When visiting national parks I can’t help but think about the general topic of conservation, the nature of life, and humanity. Exploitation of nature is one of the hallmarks of human civilization though it is not entirely unique to us. Beavers are a good example of another creature which modifies its environment significantly in order to thrive. Of course, the sheer scale upon which modern man can alter the landscape dwarfs the impact other animals can achieve and we seem to be the only species with the ability to reflect on our exploitation.
We also seek to conserve nature. Even in ancient times there were places that humans held sacred for one reason or another and decided to set aside from development and exploitation. We both feel a spiritual connection to the wilderness and other living things, and recognize that it is of value to us as a resource that should not be squandered or destroyed. The more we learn about nature, the more we come to realize the true depth of knowledge and utility there is to be gleaned from the earth itself and all living things in it.
As a society, and even sometimes as individuals, we are faced with a choice to exploit or preserve. Many characterize this as a choice between the selfish motivation (exploitation) and the selfless (preservation) but I feel that this may be the wrong way to look at things. Even the act of preservation is generally one of selfish motivation. We gain things from preservation: beauty, knowledge, wisdom, peace, and the ability to perhaps more effectively exploit the resource in the future. I think it makes more sense to see it as a decision to be made taking into accounts the full range of value each choice offers us. If we are not choosing both options to some degree we are likely making an error in judgment.
If our studies of the world have taught us any lesson, it is that nature is forever changing and that life is based on a system that adapts to change in order to survive. I find it ironic that sometimes in our zeal to preserve nature, we are in effect working contrary to the very nature of life itself, that it changes and adapts. We sometimes proclaim that were we to do X or Y that a given habitat would be destroyed. Compared to the last Ice age such destruction is but a pale shadow. Places where we now revel in glorious mountain meadows were at one-time deserts and at another the floors of oceans. These are changes on a scale even we mighty humans would be powerless to achieve in generations of effort. To think that our actions will destroy life in a fundamental way is a disservice to the power of nature and to the resiliency of life.
Of course, the scale of time that nature acts in such dramatic ways is well beyond our experience. We can say something took 10 million years to happen, but we have no real sense of it on a personal level. We act quickly, and while nature too can strike quickly with floods and volcanos and other catastrophic events, we have a consistent and widespread impact at a rate mostly unknown in nature. Our actions are creating what is shaping up to be one of the planet’s 6 great extinction event and while we are not the only cause, we are the one that is driving it’s incredible speed both through the destruction of habitat and directly killing off creatures as resources.
Of course, our power goes both ways. Just as we have extraordinary means to destroy creatures, we also have extraordinary means to preserve them, and coming soon to a lab near you, the means to change and create them. Certainly destruction is easier than preservation or creation, but it is none the less just as much an unprecedented opportunity for life that was not present during past extinctions which destroyed as much as 96% of all species on earth. We can use this power not only to counteract our own destructive actions but also to change the outcome of destructive events we’ve no hand in.
I feel it is a mistake to consider ourselves as being something apart from nature. We have learned through scientific examination of life that we are as much a product of the natural world as any other species. Our actions, however uniquely destructive or constructive they may be, are a product of the natural system of life. If life itself has any central theme it is that living things strive to survive. Individuals may die, species may die, many of the trillions of cells in your body die, but life goes on anyway it can. Our will to survive and the actions we take to achieve it are as natural as any other process we can care to observe. Natural is a word sometimes abuses as meaning outside of humankind, and I think while that is a useful distinction it is not a “true” one.
Ultimately we must decide between many choices and opportunities before us. Not by delineating what is natural or not, but what is best for us and if we so choose, best for other creatures. In many cases, wisdom should lead us to want to preserve more than we do because we may not yet understand the true value of a given species or habitat. At the same time, we must have some boldness, for if you do not push boundaries and try new things you do not learn or grow.
I am for both exploitation and preservation. Most of all I am for being thoughtful of the choice and striking a balance through awareness, knowledge, and deliberation. I am incredibly grateful for the amazing national parks and other preserved areas we have visited in our journey. I also appreciate the cities and centers of human culture which require explanation to exit. I feel we should have both in our lives and ever strive to balance the two, finding a way forward where we can enjoy the fruits of nature, including our own capacity for imagination, creation, and understanding.