Big Players

There’s a lot of talk about growing inequality, and often we’re confronted with the idea that this is all just natural. Shakespeare said it best, as usual. In Pericles:

Third Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

First Fisherman: Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful.

Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)
Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)

Recently I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money, the new book about the Koch brothers. It offers a sober view into the lives and deeds of men of incredible greed and selfishness; men with a totalising determination to treat the whole world – social, environmental, cultural – as a standing reserve which they and their billionaire cronies can devour or discard at will. They are completely unlike whales. Their impacts are disastrous. The Koch brothers are living proof that evil is indeed alive and well, and that it plays nauseating games with U.S. and world politics.

Here in Australia, too, we are enmeshed in systems in which big fish, the wealthy bullies, rise to the top. We are witnessing the abject failure of many key politicians to take action on the urgent environmental and social justice issues that matter for the future of life on Earth. And so I am all the more grateful for the strong moral leaders we do have. Phillip Adams hosted a great panel recently with three articulate, passionate men: Bob Brown, Julian Burnside and Kerry O’Brien. Bob Brown was for many years the leader of the Greens Party in Australia; while guiding one of the west’s first and most successful Greens parties, he became, and is today, an inspiration to the nation and the world. He is breath-takingly honest, and in this recent panel discussion he excoriated the system of powerful lobbyists, describing many current politicians as ‘venal, strong, aggressive people who do what the big money wants them to do’.

Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)
Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)

Big money, big players, big politics: it all seems to fit, and from a tooth-and-claw vision of the world around us, it could all seem perfectly natural. Recent studies in ecology tell quite a different story, though. Outside the toxic domain of human avarice, living beings are inter-entangled in fascinatingly functional ecological circuits.

Take wolves, for example. There is a perception that wolves and other top predators will have a detrimental impact on other species by the very fact of their food consumption. Recent research, however, is showing a far more interesting story of direct and indirect impacts that work their way through an ecosystem in flows (trophic cascades) that are extremely beneficial.

Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)
Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)

Top order predators like wolves are key ecological regulators. The effects of their predation are felt all through the system among other animals, plants, and even land forms. The most accessible study concerns wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Here the re-introduction of wolves impacted first to regulate numerous animal populations, including elk. As the elk were forced to move into marginal areas where they were less exposed to wolves, the river vegetation was able to regenerate. As erosion lessened, the rivers stabilised, and species like beavers and birds were able to return. Beavers are notable for altering river flow to produce a diversity of habitats that are beneficial to many species of mammals, fish, and birds. And so it went. The wolves were few in number; they regulate themselves as well as others, and the whole system was changed in the direction of greater functionality.

These top predators brought about trophic cascades of diversity and stability.

Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)
Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)

Top predators are keystone species: the term concerns relationality and connectivity. A keystone species is one with a greater impact on its ecological community than would be expected given its abundance. Across the deep time of ecological relations these impacts have become mostly beneficial. All top predators are keystone species, but not all keystone species are top predators. This is to say that there are many keystone species whose impacts are large, but who are not big charismatic carnivores like wolves or killer whales.

The wonderfully insightful scientist Stephan Harding explains: ‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)
Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)

Harding gives the example of dung beetles in the Amazon forest. These seemingly insignificant creatures are critically significant for the whole forest. Before, when there was greater functionality, they killed off parasites, buried seeds, and facilitated quick and efficient recycling of nutrients. In forest fragments, where the connectivities are coming apart, there is less dung because there are fewer animals. Less dung means fewer dung beetles (fewer in number and fewer in species). There have been extinctions, and the reasons include lack of good quality mates, lack of good quality habitat, and changing micro-climates. The result is that remaining forest fragments are losing their ecological health: more diseases, fewer nutrients, seeds unable to germinate. Harding concludes: ‘Seemingly insignificant, the dung beetles of the Amazon are major players in their ecological community.’ One loss leads to another, leading to more: this is the downward spiral, the loss of vitality, the extinction cascade. It  is happening all over the world.

Amazon forest by Dams999 (CC)
Amazon forest , Dams999 (CC)

Among the many lessons to be gained from thinking with dung beetles, consider this: to see any living being is to know that there is a story involving others, and that behind them are still more stories. To see the luminous beauty of a forest is to see the work of many others, including insects. Indeed, every vibrant living being and biotic community is enmeshed in looping, entangled benefits, in cascades of flowing life. From a keystone point of view, many big players may barely be visible in themselves, and are best seen through the lens of the wider community whose health tells of their activity.

Australians will soon be heading into a federal election, and the U.S. will have one next year. I would love to walk into the polling booth and cast my vote for dung beetles. I am, of course, attracted to the metaphorical dimension of this fantasy. There is an awful lot of shit in political life, more than enough for an army of insect removalists.

