Wildlife and the Ecocity

Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

December 29, 1995

The Problem

Human beings think that we own, and have the right to dominate, every square inch of the Earth. That, besides being an absurd idea, is the basic reason why we are losing, worldwide, about 100 species per day. Habitat loss is at the top of every list of the primary reasons why species have become extinct or are in danger of becoming extinct.

[The concept of "ownership" of land is preposterous: how can you "own" the organisms that live there, since they have minds of their own? And how can we claim clear title? Didn't we steal all our land from the native people and wildlife (i.e., all nonhuman, nondomesticated species) who lived there before us?]

Destruction of habitat (for example, paving it or turning it into farms, golf courses, housing developments, or parks) is not the only way that an area can become untenable (useless) as habitat. Anything that makes it unattractive or unavailable to a given species causes habitat loss. Have you ever wondered why most animals run away when we come near? It certainly isn't because they love having us around! Many animals simply will not tolerate the presence of humans. The grizzly bear and mountain lion are just two examples. The grizzly needs a huge territory, can smell and hear a human being from a great distance, and will avoid going near a road.

In other words, if we are to preserve the other species with which we share the Earth, we need to set aside large, interconnected areas of habitat that are entirely off limits to humans ("pure habitat"). Our idea of what constitutes viable habitat is not important; what matters is how the wildlife who live there think. When a road is built through a habitat area, many species will not cross it, even though they are physically capable of doing so. For example, a bird that prefers dense forest may be afraid to cross such an open area where they may be vulnerable to attack by their predators. The result is a loss of habitat: a portion of their preferred mates, foods, and other resources has become effectively unavailable. This can reduce population sizes, cause inbreeding, impoverish their gene pool, and impair their ability to adapt to changing circumstances (such as global warming). It can lead to local (and eventually, final) extinction. Small, isolated populations can easily be wiped out by a fire or other disaster. Other species are not as flexible as we are. We can survive practically anywhere on Earth, and perhaps other places as well!

In 4 million years of human evolution, there has never been an area off limits to humans -- an area which we deliberately choose not to enter so that the species that live there can flourish unmolested by humans. There are places called "wildlife sanctuaries", where human recreation, hunting, logging, oil drilling, or even mining are usually allowed. There are a few places where only biologists and land managers are allowed. There have been places called "sacred", where only priests could go (in other words, they were "sacred" only to ordinary people). But to my knowledge, there has never been any place, however small, from which the human community has voluntarily excluded itself (although recently I have heard rumors that such a place has been created in Australia or New Zealand -- bravo!).

In other words, we assume for ourselves a right to travel anywhere that we want, and we deny that same right to wildlife. As a side effect of building our cities, we have created practically impassable barriers (impassable even by us: ever try to cross a freeway on foot?!) that prevent wildlife from going where they want to. Where did we get that right? Aren't we big (generous) enough to allow other species to share the Earth with us? Do we really need to go everywhere and do everything that we fancy? One of our proudest moments is when we are able to go somewhere "where no human has ever gone". Maybe instead of proud, we should be deeply ashamed! (Like after emptying a box of chocolates that we know we don't need, being already vastly overweight, and also knowing that many of our fellows don't have enough to eat.) Ideas of right and wrong evolve (as they should), as our knowledge of the world evolves.

Try this experiment: go on a hike, find a tree that you like, lie down under it on your back, and look up at the tree. How do you feel? Watch how the wind causes the branches and even the trunk to sway, and yet always return to where they were. Note how many other organisms live on and in the tree, and enjoy the amenities they find there. The first time I did this, I was astounded at the feelings that came over me! I suddenly realized that this being, the tree, had lived in this one spot all its life, and was happy and content to be there. How, then, could I pass by any spot on the Earth and not fully appreciate its value? its sufficiency? How could I not be equally content to be wherever I happen to live? How important, really, is my need to travel to faraway places? Do I really need to visit every country on the Earth? Even though I love hiking more than anything else in the world, do I really need to hike every trail in the world? Isn't this the Age of Selfishness? How could I ever again take lightly the cutting down of a tree?

