Thursday, December 20, 2018

Human Scale

John G. Williams Preserve in North Dakota is a Nature Conservancy property. It is famous for Piping Plover, a very rare, imperiled bird. In the spring, one might see a plover in the surf of Pelican Lake, an inland saline lake. This would be one of some 12-13,000 Piping Plovers in existence. Although this is a 70% increase since its all-time-low a few decades ago, it is still below its pre-settlement population. Working with figures from the Great Lakes pre-settlement population, the pre-Columbian numbers may have been around 160,000 breeding pairs or a total population of 260,000 birds. That means our current population is about 5% of the original, up from 2%.
123 Billion-acre Assisted Living Facility
This modest rebound in numbers give some sense of relief, since they put the species at what is believed to be sustainable population levels, where there is enough genetic variation, breeding opportunity, and breeding success.
Regarding the recent success of Piping Plover in New Jersey, the Conserve Wildlife of New Jersey states, “We need to continue our intensive management for a number of years to sustain any recovery.” A familiar outcome. This has become the predicament for most, if not all of the thousands of imperiled species on earth: they have become dependent upon human intervention for survival. Just a few hundred years ago, almost all of these species existed as self-sustaining populations that ultimately supported the ecosystem upon which we depended. We have witnessed a role reversal, from caretaker to caregiver.
Intensive management. History tells us that land management was the scheme that initiated habitat and species loss in the first place, our current “extinction crisis” (Wilcox and Murphy, 1985). Clear cut forests to build ships and cities and support war efforts, dam rivers to provide electricity and irrigation, plow prairies to provide grain for livestock and fuel for humans. In those land management systems that humans devised, native habitat was altered or destroyed, wildlife was targeted, and native populations declined to our present species-depleted world. The scheme has become management begets management. How much land management would there be today if there had been no land management in the past? True, in our current reality, explosive population, resource demand, transoceanic transport, climate change, war, and other matters have forced us to look at that herd, coal seam, grassland, and wonder how we can exploit it. Whatever the reason, we have been brought to a resource management scheme that is comparable to hiring one person simply to dig a hole and another person simply to fill it in. If the hole wasn't dug in the first place, both workers could spend some time with their families admiring the non-excavated, virgin landscape, the Hole Free National Park. It's like an arsonist fireman setting fire to homes to keep firemen busy fighting fires, or insulin companies handing out free liters of soda pop, surgeons deliberately running their cars over pedestrians, masked policemen on a crime wave in a big city. Currently, it is a cycle, but whether it is an endless cycle, well, that depends. 
There are hundreds of thousands of scientists in the world, many of which specialize in one aspect or another of land management: ecologists, hydrologists, wetland scientists, geologists, seismologists, range conservationists, interpretive rangers, geographers, cartographers, climatologists, ornithologists, zoologists, botanists, wildlife refuge managers, oceanographers, and so forth. If this were the year 1363, and the landscape was that prior to industrialization, colonization, and the invention of the first gun, we wonder what their work would entail.