Dung beetle 'debate', Jochen Smolka (CC)
Dung beetle ‘debate’, Jochen Smolka (CC)

More seriously, though, I would vote for beetles because I would love to vote for forests. Indeed, each biotic community has its species and relationships: I would love to vote for the giant triton snails that eat the crown-of-thorns starfish that damage the Great Barrier Reef; I would love to vote for those great Australian regulators, the dingoes; really, I would love to vote in any and every way for the future of life on Earth. Good votes, like good ecological actions, are complex, as Aldo Leopold told us long ago: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

There are a lot of bullies who think they’re big players, and they are very good at what they do, which is to wreck things. They have packed huge amounts of destruction into a very short time frame. They are spatially expansive: the cascades of destruction go everywhere. And yet the truth of deep ecological time remains: the wild world is greater than politics, and the big keystone players are doing their best to keep Earth vibrant and dynamic. Long may they live!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

The quote from Pericles is found online (here).

Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Meyer can be read online (here).

Philip Adams on Radio National, Late Night Live, ‘Advance Australia Where?’ (listen here).

The quote from Stephen Harding is in his article: ‘Gaia and Biodiversity’ in Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. E. Crist and H. B. Rinker.

For more on top order predators, see the excellent article by Ripple and colleagues (view here). I discussed some of these issue in earlier essays relating to Australian dingoes, for example, ‘Partnership ‘Rewilding with Dingoes’ (visit here). The Yellowstone video, ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, is terrific (view here). For more on dingoes as top predators, see the essay ‘Apologising to Dingoes’ (view here).

To watch a giant triton snail eating a crown-of-thorns starfish, view here.

15 thoughts on “Big Players

  1. Another inspiring essay, Deborah – thank you. I really love the point about shit-eating keystone species :). Bob Brown is such a treasure, as is Phillip Adams – can’t wait to check that out. But what’s prompted my comment is your complaint about people equating antisocial behaviour with predation.

    It is strange and frustrating the way ecological predation – a crucially generative process – is often compared with both ecologically and socially destructive behaviours.

    Both the admirers and the critics of socially destructive behaviour seem to compare it to predation. B-grade nature documentaries seem to glorify predation and revel in it as validation of the dominant endorsement of red-in-tooth-and-claw predatory capitalism. But peaceable folks, too, often seem repelled by any awareness of predation in nature, as if they see violence and harming in ecosystems as unequivocally destructive, in the same way that such behaviours are in the (human) interpersonal and social contexts. They dislike seeing it depicted in documentaries, find carcases gruesome, and oppose human participation in ecosystems by predation (food hunting).

    Predation harms prey animals and helps predators. Its value to the ecological community is irreplaceable. The idea that the common good is entirely contingent on harm to individuals seems just too hard for people to grasp, even though it’s staring them in the face. Instead they insist it’s one or the other. Only wholes matter – individual’s don’t. Or vice versa. The passage you quoted from Leopold is often used to support the holist standpoint. But another famous Leopold quote is that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his *fellow-members*, and also respect for the community as such.”

    It’s not either/or. It’s both. Predation isn’t a polar evil or a polar good, and no value is to be found in eliminating it (or refraining from it) or in maximising it. The same can be said more generally for any kind of material participation in or influence on the living world.

    The proper response to rampant, destructive human influence over the nonhuman world, from the level of whole to individual, is not to seek to withdraw entirely – this is impossible, and imagining we’re doing it both guarantees we’re living in potentially dangerous denial of where and how our influence is being applied, and ensures we maintain the alienated self-concept of humans as separate from nature, that allowed us to unleash an ecological crisis in the first place. No, the proper response instead is mindful, autonomy-respecting participation in nature: involvement, modification and alteration, not domination, mastery and control, as Ned Hettinger put it in this great essay I stumbled across recently:

    http://hettingern.people.cofc.edu/Hettinger%20-%20Respecting%20Nature's%20Autonomy%20in%20Relationship%20with%20Humanity.pdf

    Anyway, I’m guilty of deviating into my pet topic … enough! Thanks again for a thought-provoking essay.

    1. Thanks for the links and the thoughts! Your pet topics are wonderful! I get terribly annoyed, as well, at the idea that carnivores should somehow, someday, be transformed into herbivores as part of a more peaceable planet.

      1. haha- when I read your last sentence, I can’t help but think of the liobams of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy: “The lion-sheep splice was commissioned by the Lion Isiahists in order to force the advent of the Peaceable Kingdom. They’d reasoned that the only way to fulfil the lion/lamb friendship prophecy without the first eating the second would be to meld the two of them together. But the result hadn’t been strictly vegetarian.”