[Not only do we demand the right to travel wherever we want, but we also demand the right to travel in whatever manner we want. Not only do we go where we shouldn't, but we go there in ships, airplanes, helicopters, tanks, bulldozers, jeeps, cars, motorcycles, and now mountain bikes, all of which destroy our destinations in the process of getting to them! Some freedom!]

We assume for ourselves a right to live. We deny that same right to other species. We think nothing of killing a tree, even a very large tree (e.g. for the White House or our local shopping mall), just to decorate for Christmas. (Is this partly a failure of our religion? Where do other species fit into our theologies?) Millions of birds have been slaughtered, some perhaps driven to extinction, in order to decorate ladies' hats or give warriors, priests, or nobles an aura of authority or prestige. Killing for survival may be necessary, but killing for frivolous reasons seems, in light of the current biodiversity crisis, archaic.

We assume that every individual human life is unique and priceless -- that we each contribute something special and invaluable to the world. On the other hand, when we speak of preserving wildlife or biodiversity, we are usually talking about preserving only species (or subspecies, or, at best, populations). We imply that it is not the individuals that are important, but their species. I have never heard any biologist admit that individuals can be important -- even genetically. But don't new genes appearing for the very first time appear in a single individual? Assume, for example, that there were a particular mutation that allowed an ape to become more like a man. Isn't the probability that such a mutation would appear simultaneously in two individuals much smaller than the probability that it would appear first in a single individual? And what if such an individual were killed? What if the Christmas tree that we cut was one that contained a mutation that would allow such trees to survive global warming? I don't think it is safe to say it is okay to lose individuals, as long as some members of the species (or subspecies or population, etc.) survive (e.g. in zoos). If any of us are precious, then aren't we are all, equally, precious?!

[How did we decide (rationally, I mean) that humans are more important than other species? Our genes are 98 percent identical with those of a chimpanzee! And I am sure that we have a pretty substantial genetic commonality with every other living organism, including that tree. On what basis can we distinguish ourselves? We have tried for eons to find such a basis. Every time we think we have the key, we find out that we are wrong: there are other organisms that can do what we do. And, obviously, every other organism can do things that we can't do! Moreover, many of those things are "services" that make our lives not only enjoyable, but possible! I wonder how long we would survive without nitrogen-fixing bacteria, photosynthesizing plants, organic material-decomposing organisms, etc. Can we manufacture everything we need? Sustainably? I am absolutely certain that when we finally learn how to communicate with other species, we will find that their thoughts are very similar to our own. I know of only one fair way to judge other species: by the same rules we apply to ourselves. That is what we call the "Golden Rule", except that we now apply it only to other humans.]

By the way, I wonder why vegetarians feel that killing animals is worse than killing plants. Isn't that just another unjustifiable ranking of organisms? Just another obsolete kind of discrimination (kingdom-ism?)? Haven't we learned that we fall flat on our face every time we try to justify such partiality? All those who would like to live in a world containing only some of the organisms we now have, please raise your hands....

Back to rights. We assume a right to clean air, clean water, clean food, etc. We deny wildlife those same rights. We assume the right to eat whatever we want. We don't allow wildlife the same right (e.g. if they choose one of our pets or livestock). We demand privacy in our bodies and homes. We deny wildlife that right, entering their homes and habitats, and violating their persons (bodies) with impunity whenever we wish. When we set aside land that is to be touched as little as possible, we call it a "park", meaning "a human playground". We want wildlife there (if we were to be honest, we would admit that it is precisely the presence of wildlife, and the paucity of humans, that makes a park, a park), but we don't really want to go much out of our way to ensure that they continue to flourish there far into the future. But, then, wildlife are never "at the table" when we decide how we are going to divide up the world among ourselves. One of my local park directors actually campaigned for election using the slogan "Parks Are For People"! She has since dropped the slogan, but continues to act as if she believes it. I would like to replace the word "park" with "wildlife habitat", in order to set priorities straight.

