age of the Anthropocene.
Some estimates suggest that at the present trajectory, some 3,000 species go extinct each year. There is also evidence that this rate is accelerating. To put that number into perspective, Meyer points out that the biological community only gains one new species per year.
Meyer warns us that “nothing” will be able to stop this trajectory. The “race” to save biodiversity is over; “we have lost.”
This is not a point of controversy, writes Meyer, but unmitigated fact.
Not every species is the same, however, and some are becoming extinct earlier than others. Meyer, therefore, distinguishes between different types of species. On the one spectrum, we have species that have become accustomed to us and even prosper because of our existence. These are called “weedy species.”
They include species that are notoriously adaptive, such as racoons (Procyon lotor) or rats (Rattus norvegicus), but even aquatic plants like Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) or hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata). The next group of species are “relic species” which are more rare and typically live in smaller populations.
These species have managed to survive because they do not come into contact with our human species often. The problem for relic species is that the Earth is becoming ever-increasingly more discovered and dominated by our ecological impact.
For this reason, many relic species go extinct before we are in direct contact with them. Meyer writes that “hundreds of thousands” of species are now what can be considered “relics.”
Examples of relic species include the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) which are now “genetic dead ends.” If these species are to survive, they need our “direct” and “permanent” care and management.
However, it is not likely that we will be able to care for the vast amount of different relic species. The species that are genetic dead ends are called “ghost species” because they are not capable of surviving without our intervention. Some members of ghost species are reduced due to predatory threats, such as lions (Panthera leo), whose population has decreased from 200,000 to 20,000 in the last 30 years or so.
In Meyer’s sobering words, over the course of the 21st-century, an estimated half of our species are “destined to become relics or ghosts.” Next, Meyer discusses some of the reasons we are seeing such a loss in biodiversity.
Meyer warns us that “nothing” will be able to stop this trajectory. The “race” to save biodiversity is over; “we have lost.”
Why We Are Experiencing a Loss in Biodiversity
Meyer explains that some of the primary causes for the mass extinction of species across the Globe are
- landscape transformation,
- geochemical modification (pollution), and
- biotic consumption and manipulation.
Anthropogenic climate change and “economic globalization” are transforming the nature of biodiversity, as was briefly touched on above.
That is not to say that different countries are not actively trying to amend the mistakes of previous generations. As Meyer writes, the United States has “imposed rules” that attempt to “halt the response.”
Examples of this include The Endangered Species Act, which protects some 1,300 plants and animals in the United States. Similarly, the European Union has established the Habitat Directive, making it illegal to hunt and kill approximately 700 species within the EU.
Many of these policies have been in operation since the 1990s.
These Are Not New Problems
Therefore, we might intuit that our awareness is not new on many of these issues. However, our thinking has not changed as rapidly as it could or should have simply because of economic interest.
Worldwide more than 10% of the Globe is “pledged” to be protected or is actively protected. Meyer points out that for the casual observer, these efforts may be enough to protect and preserve wildlife.
This is unfortunately false.
In Meyer’s words, these efforts are “far too little” and “far, far too late.” The problem with these efforts is that many of them “unknowingly” focus on relic or ghost species which will inevitably go extinct.
Meyer argues that the belief that we can somehow reverse the process of extinction of many of these species is based on a “fundamentally false premise,” namely that their extinction is a “finite” problem which we can solve by enacting environmental policies. It is true that some environmental policies may “preserve” certain relic species and perhaps even “temporarily forestall” extinction of some ghost species; however, they are not nearly enough of an effort.
The problem, as I mentioned above, is that the task of conserving wild-life species is too vast. For example, in the United States alone, a comparatively economically prosperous country, the wildlife refuge system can only assist in the “meaningful conservation” of approximately 20 percent of their listed animals.
Sustainable Communities & International Organizations
Better than many policies on species-preservation is the creation of sustainable communities which may help prevent the extinction of many species. The United Nations, and other international organizations, have long lobbied for sustainable communities, that is, protected areas that create self-sustaining environments for endangered species.
The problem with sustainable communities, however, is that “[c]onsumptive demand” ‒ not eco-system function ‒ resolve sustainability. As more of the Earth’s inhabitants decide to eat over-harvested meat, such as tuna and beef, it is not clear what the perfect equilibrium between demand and sustainable habitats would be.