  2. Thanks Debbie for this great post – a great read and I too will vote for dung beetles!! In relation to the insensitivity of the Big Players I’m reminded of something Ronald Regan once said – “if you’ve seem one redwood you’ve seen them all”.

  3. Hi Deborah!

    So much is into your post this time again! So nice to read you once more!

    Predation have been ecologically under-rated but politically over-rated! Some even associated it with the “survival of the fittest”. They went saying predation to be a motor of the evolution without understanding that to think the alive ones better than the dead is a tautology and not a theory. This tautology hides the fact that life is a civilization and not at all an ecosystem with such blind and definite laws.

    Life is culture and not nature.

    Predation is also for me a way to discredit making Aldo Leopold a pope of the environmental ethics. Leopold had a very strange relation to predators. Being a hunter, he used to openly compete with wolves for prey till shooting them, denying with this behavior thousands of years of rich (civilized) wolf-human relations.

    I understood that one of his free kills, before dying, made him realized what life really is and the civilization life builds. Unfortunately, it was too late for Leopold as well and this event have not tremendously changed his legacy. His say ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ is extremely near of being one more tautology.

    Leopold never fully presented life as a civilization and his followers may not do so. To see it as a civilization, one have to understand that life wants to develop itself, to grow always, in quality and in quantity (the two are so related that they almost make a pleonasm) but also that life, to grow, needs to overgrow something (a civilization doesn’t grow out of the void): This is its environment.

    Life fights the environment.

    The ones who tries to understand our world by intellectualizing death more than life can maybe estimate the amount of death due to the environment. Statistically, predation is really nothing compared to the number of death in the fight against the environment. The cold, the heat, the void, the fire are by far the number one killer of life. We even may be able to say that more biotic matter is eaten (thank you the dung beetle) because being dead than dead because being eaten (I hope you understand my broken English). Of course, these accounting way to figure out the world is silly, but these silliness is more accurate than stressing out and focusing on the life-against-life trophic relation.

    Hence, to see life as a civilisation, one have to talk about the bigger picture, about life but even more about its enemy, the environment, about the way life tries to expand its frontier (in quality and in quantity), and not only about its work within its borders. One have to come out of (this idea of one harmonious) nature to see the bigger world life is brilliantly facing.

    To not see life as a civilization may jailed life intellectually and concretely within a box, condemning it (us included) to a conservation state only and not a developing expanding multiplying action. This may stop our current conservation ecology from evolving to a more civilized developing ecology, one with more equal opportunities for all life and fueled with a coalition spirit. The motor of life is not predation – this is a tautology – but cooperation in its fight against the environment – this is a theory – .

    This theory goes of course against the dominion interpretation of our context but also against the citizen interpretation of it the XXe century ended up with. To make it extremely short, let’s refer to its number one reference: The verse of Genesis Gn1:28. The XXe century ended up with a neurotic interpretation of it, hesitating between dominion relation to nature, steward relation to nature and then citizen relation to nature. All this hides the fact that this verse is simply not using the nature concept. This verse is made of two parts, like the two parts outside, environment one side, life the other side. It is talking of 1) the earth to subdue and 2) the life to rule over.

    This lecture of our world and of life could have opened a new field of various interpretations of our context instead of recycling the nature concept by inviting to think “like a mountain”.

    Then, my personal interpretation of big players are the one who definitely integrates the civilization life and make it develop. The cardinal points are like for any civilization : coalition for common expansion. Enjoy overgrowing the environment and life complicity.

    1. Thanks for that! Its an interesting idea, indeed, to think of life as civilisation. Wow! But I wouldn’t say that ‘the environment’ is the enemy. I’m much more drawn to Gregory Bateson’s formulation that the ‘unit of survival’ is the ‘organism plus environment’. It’s all recursive, and death is part of it. Cheers!

    2. Michel, I’d be most interested in any references you can give that expand on the ideas you have expressed here and in other comments. They are quite contrary to my own thoughts but I’d like to give them a decent hearing! It’s interesting to me that you cite (in previous comments) your gardening as formative to your views. I’m quite uneasy with gardening and intensive agriculture (and it’s not just the fact that all my veggie gardening efforts fail! I swear! 🙂 We may therefore have one point upon which we can agree: extensive gardening and intensive agriculture represent war with and attempted domination of the living world and the environment (and potentially the cultivated organisms). Anyway – I don’t mean to be antagonistic. I would like to better understand your perspective.

  4. Hi Russel,

    I am totally sorry : I have no references. I am just a gardener. Although I am reading a bit, I’ve never crossed so far a fine reading of what I see outside. That’s why I like to read Deborah’s texts. Many of her ideas emulate mine.