We put humans in prison only in extreme cases (except in California). However, we feel no compunction about locking up other species just to amuse ourselves or decorate our homes. They are considered "property". Whenever a human is in danger, that is called an "emergency". All you need to do is call 911, and an army of nurses, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, doctors, firemen, policemen, volunteers, search and rescue teams, cars, trucks, boats, planes, helicopters, and hospitals are at your disposal. Plants and animals, unless they are considered property, do not have "emergencies". I once naively called 911 because a racoon was struck by a car. I was told that they would not help, and that I should call "Animal Control" in two hours when their office opens. (Presumably, they would come and clean up the mess and prevent any inconvenience to humans. Incidentally, the woman who hit the racoon did everything she could to help it.)

My country was founded under the banner "No Taxation Without Representation!" (in other words, everyone can, at least in theory, vote on the laws that govern them). Wildlife, of course, can't vote (although some people have proposed that humans be allowed to represent them in court). And yet we allow our courts to decide the fate of those organisms, including allowing them (by letting their habitat be destroyed, as with the California gnatcatcher) to be driven extinct. How do our courts even get jurisdiction over wildlife? Wildlife should be above human laws. Next, we will be giving jaywalking tickets to squirrels.

Worldwatch just published a paper ("Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment") by Aaron Sachs in which he recommends that environmentalists make use of local and indigenous people to protect their environment. I agree, to an extent. However, he does not talk about wildlife, and does not recognize that they may have a need (and, hence, right) to be left alone, and not have humans living in their midst and "harvesting" them, even at a "subsistence" level (whatever that is; even indigenous people often join the market economy, and begin harvesting in "industrial" quantities). Also, relying on local people to defend habitat doesn't work well if (as should happen) nobody lives in the area.

For its sake, I hope that we never find life on other planets!

When we aren't abusing wildlife, we are ignoring them. Or taking them for granted. Look at travel guides. For example, the Lonely Planet's guide to Japan contains only half a page on wildlife! They constitute the section called "Dangers and Annoyances". It seems that the only thing worth knowing about the wildlife of Japan is that you should avoid its two poisonous snakes.

But why do we treat wildlife so badly? Are we evil? I don't think so. We are neither good nor evil. I think there is a relatively simple explanation. The brain is optimized for efficiency: it pays attention only to what is needed for immediate survival. We learn to ignore (take for granted) most of the information that is available to us, so that we can focus on what is most important to our survival at the moment. We just haven't had much need to focus on wildlife. And in our highly urbanized world, we "need" to focus on wildlife less than ever!

Eight years ago, I suddenly noticed that even though the air in the San Francisco Bay Area was visibly polluted and didn't meet our air quality standards, we were planning to expand every freeway in the region, "to reduce traffic congestion". My intuition said this was wrong, even though the politicians and highway department insisted that speeding up traffic would improve air quality. (Widening roads to relieve traffic congestion is like widening your nose to relieve nasal congestion.) I began campaigning to stop all highway expansion. But when I asked others for help, they weren't interested. Highway construction, at that time, just wasn't considered an environmental issue. Only whales, rain forests, and other such "sexy" issues were being addressed. Everyone simply took roads for granted; they just weren't looking in that direction. They weren't opposed to what I was doing, they simply hadn't thought about it. Once I (and others who came to the same conclusion independently) called it to their attention, and they learned the facts, everyone agreed with us, to the extent that there are now thousands of people and groups around the world working on stopping road construction.

I think we are now in the same position with regard to wildlife. Most people take them for granted. If they knew the facts (especially about conservation biology and the biodiversity crisis), they would agree with me. They "have their hearts in the right place", but just haven't examined the issues. My role is to gather up the important facts and spread them around the world. That makes some people uncomfortable (e.g. mountain bikers, equestrians, hikers, or even scientists who don't want to be excluded from wildlife habitat), but that is not my goal. My goal is simply to face the facts squarely, since I believe that that is our only hope.

