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As we address the ecological disaster of our making, humans must remember we are animals too
Homo has been characterised as the featherless biped: the thing that thinks (Homo sapiens), the tool-maker (Homo habilis), the species that builds (Homo faber), or even the species that plays (Homo ludens). But I prefer to think of us as the species of the unintended consequence, the species of the accident (Homo casus): the species of the pratfall, we might say. Other island megafauna may well have overpopulated and stripped their own environments, or contributed very directly to the circumstances that extinguished them. But humans are working on a planetary scale.
When one thinks about ‘unintended consequences’, one is likely to picture an improving project that leads directly to disaster, as when Australians introduced a hundred cane toads in 1935 to control cane beetles which were devastating sugar plantations, little reckoning that they would reach a population of over two billion and spread across the country, dramatically disrupting local ecologies (the toads poison predators who hunt them, and efforts to control their population have so far failed). Indeed, if and when we hit the apocalypse, we will have done it to ourselves unintentionally, if not exactly accidentally. While nuclear weapons were intended for self-defence, and fossil fuels for warmth and transport, we have accomplished our environmental alterations through long, concerted and intentional activity – in many cases without anticipating its most conspicuous actual outcomes. I think we did pretty much intend the anthropocene, insofar as we, or many of us, intended to control the environment. We just didn’t intend it to be a disaster.
As humans have built an ever greater proportion of our own environments and traversed our world ever more quickly, we have also built habitats for other species and transported them around the world, often without intending to. The indigo bunting, for example, has evolved compatibly with the anthropocene, or at least the anthropocene as it stood in a previous phase. ‘Common in hedgerows and wood margins,’ says Birds of North America, ‘perches on wires during mating season’. The Audubon Bird Guide describes the indigo bunting’s habitat as ‘brushy slopes, abandoned farmland, old pastures, and forests adjacent to fields. Also found in rural roadside thickets and along the right-of-way of railroads, where woodland meets open areas’. A return to an allegedly pristine, ‘virgin’ or humanless nature would not necessarily benefit the bunting, nor myriad other species, such as the white-tailed deer or wild turkeys that inhabit many North American suburbs. Humans are driving extinction, but we are also contributing to many species thriving. Not all of them are as attractive as the indigo bunting; humans are key parts of the ecosystems for rats, roaches, pigeons and viruses too. Their survival – at least in the short term – depends on humans.
We are ourselves an ‘edge species’: we do best in altered environments where the unbuilt and built interact, not where either is purified of the other. Humans are animals, yet the human/non-human distinction remains fundamental. When we want to devalue people, we may describe them and treat them in ways that mirror our treatment of members of other species: caging them, for example. One way that we have often distinguished ourselves from other species is that we are conscious, and they are (supposedly) not. But one thing that this era might teach us is that we are not as conscious as we think we are. What we are in fact doing is not very well described by what we intend to do. If we are free and hence responsible in ways that other animals are not, the possibility for humans to take more responsibility or act more responsibly appears open to us as it is not to them. But we are also the beings who feel our own unfreedom and irresponsibility as a loss.
One reason we might be able to reconceive of ourselves as animals – and animals as us – is that unintended consequences show us to ourselves as ‘natural’, as things we do not, and perhaps cannot, fully understand or control, things not fully ‘conscious’; in this way we don’t really know what we’re doing or why, and we don’t know who we are. That is, we are capable of experiencing ourselves as a natural force, even if also as a natural disaster. But the disaster is indeed natural, and we are mammals. It would be worthwhile to view the anthropocene, entirely, as the current natural period or epoch, and to view ourselves as participants (like it or not) in the ‘impersonal’ workings of evolution.
I wonder whether buntings regard railway cuttings as environmental destruction, or rather as a fortunate accident or lucky coincidence. Even if we have tried to, we haven’t built only for ourselves, for we are not only ourselves. We are environments embedded in environments, in continual encounter even in our concrete and plastic world, with other species and with the speciousness of ourselves. As we negotiate the anthropocene – as we negotiate ourselves, among others – and face up to what we are doing to the world, we must start to conceive of ourselves as bits of nature, not its overlords: as participants fully embedded in it, rather than its destroyers or, for that matter, its stewards.
Lead image: On the sixth day, as reported in Genesis in the Christian Bible, God created humans ‘so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’. Each animal is named by the first human Adam, captured in this 13th-century English drawing. As early as the sixth day of creation, humans set themselves apart from other species. Credit: Gibon Art / Alamy
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