The role of diversity in the natural world

Derrick Jensen is the author of twenty-one books, including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, and Endgame. Often called the philosopher-poet of the environmental movement, he was named one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” In 2008 he led Press Action’s “Dynamic Dozen” and in 2006 he was the Press Action “Person of the Year.”

But Jensen wasn’t always an environmental activist. He has a degree in mineral engineering physics from the prestigious Colorado School of Mines, as well as an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University. I wanted to know how he had gone from mining physicist to environmentalist.

“I understood what was at stake in the environmental movement from about second grade,” he says. “We lived at the edge of a meadow that got turned into a subdivision that year, and all the creatures who lived in that meadow lost their home. I remember thinking, ‘They can’t keep doing this forever. Eventually they’ll run out of space.’”

Nevertheless, Jensen was “one of those kids who took calculus in high school” and was channeled into a degree in engineering, “because that’s how you can make the most money from your abilities.” He received a full scholarship to the Colorado School of Mines, but didn’t enjoy his studies much. “Few of us did,” he admits, “but my friends all said things like ‘When I get out of here I’m going to make a ton of money, drive a brand-new Mustang, and retire when I’m 60.’ I’d think, ‘Really?’ What if you retire at 60 and get hit by a bus?’”

During the summer, however, Jensen interned at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) with scientists who couldn’t bear to miss a day of work—even when they were sick—because they were so excited about what they were doing. “That’s how I wanted to live,” he says. “I wanted work I would do for love, even if no one paid me.”

Writing about the planet has been that work. In addition to his twenty-one published books, he writes for Orion and has written for Audubon, and The Sun Magazine, among many others. I wanted to talk with him about the role of diversity in ecosystems.

Jensen spoke with me by phone from a pond near his home in northern California. While we talked a black bear and her two cubs came down to the pond to drink. Hearing his voice, they didn’t stay to play, though they normally would have, he said.

Leslee Goodman

The MOON: What does diversity do for ecosystems? Why is diversity important?

Jensen: That’s like asking why can’t everyone be an oncologist. What kind of functioning society would that be? Nature creates diversity because there are so many roles to be performed in an ecosystem that one species can’t perform them all. In the natural world, you need plants to convert sunlight into substance; pollinators to pollinate the plants; animals to eat the plants and fertilize the soil; predators to keep small animal populations in check; and still other species to dispose of poop and dead carcasses. In fact, you need so many more species and complex interrelationships than we even have the capability to recognize. It’s like the David Ehrenfeld line: “Not only is the world more complex than we think it is, the world is more complex than we are able to think it is.”

For example, I’m sitting here in a second-growth redwood forest, which also includes willows and cedar and fir trees. When they deforested parts of the Pacific Northwest of Douglas firs, they tried replanting them, but the firs didn’t do well. Eventually they discovered that there is a fungus associated with firs in the forest, and voles associated with the fungus, and this three-way relationship is important to the health of the firs. The fungus lives off the firs, the voles eat the fungus and defecate fungus spores, the spores are rich in nutrients that have been broken down sufficiently that the root tips of the firs can absorb them, and the firs flourish. It’s easy for humans to think, “Oh, who cares if we lose a certain kind of fungus or rodent?” We don’t realize that the loss of the fungus and the vole could also mean the loss of fir trees—which in our utilitarian-motivated culture means losing everything from construction materials to toilet paper—in addition to such non-commercial goods as beauty, oxygen, and shade.

Of course, there’s a moral dimension to this too. I believe that other species have a right to exist regardless of their potential usefulness to us. It’s extremely arrogant to think that what we find useful is the arbiter of a species’ right to exist—to say nothing of the fact that our definition of utility changes over time. For example, a couple hundred years ago there were thousands of varieties of apples. But now we’ve bred apple varieties down to a few that have optimal taste and nutritional value and we’ve lost all the rest. Some of the genetic diversity we’ve bred out of apples perhaps protected them from certain kinds of pests. By breeding that characteristic out, that capacity is gone—forever.

That’s the weakness in all monocrop agriculture. When you plow a field, you destroy all of the bacteria, fungi, and other life in the soil and you destroy the habitat for all of the creatures who lived in the rich variety of plants that once occupied the land. So where can the insect and disease predators live? Then, by planting a single crop, you create the perfect habitat for the pests of that crop—and no one else. The pest mows through the crop like wildfire. That’s what happened with cotton and the boll weevil in the South; it’s what makes agriculture so dependent upon artificial pesticides today.