What wildlife Need

Wild Earth, the Wildlands Project, Reed Noss, Michael Soule, Ed Grumbine, and other conservation biologists have addressed this question. Wildlife need ... just what we need (remember our 98 percent genetic commonality with the chimpanzee?)! They need a place to live where there is an adequate supply of food, water, potential mates, protection from predators, etc. For long-term survival, this area must be large enough to supply all of those needs, as well as contain a big enough gene pool that they don't get inbred and can adapt to changing circumstances (e.g. fire or global warming). For example, a minimum viable size for a given population might be 1000 individuals. In addition to secure habitat, they need safe corridors by which to travel to the resources they need.

Most proposals addressing the question of how to preserve our biological heritage have called for a network of large, "inviolate" (no, or almost no human use) reserves, all connected by wildlife corridors, and "buffered" by land with minimal human presence. To save all of our current complement of species would probably take at least 50 percent of the land area of the continent. Wildlife are not as flexible as we are, and most require very specific kinds of foods, climate, or terrain. The key, of course, is not what we think is adequate, but what the species themselves want and can survive on. Large carnivores, for example, require huge territories (in order to find an adequate supply of prey and a reasonable choice of mates), with no or minimal human presence.

Roads and other human facilities that need to cross these corridors are a problem. In order for a corridor to function as a corridor, organisms must be able to travel safely. Some species will use a tunnel under a road, but some will feel that such exposure is too risky, and won't use the tunnel. Ideally, a road should tunnel under the wildlife corridor. How frequent do these crossings need to be? Only research will tell, but since we really don't have time or resources for all that research, erring on the side of caution (i.e., disturbing wildlife habitat as little as possible) would seem to be the wisest approach. (Noss and Cooperrider, p.174: "the key principle for managing landscapes for biodiversity is prudence: be cautious, move slowly, stay out of sensitive areas, avoid overmanipulation of habitats".)

What to Do

Adopt prudent guiding principles. For example, since wildlife cannot protect themselves from us, and since their requirements are much stricter than ours, they must be taken care of first: Planning for wildlife habitat areas and corridors should precede all other planning. Currently, we approve almost all projects as proposed, and then try to "fix" ("mitigate") the problems following construction, forcing wildlife to adapt to us (leading to almost certain failure, since we have never been able to duplicate nature).

The best available biological information should be used. However, lacking research data, we can usually be safe by erring on the side of caution and leaving habitat alone. In particular, we should never allow lack of data to be used as an excuse to delay protection for habitat and wildlife. Similarly, the fact that a particular area has already been damaged for use as habitat (e.g. clearcut, or turned into a golf course), and hence no longer functions adequately as habitat, should not be used as an excuse to "write it off" and damage it further. This specious excuse is the origin of the myth that there are "sensitive" habitat areas and "insensitive" habitat areas. Wherever there is damage, there can be repair ("restoration")!

A priority scheme may help in making reasonable decisions: native plants are in a sense the most vulnerable organisms -- they can't protect themselves from animals -- so they probably should be given first priority, followed by other wildlife, native peoples, children, the disabled, women, the poor, etc. For example, in Australia, aborigines help manage the national parks (in conjunction with the federal government). That way, we can conserve both wildlife and aboriginal culture. They are (or can be trained to be) some of the best protectors of wildlife. Of course, aboriginal peoples have also caused extinctions, so it makes sense for them to receive the advice and oversight of scientists.

(This scheme is modelled after the familiar food chain: small organisms feed larger organisms, plants feed herbivores, herbivores feed carnivores, and at the top of the food chain are General Motors, Shell Oil, Mitsubishi, and the other multinational corporations.)

Sachs (p.55) put it "Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable members of our society, in other words, is perhaps the best way we have of protecting the right of future generations to inherit a planet that is still worth inhabiting". Of course, he, "the entire Worldwatch Institute staff" and the long list other reviewers of his paper all failed to notice that "the most vulnerable members of our society" are wildlife! If such an erudite bunch can commit an oversight like this, I guess the rest of us can be excused ours.

