Ghost Biologists (Where Are They When You Most Need Them?)

A review of Ghost Bears -- Exploring the Biodiversity Crisis,

by R. Edward Grumbine

Mike Vandeman, May 28, 1994

I am adding this book to my list of Required Reading for the Entire Planet, right after "The Ecological Effects of Roads" (Reed "Diamondback" Noss) and Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (Dave Foreman) and beside Making Peace with the Planet (Barry Commoner). There will be a test at the end of this life (which itself is a test).

The book is very well written. It has the depth and compendiousness of a textbook, with the readability and poignance of a novel. I always underline and annotate the best parts of what I read, which helps me learn it, crystallize it in my mind, and share it with my friends. However, my purpose is defeated if, as in this case, I end up having to underline almost the whole book! In a paper I wrote in graduate school, I invented the "peace bomb", which is a device, action, or idea whose salutary effect on the world would be the peace counterpart of the bombs used in war. Ghost Bears is packed with "peace high explosives".

"Conservation biology is the science that studies biodiversity and the dynamics of extinction" (p.29). Ghost Bears uses the example of the (elusive, hence "ghostly") grizzly to teach the essentials of conservation biology. "[In] North America ... some 500 species [have] gone extinct since the Pilgrims landed in 1620" (p.88).... 99 percent of the grizzlies have been destroyed. There are now less than 1,000 left" (p.67).

Each bear requires several thousand acres of undisturbed habitat. "Grizzly bears can smell a human about 5,000 feet upwind. ... At a distance of 1,000 feet they can hear human conversation" (p.65). The biggest threats to their survival are "road building (primarily for logging), livestock grazing, and ... loss of low-elevation habitat" (p.76). (In fact, roads are the key to almost all environmental damage! Only mapping rivals road-building's claim to destructive priority.) Logging, mining, hunting, and even tourism also play a large part. All of the above Grumbine combines in the term "resourcism" -- man's belief that all elements of the Earth, living and nonliving, are nothing more than commodities rightfully taken, bought, sold, and consumed by him. Under this view, the grizzly is simply a danger or annoyance -- it is preferable to clear-cut its habitat in order to print the Yellow Pages than to require loggers to learn a new way to make a living.

How does this resourcism reduce biodiversity? Primarily through habitat fragmentation: e.g. many animals are afraid to cross a road even if they are physically capable of doing so, and thus are denied a wide choice of mates, foods, etc. Inbreeding and extinction are the result. "Habitat fragmentation is the most serious threat to biological diversity and is the primary cause of the present extinction crisis" (p.47). In order to ensure the survival of a species, we must provide it habitat that is both large and connected (via safe "wildlife corridors") as much as possible to its traditional sources of food and mates. "There is consensus among biologists that wide-ranging species need large blocks of habitat to maintain viable populations. ... Logging and logging roads are the main cause of fragmentation in the forest" (pp.112-3). "Think big, think connected, think whole" (p.62).

Grumbine describes the current laws, politics, and bureaucracy of biodiversity and what needs to change in order to preserve it. Road building and old-growth logging will have to end. Long-term species viability will have to take priority over resourcism. ("The Forest Service proposed an increase in logging of 72 percent. This would require the construction of 200,000 miles of logging roads, a system almost four times longer than the interstate highway system" (p.109). "Promotions are based on getting the cut [of timber] out or bringing more visitors to the parks" (p.162).) Habitat that has been damaged will have to be restored. Laws must protect whole ecosystems, not just individual species, and include "private", as well as public, lands.

What are the major human obstacles to biodiversity?: the myth of "private property" (how can anyone "own" a living organism with a mind of its own? or "buy" land that was stolen from wildlife and native Americans?); corruption (e.g. bureaucrats more interested in preserving their jobs than the wildlife those jobs depend on); lack of knowledge of biology ("After decades of urbanization, Americans today lack the most rudimentary understanding of ecology" (p.233)); and the belief of scientists that they must remain unemotional and nonpartisan, in order to be respected as professional scientists (whence my title, "Ghost Biologists"; activist (outspoken) scientists are unfortunately scarce).

A few suggestions: Be careful of cliches and overly florid language. Cliches deaden ("mere shadows of their former selves" (p.39)). Flowery language ("never thought formal figures would sway my soul to action" (p.41)) can distract, and hence reduce impact.

