How many tigers should there be? This hilarious question came to mind when I read that many tiger species are becoming extinct, and the remaining numbers are very small -- only hundreds or thousands left in the world. So I wondered, "well then, how many ought there be?”
When I walk out my door, somehow I'm not tripping over rabbits or encountering a pack of hundreds of wolves. Even the insects, as numerous and diverse as they are here, are not taking over the place. The remarkable thing is that every creature fits into the ecosystem, and it's through the cooperation of the ecosystem that there is any kind of balance. I'm often struck when seeing some relatively rare insect, like a praying mantis the other day. In fact, I had never seen one previously. The ecosystem doesn't support millions of praying mantises -- there's no need for them. I hear coyotes calling nearly every night, but I've yet to see one. They're out there, doing their thing, and there's a limit to how many coyotes can survive in any one place.
Humans aren't like that. We just run roughshod over almost any ecosystem, growing until we chase everything away and ruin the environment. Sure, there are some limits -- people want to have enough space to fit all the crap they accumulate, and they want to have a spot of grass to remind them what the earth looks like. But if given the opportunity, we'll eagerly wipe out huge swaths of ecology for our pleasure. I wish I could imagine what pre-colonial New England looked like, covered with dense old growth forests. Europeans arrived and said “we'll take it!” and proceeded to clear cut the whole countryside, first for lumber, then to make pastures for raising sheep so that they could have a steady supply of
thneeds socks. At what point can we step back and say, “oops!”?
How many whales should there be? After seeing a whale in person for the first time, I wondered what their lives are like. Imagine having 100 million square miles to make your home, with very few natural predators (except, of course, humans). Females live in small groups and raise their young collectively. Adult males spend their lives in solitude, hundreds or thousands of miles away from another whale, until it’s time to mate -- then they use their enormously loud voices to call females across the ocean. There might be a million whales left in the world, but it's impossible to know for sure.
What is the passage of time like for sperm whales, who possess the largest brains on earth and live past 70 (or, for baleen whales, past 120 -- no one knows)? What do they experience and think, as they spend day after day alone, in the icy polar waters? Do they lust for more giant squid than they could possibly eat? Do they plan war against other whales or maybe dolphins?
No, whales are the living saints of the sea. In our history, we've martyred millions of them, so that we could have makeup, transmission fluid, and margarine. And we're the intelligent ones?
So, how many tigers, how many whales? The answer seems to be: "as many as humanity accepts." We loved the Passenger Pigeon so much that we reduced their numbers from billions to zero. Nowadays, we love putting palm oil in everything we eat; as a result, we just can't accept any more Orangutans on this planet. Sorry, cousins -- get your own planet! After all, we're trying to give ourselves heart disease, here!
I wish it weren't so depressing. When I drove into Vermont recently, the first thought was, "this is how it's supposed to be" -- where people are outmatched, outnumbered, and outclassed by trees. It's a reassuring, if hopelessly naive thought. There's no virgin land here. The trees can speak to our clear-cutting even in verdant Vermont. It's only a difference of degree between suburbia and Quechee gorge and between a toxic dump and Manhattan. But there's a point when differences of degree become differences of kind; my hope is that we don't bulldoze past that point in the pursuit of happiness, growth, and progress.
the tree submerged, beneath the shadow of man -- a glimpse into the future