What better place to begin rectifying our abuse of wildlife, than in our parks?! They already provide some protection for some wildlife species, even though it is inadequate to ensure long-term viability. Our park systems could provide the "seeds" of a "full function" habitat-and-corridor matrix designed to preserve all of our biological heritage (like the one proposed by the Wildlands Project). First, as I said earlier, the word "park", which connotes an area primarily for pleasuring humans, should be replaced by "wildlife habitat" or "wilderness" (the ideal being "pure habitat" or "virgin wilderness", perhaps also called "sacred land"). The emphasis change is necessary because managing land for human use does not adequately protect wildlife. This does not mean that the parks will no longer serve people's needs; on the contrary, I believe that "virgin wilderness", "pure habitat", land kept as much as possible in a "natural" (undisturbed by humans) state, is more valuable and pleasurable to us than any other! In other words, even if we assume that "parks are for people", they will remain most effective only if we treat them as if they are for wildlife (make wildlife preservation the top priority in the parks).

In order to prepare our parks for their new role as protectors of wildlife habitat, we should remove, as much as possible, all human artifacts -- buildings, "manicured" areas (e.g. lawns), exotic (non-native) plants and animals (e.g. livestock!), parking lots, most trails (I have a weakness for "nature" (short, educational) trails), and, above all, roads (without roads, it is very difficult to destroy the environment!). Perhaps we could allow bathrooms and drinking fountains, at least in the most heavily used areas, for health reasons. Of course, all mechanical forms of transportation, such as jeeps and bicycles, would be forbidden within the park. (We should make an exception for wheelchairs, but other than wheelchair-accessible nature trails, I would not want to see wildlife habitat sacrificed for any humans, even the disabled (remember my priority list?): the most disabled human is still better off than many species of wildlife, which are going extinct.)

This is the most humane way to reduce human impacts on the parks -- not exclude people, but just make the wilderness a bit harder to get to. Roads, hotels, restaurants, huge parking lots (recognize Yosemite?), burros (e.g. in the Grand Canyon), horses, and mountain bikes make it too easy for lazy, uncaring people to get into wildlife areas. (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, p.171: "One great problem with ORVs [off-road vehicles] is that they supply easy access to wilderness areas for unsupervised people who have ... no conception of the damage they are doing".) I often pick up trash where I hike. I have noticed that there is vastly more trash (by several orders of magnitude) next to roads and parking lots, than there is along trails. Or to say it another way, why fill up our parks with the very things (humans and human artifacts) that we go there to get away from (seeking respite from)? Anyone who wants urban amenities can find a plethora of them in the city, where they cause people so much stress that they want to escape to a park to find peace! (For example, let's not let our love of bicycles blind us to the fact that, like all things, they can be used for good (supplanting the automobile) and evil (invading and damaging wildlife habitat).)

In line with our laissez-faire (hands off) approach to park management, natural processes should be allowed, including fire. Anyone who puts their home right next to a park should also bear whatever risks that entails, including fire, falling trees, and (if food in the park gets scarce) predation of pets. (They should also carefully watch their children, the way animal mothers do!) Park managers in my area, under pressure from nearby homeowners, have been trying to "fireproof" the parks, destroying wildlife habitat and, ironically, actually increasing the fire danger!

In short, parks should be allowed to revert to wilderness, and wilderness should be a place that we enter rarely, reverently, and on its own terms.

In addition to parks, which are ideal places for people to learn about nature and sustainable living, there need to be ("core", or "pure") habitat areas that belong entirely to wildlife, and are off limits to people. Every region should have such areas, partly for the sake of wildlife, but also for their educational value: their very existence would silently and continuously teach people an enormous amount about biology and the ethical treatment of wildlife (just as architecture nonverbally communicates how the designer wants us to think about something or someone). Of course, an area that we never intend to visit, doesn't need to be depicted on the map! So I propose that we blank out these areas on every map, and designate them simply "terra incognita", or some such expression that conveys the proper respect. I call this "demapping". (Maps, by facilitating human access, are just as dangerous as roads! Like roads, they are a two-edged sword, giving equal access to good and evil.) (Ironically, maps have always been one of my favorite things -- keys to unknown territories!)

