Book Notes: Where the Wild Things Were
Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Joe Costello recommends Where the Wild Things Were as an invaluable source on conservation. Additional recommendations from the New Deal 2.0 circle include Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild, along with Atkinson and Elliott’s The Gods That Failed.
When I was twelve, I ordered a series of Time/Life books. They arrived once a month and were about different animals — lions first, then elephants, tigers etc. They were great hardcover books, and being pre-internet and even pre-cable, offered some excellent photos and education on these animals. However, every book ended in the same grim fashion, these animals were endangered, many on the verge of extinction. A deep enduring education for a twelve-year old, who from this developed his first political inklings, which were conservative, or more accurately, radical conservationist. Almost forty years later, things for the great, and many of the small beasts of this planet have not gotten much better. Conservation remains the oldest and most radical environmental politics, and for a planet fast approaching 7 billion people, setting aside room for others is the least priority.
The modern environmental movement sprung out of the the late 19th century’s conservation movement. It started as movement to conserve what was left of the American wild, which even a hundred years ago, wasn’t much, and morphed into an understanding that preserving the environment was also about preserving the species homo sapiens. The book, Where the Wild Things Were, is a an excellent addition to the growing understanding of the importance of conservation and human well being. The book’s theme concerns the last decades discoveries on the importance of large predators to their larger ecological systems. Killer whales, lions, wolves, and others play important and surprising roles in keeping greater diversity and health in the systems they inhabit.
For example, killer whales, still reeling from the human decimation of whale populations, changed their prey, and started eating stellar seals and sea otters. One whale can eat a lot of seals and otters. Decimating otter populations, the whales in turn allowed an explosion of urchins, the otters main food source, and the urchins devoured kelp forests, greatly reducing diversity and populations of many other species. The extinction of wolves in the Yellowstone system led to the destruction of riparian habitats, particularly aspens and cottonwoods, as elk, no longer fearing ambush around rivers and streams,lingered to feast on the new shoots, thinning growth along the stream and river beds.
Where the Wild Things Were is filled with a number of these fascinating stories and of course just like my old Time/Life books doesn’t have much of a happy ending. There’s been a few success stories, which certainly offer optimism for the future, if we can change our habits, and restore some large enough areas. But overall, the story of complete destruction continues and has now spread to the once infinite oceans. The last decades decimation of shark populations is turning our oceans into seas of goo and slime, jellyfish populations are exploding.
The real lesson of Where the Wild Things Were is an understanding that we have very limited knowledge of complex systems, and the global environment is a very complex system. Stability in complex systems is bought about with diversity. When systems become less diverse they are prone to cataclysmic swings. We can look at the financial system with our monolithic too big to fail systems, which failed systemically and catastrophically last fall, yet we’ve done nothing to diversify. Our systems thinking is to say the least insufficient and overwhelming tends to our historical cultural bias that through centralization comes stability, which may be true for a short time, but centralized system always collapse grandly.
It gets even more alarming when we think of our modern agriculture practices creating vast mono-cultures out of once vibrant and diverse ecological systems. Despite the assurances of Dow, Monsanto, and ADM, just like the previous assurance of our Wall Street giants about their innovations spreading risk, these centralized systems are inherently unstable. We still have a lot to learn from this old earth. We have little understanding to the degree we humans have changed this planet, which in the long course of biological history has been accomplished in nothing more than an instant. Nature however is the strictest of teachers, her lessons come with no mercy.
Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean’s effort in 2004.