The MOON: Yes, I was reading Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir, which is about how geography affects food—or “the taste of place.” There’s a chapter in his book about coffee—which nearly became reduced to a few high-yielding varieties—until someone created an international auction of gourmet coffees, which saved countless varieties from, as Jacobsen says, “the compost heap of history.” Yet these varieties, in addition to having subtleties of flavor and aroma that now command premium prices, have other qualities, like resistance to the coffee leaf rust fungus, which we nearly lost because of our myopic focus on cost and yield.

Jensen: Exactly. That’s why I consider myself to be pretty conservative in a lot of ways. I’m conservative in that I don’t want to foreclose possibilities. I don’t want to lose options I might need in the future. I’d rather not risk when it comes to the possibility of doing harm. Once we poison an aquifer, it’s over for that aquifer. Once you release radioactive wastewater from Fukushima, you can’t de-radiate the ocean. I’m fundamentally opposed to killing the planet I live on.

Nature tends to increase the diversity of an ecosystem over time. We’re taught that evolution advances through survival of the fittest, which implies competition. But if you look more closely you see that the creatures who have survived in the long run, survived in the long run by improving their environment over time. One of the ways you improve your environment over time is by increasing its diversity. The more diverse an environment, the more “niches,” or opportunities, there are for other organisms to live. The more organisms there are in an ecosystem, the more stable it is—like legs on a table.

If you only eat one type of food, for example, and that food has a bad year, you starve. There are only a few examples of that in nature, but one is the lynx and the snowshoe hare. The lynx doesn’t eat much besides snowshoe hares, so when there’s a good year for hares—with many babies surviving—there’s a good year for lynx, with many lynx babies surviving. Then the lynx population depletes the hare population—and the following year the lynx population crashes. That’s what you get: boom and bust cycles repeating themselves.

The MOON: Yes, like the old adage of not putting all your eggs in one basket.Can you give us some examples of ways in which a species makes its environment more diverse over time?

Jensen: The most basic one is the role that plants play in converting sunlight into edible forms of energy through photosynthesis. They greatly improve the environment for other forms of life. They also do so by converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, so that animal life can breathe. Animals reciprocate by exhaling carbon dioxide, feeding plants. Here’s another example: bears strip off the bark of certain trees to eat the cambium layer underneath. Sometimes they’ll strip off enough bark that they kill the tree. But a dead tree in the forest often provides habitat and food for more creatures than a living tree does, so the death of one tree provides life for many.

The MOON: And getting back to the issue of genetic diversity, that’s why there are problems when there is too much in-breeding. Genetic weaknesses become concentrated, rather than diluted, over time. You need genetic diversity to create new combination possibilities.

Jensen: Yes, which is why most cultures have taboos against incest, and why breeding programs for animals in captivity try to minimize the risks of in-breeding and increase the genetic diversity by cross-breeding with closely related species.

You know, one aspect of diversity we seldom think about is soil diversity. It’s said that a spoonful of healthy soil contains millions of organisms, including beneficial species of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, micro-arthropods and nematodes. These organisms help plants obtain nutrients and water from the soil, to prevent nutrient losses, to protect them from pathogens, and to degrade compounds that could inhibit growth.¹ Some mycelial networks extend for literally hundreds of acres through the soil. There are fungi in Oregon that span several square miles and are thousands of years old. These mycelial networks transfer nutrients from the edges of the forest, where there is sunlight, into the depth of the forest where sunlight may not be able to penetrate. And that’s just one example of the role diversity plays in an ecosystem. How can we be so arrogant to think that we know enough to obliterate networks of life that have existed for millennia? Diversity confers resilience. It also confers stability. Again, it’s like the legs of a table; the more legs you have, the less likely your table will fall over.

The MOON: In your interview with Deep Green Resistance, you describe the process of “civilization” as one of removing people from the biotic system of which they were originally a part, concentrating them in cities, and then exploiting the surrounding areas for food and other urban needs. Would it be fair to say that as cities—or even civilizations—grow increasingly diverse, or complex, they do so by enormously simplifying, or destabilizing, the natural environment on which we ultimately depend?

Jensen: Yes, I think that would be a fairly obvious thing to say. One of the first written myths of Western civilization is of Gilgamesh going in and deforesting the “Fertile Crescent” to make cities. The Fertile Crescent was the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which we now call Iraq. When you think of Iraq, do you think of a lush and fertile place? It once had cedar forests so thick that the sunlight never touched the ground.