Psychologists tell us that children learn most of what they will ever know by the age of six. This education, of course, is mostly nonverbal (the most powerful method of teaching that exists!). They also develop an attachment to their surroundings (this is called "imprinting"). In other words, if a child grows up in a concrete, human-fabricated world, it will grow up loving that environment and believing that it is right and good. I believe, therefore, that every infant, soon after it meets its mother and father, should be taken to the wilderness. Where else can you learn the meaning of life and the way things are supposed to be?! (I can see hospitals starting to compete with each other to see which can provide the most realistic "jungle" on its obstetrics floor!) My parents took me and my brother and sister camping in the Olympic National Park when I was eight. I still remember that (very ordinary) camping trip. It was also instantly obvious -- no one needed say a word! -- that wilderness was the best place to be. Luckily, I was also in the Boy Scouts, and learned to be comfortable there. Fifty years later, I still would rather hike and camp than just about anything else.

We need wilderness! Most of the intelligence (information) in the universe is store there (in strings of DNA); we crave intelligence (information). Surprise lives there. Also Delight. Our brains thrive on complexity; too much simplicity literally puts them to sleep (or gives rise to hallucinations, as in sensory deprivation). Wilderness -- for example, swamps, coral reefs, and rain forests -- contains most of the world's complexity.

We pride ourselves on being able to empathize with others. Then let's demonstrate it, with wildlife (who, after all, are not that different from us)! We profess to believe in the Golden Rule. Well, then, let's see it applied to members of other species. Let's try treating other species just as we want to be treated. As individuals, for example, rather than just members of a group (or species). If we are as skilled at communication as we believe we are, let's communicate with other species, and find out directly from them how they want to be treated (but, come on, don't we really know already?).

The Ecocity

My definition of an environmentalist is someone who gives top priority to (the welfare of) wildlife. I believe that everything else (that normally characterizes an environmentalist) follows from that premise. (For example, if we provide clean air for wildlife, we will automatically do so for ourselves, as well.)

An ecocity is the same: it is simply a city that puts wildlife first -- a city that lives by a priority scheme like the one I suggested earlier. From this axiom, you can derive the theorems that flesh out the ecocity. I am not going to attempt to describe that exactly. I don't think I am the best person to do it. For one thing, a detailed design would require detailed information about local indigenous species.

The best that I can do, I think, is offer some tentative suggestions. I am sure that you, applying the principles I have presented, can come up with much better ideas.

1. Accept the fact that human courts have no jurisdiction over wildlife (i.e., that wildlife are "above the law"). In particular, no person should be allowed to harm wildlife unnecessarily (i.e., without good cause).

2. Recognize wildlife as equal citizens of the community, with the same rights as humans, to be overridden only when necessary (for good cause). In particular, the opportunity to travel safely wherever desired should not be impaired, and they should not be killed unnecessarily (i.e., without good cause). Humans love to make use of other species' names, to "invoke their qualities". For example, we name streets after trees, cars after mammals, etc. For as long as this is being done, the beneficiaries should pay periodic royalties into a wildlife/habitat preservation fund ("put their money where their mouth is").

3. Minimize pavement! Let's start removing all unnecessary pavement while we still have enough oil (fuel) left to do it! It's no fun doing it by hand.

4. Wetlands are sacred. None should be destroyed or covered up. All creeks should be liberated from their above-ground and under-ground prisons (i.e., pipes, culverts, concrete channels, etc.). Water should not be polluted. It belongs to all species.

5. Soil is sacred. It takes eons to create. It can be moved, but should never be destroyed. It should not be polluted. It belongs to all species.

6. Air is sacred. It should not be polluted. It belongs to all species.

7. Since wildlife cannot protect itself from us, it should be accorded top priority. Planning for preserving wildlife should precede all other planning.

All of these principles should be codified and implemented by the United Nations (and concurrently studied and adopted by every government agency, business, and private organization).


All over the world, humans are fighting, invariably over some resource that both parties covet. Wouldn't it be wonderful if both sides could be distracted for a moment from their selfish pursuits in order to come to the aid of a third party of even greater need? The logical third party is wildlife. And the logical vehicle for this process is the ecocity movement.


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