In fact, we have good reason to suppose that in countries where illegal bush-meat is cheaper than meat sourced from legal local markets, the demand for bush-meat will always overcome any intuitive ethical reasoning of local actors that would guide them to buy ethically sourced meat. If there are not strict legal penalties that countries can enforce, these markets will continue to prosper. Furthermore, what constitutes sustainability changes.
Many different factors, from economic advancement to technological change and ecological damage from the atmosphere may affect sustainable communities. Therefore, if these communities are to be sustainable, they must also be adaptive to sudden or gradual change.
Meyer writes that even if there was hope for sustainable communities, “globalization destroyed it.” In other words, “economics trumps ecology.”
Sustainability & Wildlands
Another interesting proposal worth mentioning is the use of wildlands. These bear some resemblance to the above-mentioned sustainable communities but are larger in scope. Meyer warns, however, that this too is a “wonderful” yet “unreal” concept.
This view imagines areas such as the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada as completely depopulated and brought into their natural states. Proponents of this “deep-ecology” view argue that areas as vast as 50 percent of the United States may even be restored to their natural state, with other countries following suit. Meyer argues that “in theory” some ghost and relic species may be preserved if wildlands were enacted “immediately” and “universally.”
The problem with this proposal is similar to the problem with sustainable communities: human interest.
Meyer points out that it would be very unlikely to assume that 8 billion people would uproot their economic and personal interests for the environment.
Presently, citizens are not rapidly changing their means of transportation as environmentalists would hope for despite the overwhelming empirical evidence that anthropogenic climate change is real. To add unto the problem with wildlife creation, the creation of said wildlife utopias would take “at minimum” 100 years.
We may see such developments take place with the growing concern over the environment by younger generations. The world is rapidly changing. So, we cannot eliminate all possibilities. It is unlikely that change would happen anytime soon, however.
What’s the Point to a Call to Action?
The necessary next question Meyer aims to resolve is: If the process of species-extinction is inevitable, why should we try to manage it at all in the first place?
Meyer addresses this question by pointing out that if we are to simply let natural selection take place and leave the non-human animals be, we will inevitably cause more havoc to our own species as a result. Annually, there are as many as 350,000 deer-auto collisions in the United States alone.
Many of these result in serious injury for motorists and drivers; 150 humans die from deer-auto collisions each year. Coyote populations in the United States prey on pets such as cats and dogs. That is not to mention the many encounters joggers and hikers have in California, especially Los Angeles, with cougars ‒ some of which are lethal. Polar bears in Canada, tigers in Bangladesh, anacondas in the Amazon, and other predators, will continue to make their path to suburban, and then urban areas, in order to find food.
These encounters with wildlife will only increase as habitats become increasingly uninhabitable. Furthermore, the economic cost of the 50,000 non-native invasive plants alone in the United States is close to $140 billion annually.
If we are to leave both flora and fauna species alone, without any intervention, we are far from resolving the problem. If anything, we might increase our problems. Elephants, gorillas, whales, owls, hawks, chimpanzees, and other well-known and admired animals, will go extinct.
The Solution: A Two-Decade Global Effort
If these solutions do not work, what solutions will? Meyer argues that humanity needs a large “two-decade global effort” that will “systematically” and “dynamically” make sense of the “Earth’s biota.”
As much as many biologists and ecologists are aware of the riks with the extinction of various species, we only know a depressing 20 percent of the Earth’s species. After we become aware of these species and map them out, we must then comprehend the genetic and functional relations these species have with one another, linking them in due process with their “abiotic processes.”
When we find how these species relate to one another, we can then alter the different ways agricultural practices, transportation, water use, etc., are used. Furthermore, we must preserve ecological communities that are relatively healthy and sustainable today. These methods, and others like them, will be expensive, as Meyer notes.
However, if we are truly serious about the preservation of wildlife and the enormous problem the Anthropocene poses to species diversity, we must do everything in our power. In conclusion, Meyer argues that the end of wildlife does not mean that all wildlife will vanish. Instead, he is arguing that we will lose much of the biodiversity that makes the wild so enthralling in the first place.
The world may become a dull place; its beauty may return in “five or ten million years.”
This blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. Finally, I look at environmentalism and Islam in politics, among other topics. We are reaching our end of this series! You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:
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