As humans double down their intensive management, to the point of inventorying, counting, naming, and labeling every tree in a forest, it can be a bettor's sport to watch these management schemes to see if humans have advanced so far as to ensure that their efforts to restore wildlife and habitat are enlightened enough that they do not repeat mistakes of the past or create new mistakes, which, in turn, require new schemes and we keep the science community occupied in something other than admiring that un-excavated, virgin prairie into the indefinite future, or at least until the species run out. After that, each of these scientists becomes, as Dr. Nick Lunn of the Canadian Wildlife Service likes to say, “A historian.”
Non-linear Retrogression
There are many graphs out there showing the change in wildlife populations since the industrial age, about the time that large-scale earth-moving projects came into being - Panama Canal, Welland Canal, Fontana Dam. One controversial study stated that we have seen a loss of 52% of wildlife on earth in the past 40 years. Regardless of the controversy, similar statements are being made in studies of individual species or groups of species. A grand die-off in the near future, lines plunging downward. Fisheries will be depleted in 40 years, polar bears will be extinct in a few decades, neotropical birds, elephants, lions, rhinos, and so forth. Extrapolating current trends, there is a point on the line at which there is no line.
Extrapolation goes both ways. In one direction, we would get to the end of the curve naturally, assuming that we live indefinitely, which has been working out fairly well for those currently living. But how to get to the other end of the curve? How might we get to traveling back to 1804, when Lewis and Clark were floating up the Missouri River through “a landscape greater than the Serengeti”, or 1673, when Jolliet was mapping out the Mississippi River, or 1541, when Coronado was on the Staked Plain of Texas and saw bison in such force that he said, "It is impossible to number them, for while I was journeying through these plains...there was not a day that I lost sight of them"? Land management back then was a Native American setting a prairie fire. In three weeks, the green grass attracted bison and the bison attracted hunters and the hunters attracted cooks, a sort of trophic cascade.
Some Things Never Change
Habitat, in part, determines niche. Niche has a certain predictability. Species will require a fairly consistent set of parameters in order to persist and thrive. Thus, biologists have defined habitat requirements for many species. A geographic database query can identify the intersection of habitat characteristics that meet the habitat requirements of the species. This point in ecospace has a higher probability of supporting a population of the species. Armed with this geodata, a surveyor can locate that intersection on the actual landscape with the hopes of finding a population of a species persisting and thriving. He also avoids wasting time and energy on landscapes with low probabilities, such as a golf course or pet cemetery. This “predictive habitat distribution modeling” works well in the field.
We can attribute this degree of predictive success to the relatively static niche requirements of a species. We say species because, at the genus level, the amount of variance in habitat requirements between similar species of the same genus can be great. Think Bobcat versus Jaguar. Within a species, even across its range, there is a recognizable level of homogeneity. The three populations of Piping Plover (Atlantic Coast, Northern Great Plains, and Great Lakes) all have very similar habitat requirements: “wide, flat, open, sandy beaches with very little grass or other vegetation” (USFWS).
Just Who Do We Think We Are
Relatively static niche requirements are so because the nature of most species is relatively static in the human time frame. Extinct bison (Bison priscus) were found in the Mammoth Steppe, a habitat similar to the prairie habitat that modern bison (Bison bison) occupy. However, Facebook algorithms notwithstanding, it has become hard to say this about humans. There were many centuries where humans exhibited consistent habitat requirements. The real estate ads from any century prior to the Industrial Age read:

