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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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)
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.