Don't worry so much about scientific rigor. Most of us don't need all of the facts, before we make a decision. Instinct and common sense are often sufficient. For example, isn't it obvious that no species (except perhaps some microorganisms) can protect themselves from humans, and that, therefore, if they are to survive, they must be given priority over human concerns? The most persuasive argument isn't always the one utilizing the most data. Let's first make the maximum use of the information we already have! That information is usually sufficient for those sympathetic to our cause; no amount of information is ever sufficient to persuade those who are profiting from the status quo: they are closed to such "unpleasant" information.

Don't be so pessimistic. Pessimism is no fun! Take, for example, "an uneducated citizenry will not disappear tomorrow" (p.247). In the age of the Internet (to say nothing of video, the xerox machine, and even air mail), extremely rapid worldwide education is actually possible! (What is your email address?) "If the meeting taught me anything, it was that the biodiversity crisis would not be resolved overnight" (p.171). Why emphasize the negative?

Likewise, don't be so passive: "It is still politically untenable [sic] to broach the issue of incorporating nonhuman beings into ecological decision making" (p.206). The current crisis was created by humans, so let's simply create the future that we want! In August, 1987, I began working to stop highway expansion. At that time, road construction was not even considered an environmental issue, and I couldn't find anyone who wanted to help me. Today, only those who profit from them want more roads. Initially, it was "politically untenable" to oppose highway expansion; now, it's not. Set your sights high!

Be honest! Isn't it obvious that many species won't tolerate the presence of humans? And therefore, don't we need to set aside habitat areas that are completely off limits to people? And, to be safe, even remove those areas from the map? The closest that Grumbine comes to telling this unpleasant truth is his call (on p.191) for "inviolate" core preserves. But he doesn't explain what he means by this term. "Good teachers do not compromise on the truth" (Andy Stahl, p.127). People need time to adjust to new ideas. We only make it harder for them to understand what is needed, when we "soften" the truth, like a cancer victim who is made to believe he/she has a more benign disease.

"There aren't really rights and wrongs in ecosystems" (p.182); "the issue is ... not a matter of morality" (p.184). Hogwash! Morality (ethics, the force of public scorn) is the only possible foundation for bioprotection. If facts, science, reason, and appeals to self-interest were effective, nobody would smoke. The only reason smoking is finally being controlled is that we smoke-haters are coming together to focus our combined displeasures. The same was done in the '60s with racial prejudice, and is now being done with road construction. Resourcists must be made into pariahs.

"[Take] into account Native American land use where possible" (p.196): just as we stole "our" land from wildlife and now generally act as if they don't exist, we did the same to Native Americans. I would like to see more attention in discussions of biodiversity given to native peoples, who represent endangered cultures. For example, I would like to see them commissioned (and trained) to manage our wildlife preserves. In Australia, aborigines (together with the national government) manage the national parks.

Just as Indian reservations are in some ways independent of the U.S. government, wildlife should be given a "universal" status, above human law. Man thinks he/she owns the Earth and everything on it. That a federal judge could, in effect, order the extermination of the California gnatcatcher shows that our hubris is limitless. (Legal experts: how can laws on which wildlife had no vote have any jurisdiction over them?) I can't think of a better tool for uniting, interpollinating, and strengthening environmental groups than the issue of biodiversity. In exchange for animal groups' opposition to a highway expansion project, for example, transportation activists could work to create wildlife crossings over/under highways and keep mountain bikes out of wildlife habitats.

Psychologists tell us that we learn most of what we will ever know by the age of 6. Therefore, wilderness should be one of the first visions that a newborn child sees. Only in wilderness will he or she learn what the meaning of life is, and how things are supposed to be. Driving past it in a car, or even on a mountain bike, needless to say, is not the same thing. Children are not dumb. They learn mostly nonverbally -- by what they see us do. Children who grow up surrounded by pavement and cars grow up believing that that is how things are supposed to be. They grow up to love the mountain bike, the automobile, the bulldozer. Wilderness is essential. We should visit it rarely, reverently, and on its own terms.

"Grizzly bears depend on us. There is little chance of their surviving in any continental U.S. populations unless humans are willing to give suitable habitat back" (p.81).

The book is published by Island Press, Box 7, Covelo, Carlifornia (that was an honest typo, but I like it!) 95428, 1-800-828-1302.