Affordable single-room wooden home with bark, leather, or grass roofing and outdoor plumbing in quaint village with community garden and waterfront access in temperate to tropical climate. Ask about our easy credit terms.

Something like that. But this is not the case today. Looking at the human species across its range, for all races, ethnic groups, and nationalities, our habitat and niche breadth has expanded. As one report said, “Humans are remarkable for their ability to adapt to new niches much faster than the time required for genetic change” (Nettle 2013). Indeed. We have what they call, “Adaptive Phenotypic Plasticity.” 
What would predictive habitat distribution modeling show for humans? The point would be lost because we occupy everywhere. Adaptively, we find us in everything from urban high-rise settings to galvanized steel huts in landfills outside Mexico City, lonely caves in Afghanistan, bombed out cinderblock rubble in Syria, a North Face VE25 at 26,000 feet, even tiny houses orbiting 254 miles above the earth. But do we change entirely out of adaptive strategy?
The beaver invades a lowland filled with eastern red cedar, builds a dam, and the lowland fills with water and the cedar dies. The beaver didn’t adapt to the wetland, it created the wetland. Fortunately, beavers do not have the ability to run a forest harvester. Unfortunately, we do. We also can run dragline excavators, row crop tractors, river dredges, and tower cranes. The ecological niche that humans occupy is fluid, plastic, shifting. We occupy villages at 16,732 feet in the Andes to 918 feet below sea level in the Jordan Valley, permafrost to salt flats, sand deserts to rainforests, underground tunnels to treetops, vegetarian to carnivore, monogamous to polygamous. So much of this is not an adaptive response, but because we have, as one study says, “unique cognitive and behavioral mechanisms.” We have the unique ability to change our nature. We don’t wait for mutations to occur, we self-mutate.
As a result, our habitat requirements are not static. Armed with machinery, we alter the world around us to suit our current fancies, building a great variety of uniquely human habitats. Impoundments, farm belts, Levittown’s, Soviet Apartments, artificial islands, gated communities, mansions, man camps, trailer parks, communes, nomadic camps, floating villages, and, in the end, the back of a station wagon.
Too bad his brain didn't grow too. 
This might remind everyone of the tragic figure, Lt. Colonel Glenn Manning. It was 1957. One day, Glenn was a simple army officer engaged to marry his sweetheart, Carol Forrest, and a few days later he was fifty-feet tall, wearing mutant-sized diapers, tossing automobiles with his left hand, and smashing the Las Vegas Sands Hotel with his right. At the last, he was headed to drink up Lake Mead but he never made it that far. He grew way too big. And he had gone mad.
Well, we too have grown way too big. But this is not an adaptation, it is not genetic change brought about by an atomic plutonium bomb exploding at a bomb tower surrounded by Hollywood actors at a military site at Desert Rock, Nevada. No, our unique cognitive and behavioral mechanisms enable us to change our nature. “Free Will”, if you will. This decision to change has moved us to depart from our historic ecospace and it demands a changed set of habitat conditions.
In our current phenotype, we have greatly widened our niche breadth, increased our consumption, expanded our diet, expanded our range, overlapped other niches, and, as a result, have found ourselves in conflict and competition with a host of species historically outside of our boundaries. 
Horribly, within a year, Lt. Colonel Manning was followed by Nancy Archer, “a wealthy but highly troubled woman with a history of emotional instability and immoderate drinking”. She too, grew to fifty feet in height and attacked everything in her path, including her two-timing, no-good husband, Harry, and his gold-digging girlfriend. Overconsumption is not gender-biased.
Back To Nature
The scale of our projects, developments, structures, and systems has exceeded our niche. We are occupying so much ecological space that we have become predator, prey, parasite, mutualist, subterranean, aquatic, aerial, terrestrial, all at once. Hydra, we of many heads. Soon, there will be little room for anyone else, except, perhaps, those army men with bazookas trying to bomb us back to 1363. Good luck, boys. We have outreached the human scale and are now operating at an outsized scale beyond Tyrannosaurus rex, more akin to that occupied by Godzilla or the reckless gods of old; Hecatoncheires, Cormoran, Fachen, Hiranyaksha, Quinametzin, Oj├íncanu.
Those were myths. We are real, but of mythic proportions, a race of 50-foot-tall, colossal humans, eating cars, throwing palm trees, oversized and overfed and still growing. Various studies state that if all people on earth lived like the average North American, it would take about four earths to sustain us. We have a fight on our hands, but put away those weapons. The battle begins with ‘our unique behavioral and cognitive mechanisms', to know how to fit and to choose to fit. With all the talk of sustainable resource use, without downsizing, reducing what we do to eye-level, village-sized, below-the-treetops, human scale, this colossus is unsustainable; it is on the verge of drinking the entire earth dry.

Pover, Todd and Christina Davis. 2015. Piping Plover Nesting Results in New Jersey: 2015. Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

Wilcox, Bruce A. and Dennis D. Murphy. 1985. Conservation Strategy: The Effects of Fragmentation on Extinction. The American Naturalist, Vol. 125, No. 6 (Jun., 1985), pp. 879-887

Nettle, Daniel, Mhairi A. Gibson, David W. Lawson, and Rebecca Sear. 2013. Human behavioral ecology: current research and future prospects. Behavioral Ecology, Volume 24, Issue 5, 1 September 2013, Pages 1031–1040,

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