Exploiting to Extinction

Will we ever learn how to make our prosperity last?

The phrase "hunted to extinction" applies to many creatures, from whales to birds to plants, but the hunter is always the same. We are the only predator that wipes out its quarry. With Carolina parakeets and passenger pigeons, we did this on purpose because we considered those birds pests. Sometimes we overharvest a resource. Early American naturalists described ginseng as one of the most common plants in eastern forests, but it is now illegal to pick because it has become so rare.

In nature, the drama of the hunt rarely translates into the tragedy of extinction. Instead, most predator-prey relationships are premised on abundance and sustainability. If you live in a wooded area, the abundance of katydids is obvious after nightfall. With dozens of the green, leggy insects calling from every treetop, their "katy did, katy didn't" rhythm adds up to a deafening roar. Drive through the Tennessee countryside any afternoon with your windows down, and one of the katydid's predators, the indigo bunting, will never be out of earshot. The brilliant blue males sing all day long. Both predator and prey are abundant, and it has been that way for countless generations.

Many birds will make a meal of a katydid, but their green coloration matches the leaves on which they feed, making it hard for a bird to find one. Enough get stuffed into baby birds' mouths to keep the bunting population healthy, but not enough to quiet Southern summer nights.

This sort of balance and shared abundance is the goal of stewardship and the definition of a sustainable economy. Nature accomplishes it, but can we? Natural predators typically get preyed upon by something larger, and that helps keep ecosystems in balance, but human populations are constrained only by disasters, plagues, and war. If we are to avoid such calamities, we must control ourselves with our big brains.

So far, our track record is not impressive. European colonization of the Americas was precipitated by trappers and loggers destroying the ecosystems on which they depended and setting off in search of more. The previous colonization of the Americas was similar. Pacific cultures wiped out thousands of species as they hopped from island to island, and they eventually found their way to North America, where they finished off ground sloths, mammoths, and other animals.

Not all cultures are exploitative, of course, and we do learn. Early Americans developed the philosophy of planning seven generations ahead, and most religions include notions of stewardship, balance, and respect for nature. We call greed and gluttony sins, but we are still sinners. Giant churches surrounded by fancy cars worry more about gays getting married than bays getting buried in trash, but that too is changing.

Extinctions are still occurring at high rates, but hunters are not to blame in most cases. Instead, species are disappearing because their habitat gets lost to development or spoiled by pollution. The exception is in the oceans, where commercial fishing operations deplete one area then move on to the next with little regard for the populations on which their livelihood depends. Worse, some large-scale fishing techniques brutalize the sea floor and snare animals so indiscriminately that large portions of the catch are simply discarded. If that sort of slaughter took place on land, we would probably jail the fishermen.

Three-quarters of the planet is ocean, and we ought to be able to sustainably feed our land-bound population from it. As with oil, however, we want to take all there is, as if future generations will have no use for the stuff. We were born into a world of abundance, but we are better at depleting than sustaining it. If we don't learn how to make our prosperity last, will future generations have any use for us? m