A recent study explored the balance between fisheries and seabird populations. What the scientists found was that surprisingly minimal drops in the fishery could be catastrophic for the birds, limiting the ability to reproduce and thrive and raising the risk that populations could plummet. The study highlighted the need for better fisheries management overall to protect seabird populations, but it also brought up an issue that is becoming more pressing in many regions of the world: Balancing the uses of natural resources with conflicting needs, and deciding where humans fit in the larger web of life.
Historically, the prevailing human attitude in the West has been that we are entitled to natural resources; that they are here for our use and we should continue to use them as long as, and in any way, we see fit. Even if this means devastating populations, it’s considered an acceptable price to pay because they’re our resources. Thinking on this subject began to shift for several reasons in the 20th century, but it may have been too late for a number of fragile ecosystems, and species.
Westerners began to realize that using natural resources actually used them up if there were no checks and controls, that we could use something right out of existence. Once no more is available, it’s difficult to come back from that. So people began to wonder if perhaps they should steward resources with more care to make sure they continued to be available, for themselves and future generations. The idea of conservation for human uses began to catch on, and one place Westerners looked was to indigenous traditions which promote a more balanced use of the land and resources, and which are less prone to centering human-centric uses of these resources because there are other issues to consider as well.
Issues like the fact that there are other living organisms on earth which need, and sometimes depend on, those resources. As illustrated with the fishery and seabird problem. If fish harvesting is sustainable for humans, in that it allows fish to reproduce and keep producing to provide a reliable source of fish into the foreseeable future, that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable for other organisms that might be relying on that resource. Seabirds and marine dwellers need their share of fish too, and human overfishing can put pressure on those populations.
This goes beyond a purely aesthetic or ethical desire to avoid wiping out animal populations, and into something much deeper. The interdependency of nature has been amply illustrated in a number of studies and settings, showing that a delicate balance can be disrupted when species vanish. Harming seabird populations also harms other populations, something which can eventually loop back around to humans, though they may be loathe to admit it. Saving enough fish for the birds is not just about doing the birds a favour; there’s also a self-interested element involved, ensuring human survival by maintaining a complex balance of elements.
Tension between human and other uses of natural resources becomes more pressing as the human population grows and puts increasing pressure on the environment. Much of this pressure again comes from the West, where a resource-heavy lifestyle is the norm and is heavily promoted. Even Westerners who make a conscious effort to reduce their usage and promote environmental health can have an uphill battle because of the society that surrounds them, which does not facilitate reductions in resource usage for the common good. The West wants to shunt this burden onto the Global South without doing its share, and this in turn is bound to spark a revolt among people who are tired of the West telling them what to do: how to manage their land; how to farm; how to practice forestry; how to live.
A radical shift in how Westerners view resource usage is critical for environmental sustainability. Even those who don’t care about the environment as an abstract entity need to consider how their resource usage may impact their own lives. The connections are sometimes not evident until they’ve been broken down and erased, at which point it is too late to do anything about it. That species that looked interesting but didn’t seem to have any particular function may, in fact, be absolutely critical, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
As people debate about whether to invest resources into saving the giant panda and other large, flashy endangered species that have been endangered by our actions, less attention is paid to the smaller and possibly more dangerous shifts we have wrought in the environment. The global oceans, for example, are in dire need of attention, with shifts in acidity and temperature growing, and presenting a larger threat each year. This is not just about ruining snorkeling spots and potentially cutting through populations of food fish we want; the oceans are our regulator, our thermostat, that thing that keeps the glue together, and if they collapse, we may end up in a very dire place indeed.
Balancing conflicting needs requires making hard choices, as I’ve discussed before, about how and where resources should be used. Many Westerners feel uncomfortable making these choices, and regard attempts at environmental preservation as frivolous and entirely aesthetic. They think people want to save the trees because the trees look pretty—and they do, trees are cool—but it’s about so much more than that, and if we don’t realise this until it’s too late, there’s going to be very little we can do about it.