    More than our thoughts which opposed themselves, I think it is our cosmologies which are very different. I consider there are two self-developing “universes” outside, and not one. My cosmology forbids any principles of recursion between the two universes and allows mainly matter transfer. This goes against the current environmentalism, but also against animism which see life (or death, it is the same) in non-living stuff, and also opposes naturalism which doesn’t even see life in life.

    Being a gardener and not a well educated person, I can only share my views and not the ones of others. I know it is quite vulgar. That’s why I find it very nice that we can share views.

    About gardening… It is difficult to answer your question straightaway. Out of my cosmology, my worlds are too difficult to interpret I guess.

    Any living organisms cultivate. We are all, basically, composting machines, biomes, etc., actors of the living world. What “we” call nature (living nature) is actually a culture. All life cultivates life. We can say a bee cultivates a tree and that the tree cultivates the bee in the same process. You cultivate a garden and in the same process the garden cultivates you. The outside living world is a big culture, the civilization of LUCA. There is no war as such inside LUCA. Let’s say it is more an integration process, a cultural process.

    The relation to the environment is different. You can cultivate yourself when you fight it. I love to swim against waves or crack scientific chemico-physical mysteries. Some enjoy sailing and others to do pottery. But there is no recursion here. This environment always follows its own rules. My only choices to deal with these rules are to destroy the matter it sustains to make it my world (to eat it) and bring it to life, or to get around its laws to move forward and enjoy it (life is very good to get around chemico-physical laws).

    I hope I have not confused you more.

    1. A list of reading acquaintances :

      Liked some vitalist philosophers of different periods (Bichat, Canguilhem, Jonas).
      Liked a lot Darwin, specially the progression of his thinking at Down House (studies of pigeons, earthworms) very much more than his trip on the Beagle (This is for me tourism’s work compared to Down House).
      I like the current work of Augustin Berque and his work to define the “milieu”.

      However, I am sad that nobody simplifies our world and is able to see and say frankly that life fights the environment, that there is no superior entity than each individuals (no ecosystem, no living planet, no living nature, no Gaia), all working hard, sad that what we take for nature is the culture of life.

      1. Hi Deborah,

        I propose to archive more references on this post. I let you judge of this use of your blog and approve (or not – no offense) such comment.

        Kinji Imanishi-

        I have a small “problem” with Darwin. For me, his very first revolution is to have prove that the nature of life is different than the nature of non-life, that there are two “natures” in our context, two universes developing in two different ways, evolution vs fixist, life vs environment, culture vs environment. This first revolution goes against the term of natural selection, as nature doesn’t exist and as if there is selection it can only be life selecting (environment doesn’t select, it is fixist).
        I don’t understand how Darwin decided of this expression of natural selection (and not cultural selection) which again sculpt nature when he was breaking nature, which again separate human form the rest when he was clubbing all life away from the rest.

        With this is head, I remembered having found an idea of selection (and a world) made by life and not made by nature in one book of Kinji Imanishi.

        1. I’m never sure I quite agree with you Michel, but I always enjoy your perspectives!!! Thanks.

          1. Dear Deborah,

            I just thought about our different interpretation of our context.

            I watched this morning the Paris municipal council debate. It was a special debate for me as the council voted to give honorary citizenship to biodiversity. It follows a request I have sent them in July 2015 (https://twitter.com/MichelMaruca/status/780393960258826240).

            This proposal have been accepted. It is a small breach for me and my ideas : Living organisms are not nature but are culture. Biodiversity is, by nature, a civilisation.

            Some people have said addressing to the western world : “your nature is our culture”

            Paris is today addressing to the all world and is opening wider a breach for the one who wishes to say: “our nature is in fact the culture of biodiversity”.

            Cordially,

            Michel

          2. That is wonderful news, Michel! Would you tell us a bit more about what it means to give honorary citizenship to biodiversity?

  5. Yes with pleasure!

    As of today, there are two interpretations of the Parisian biodiversity honorary citizenship. They are represented by two letters of request addressed to the city of Paris.

    First one (The one I’ve sent you) is made on the name of a French SME of gardeners which realized that the concept of nature reached its end. They now follow biodiversity against the environment. In other words, they think biodiversity is a civilization conquering the rock earth. There is no metaphor in their use of citizen for the biodiversity. This honorary citizenry they gain for biodiversity is only one output among several their new vision is bringing.

    Second is the letter of a French famous university specialized in living science. This letter is signed off by 50 very well known French ecologist. They requested the symbolic protection of the honorary citizenship for biodiversity to fight its current extinction. They hope to raise awareness among Parisian and solutions. Their use of citizenry is therefore more metaphoric and their motive less theoretical. It is their names and the reality of the problem which won the votes.

    Best wishes

    1. Thanks so much, this is really fascinating. And it is wonderful to see Paris leading the world in this matter.

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