I don’t normally advocate the anthropocide proposal, that is, voluntary human extinction. It would probably be the best thing we could do for wildlife, but given that conservation is normally carried out by people, for people, getting rid of all the people would seem to render the whole exercise somewhat pointless. To me, anyway. For birds, for people, for ever’ becomes ‘For birds, for no people, for what?’ Or perhaps the BTCV could adopt ‘Expiring people, neglecting places’. But last week (once again, apologies for lax posting), on Monday especially, a kind of rising wave of anger finally broke in me and I got pretty close to thinking that our instant deletion would be a positive step after all. Yes, I was not at all gruntled.
Part of it was just the now customary Monday afternoon malaise, driven by the excellently gloomy Aquatic Resources Management module, in which we learn how the oceans, more than just about any other part of the globe — and they are a seriously large part — have been hoovered clean of life and generally screwed over by our greedy, reckless behaviour. Last week featured a particularly cheerful film made on the island of Midway in the Pacific, where plastic waste has accumulated in enormous quantities. Much has even been brought to shore inside albatrosses, which assume anything they find floating on the ocean’s surface is edible. The plastic items the parent birds pick up are fed to their chicks, resulting in a reduction in stomach space for actual food, starvation, and death. The catalogue of items found in the carcasses is fairly bizarre, from cigarette lighters to dolls’ heads. Can we really not live without so many bits of plastic in our lives?
On our shores the problem is approaching a similar scale: this Tuesday our MSc group picked up 9kg of rubbish from just 100m of shingle beach on the Hampshire coast. Imagine that quantity multiplied by every 100m of beach in Britain, and more of our discarded junk still out at sea waiting to be washed ashore. The individual journeys of some items is grimly fascinating, mirroring the epic journeys of plastic. Picture a Co-operative plastic bag, blowing down a high street in, say, Whitby, North Yorkshire. A gust carries it out to sea, it lands on the surface, starts to sink, and is swallowed by a young Minke whale. Weeks later that same whale is found dead on the coast of Holland with 800 grams of plastic in its stomach, the bag still recognisable down to its supermarket of origin.
We found a piece of plastic wrapping of Hispanic origin – ironically, it appeared to have been part of a packet of fish, ‘Pescado’ being the Spanish word for fish flesh that you eat, as beef is to cow or pork to pig.
Now, I would hope that Whiteknights campus might make me feel better. Universities are normally thought of as centres of wisdom and learning. At least, that’s the image they try to cultivate. But a trip to the business school in search of posh coffee in proper cups was almost as depressing. Instead of one of the stack of stoneware mugs available, we were given unasked for paper cups. Outside, former meadows and woods have given way to a bleak, corporate landscape of species poor grasses, plastic wrapped sapling trees in beds of bare bark chippings, and expanses of bare tarmac. As for the buildings, and this is a slight aside, they were put up in 2008 and already look tired, their cheap, unfinished materials symptomatic of the university’s short term thinking. In the name of safety, and, more outrageously, so that people can have nice lake views, 40 perfectly healthy alder trees have been cleared from the west shore of the lake, adding to the catalogue of habitat destruction undertaken by an institution whose website boasts of its ‘green’ status, and a ‘parkland’ campus ‘rich in wildlife’.
You’d think, then, that, presented with a hypothetical button which, if pressed, would instantly eradicate every human from the face of the earth, I would push it. My finger would certainly hover for a while, I’d linger over the idea, but I could never do it. For one, I still believe there is, ultimately, a spark of good in us. Something as simple as the sense of wonder I hope many of us still have at the world around us, the ability to appreciate beauty, to be delighted by knowledge for knowledge’s sake, perhaps our ability to create – or, if you want to get philosophical, our ‘soul’. An ancient writer called it ‘the image of God’. If you take God to mean a creative, personal force, with power over life and death, then for good or ill it’s that image we are made in, even if the reflection of that image in a mirror is flawed. We may not have been granted the right to control the earth but (and I’m borrowing from a critic here) — here we are. Who is to stop us? I’m hopeful that eventually the need to stop us will be negated by our learning, slowly, to make the right choices, though we may struggle to agree on what the right choice might actually be, and my ability to choose wisely, and I expect everybody’s, is obscured by my instincts of self-preservation.
That’s the first justification I would give for the continued existence of Homo sapiens: that we might still have somewhere within us the ability to be ‘good’. Also, if you are of a certain aesthetic bent you may be of the opinion that some of our interventions have improved on the natural world. Fans of lowland heath fauna would not rejoice at our passing. Who can deny the glorious beauty of the classic patchwork English countryside?
The other argument is much less high minded really, and kind of contradicts everything I just said. I don’t really believe that we are so different from other species. Biologically speaking, I’m perfectly ready to accept our position in the tree of life, and if I might be selfish on behalf of the whole human race, why do other species the favour of willingly sacrificing ourselves when we’re unlikely to be afforded the same honour by any other organism? I think it comes down to why I’m interested in conservation. I mean, I do agree with all the stuff we say about conserving biodiversity, maintaining natural ecosystem balances, etc. Of course I do. But I am here, me personally, because I like birds, and I quite like a lot of other wildlife too, and I like the places where they live. Protecting them is extremely satisfying, and I really hope for myself and the people I love to keep as much wildlife around as I can, which makes other people’s flagrant disregard for it all the more maddening.