Did you know that the Arabian Peninsula used to be oak savannah? And we’ve all heard of the cedars of Lebanon. They still have one on their flag. Greece was once heavily forested; Italy was heavily forested, North Africa was heavily forested, until the Egyptians and Phoenicians made navies of the forests. The eastern United States, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, was once so heavily forested that squirrels could cover the distance without ever having to leave the treetops.

Forests aren’t the only diversity we’ve lost. Fish eggs on the beach at Chesapeake Bay used to be so thick that wagons would get stuck in them. There were so many whales off the coast of New England that they interfered with ship traffic. Passenger pigeons used to blacken the skies over North America. Salmon used to be so thick in the rivers that you could hear them coming from miles away. The Natives say that you could walk across the river on the backs of salmon.

We think that “civilization” is inexorable and can’t be stopped, but it has been the dominant form of human society for less than one percent of the two hundred thousand years humans have walked the Earth. The development of cities required the large-scale destruction of natural communities, since cities must denude—and now pave—the land they exist on, and then exploit the resources of the surrounding countryside in order to sustain themselves. As cities grow, they must acquire and consume ever more resources in order to avoid collapse. But infinite growth cannot be sustained on a finite planet. We’re currently witnessing the inevitable results of such a system – mass extinction on a scale never before seen on Earth, accelerating climate change, and an entire culture dependent on exploitation of resources.

By contrast, the Tolowa—the indigenous people of the part of northern California where I live, inhabited a village now called Crescent City. The Tolowa were not civilized, since they did not create cities. They ate native salmon, clams, deer, huckleberries, and so on, so they had no need to bring in food from outside.

On the other hand, the Aztecs were civilized. Their social structure led inevitably to great city-states like Tenochtitlán, which was far larger than any city in Europe when Europeans first encountered it. The story of any “civilization” is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers in order to sustain and grow them, which means increasing the region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.

Because this has gone on so long (throughout recorded history, at any rate), some of us assume it can go on forever. But it can’t. When you keep removing creatures from their homes, eventually they have no place to live, so they die. And that’s what’s happening. We’re losing species at a breath-taking rate. There are scientists who say that the oceans will be devoid of fish in fifty years because of acidification. Can you imagine the oceans devoid of fish?

I read recently that Washington oyster farmers are giving up and moving to Hawaii because the waters of the Northwest Pacific are so acidic that the baby oysters can’t make shells. That’s great for the oyster farmers: they can move. What do the baby oysters do?

The MOON: If, as you say, “We’re currently witnessing the inevitable results of such a system – mass extinction on a scale never before seen on Earth, accelerating climate change, and an entire culture dependent on exploitation,” what is your prognosis for the future? Can we re-diversify our planet?

Jensen: I don’t know. I think it’s highly probably we’ll kill the planet—because too many people are cut off from the awareness that we are killing the planet. That’s another aspect of diversity we’ve lost: diversity of experience; diversity of intelligence. That’s what I write about in Culture of Make Believe. We watch television or sit on the internet and think we have this diversity of choices—the fishing channel, the sports channel, the home improvement channel; or Yahoo, AOL, or Al-Jazeera. But we’re still just watching television; we’re still just sitting at the computer.

I live in a forest and when I first moved here about ten years ago, you literally could not have a conversation outside at night because the frogs were so loud. About five years ago, that changed. I asked one of my neighbors if he’d noticed that the frogs were a lot quieter now; or there were a lot fewer frogs; and he said no, he hadn’t noticed that. He hadn’t been outside at night. But I assure you that if the San Francisco Forty-Niners went away, he’d know it instantly.

I’m not saying that because I dislike sports; I love sports. I’m just saying that “civilization” has created a uniformity of experience which is cutting us off from the feedback loops that would alert us to the grave danger we’re in. We don’t realize what’s happening to our home because we don’t actually live there. We live in a manufactured culture in which Angelina Jolie is more real to us than the songbirds outside our window. In fact, I can only identify the songs of about five birds, but I can name fifty to one hundred corporate jingles. That’s part of the diversity problem: we’re collapsing the diversity of knowledge and experiences we consider important.

We also operate under the illusion that human intelligence is superior to all other intelligence. But there are all sorts of intelligences operating on the planet that we’re not even aware of. Is that intelligent? For example, trees release hormones in the fall that tell the fish it’s time to slow their metabolism because winter is coming; it’s time to conserve energy. In the spring, they release other hormones that tell the fish it’s okay to wake up now and start moving again. That’s a level of interspecies cooperation we’ve only recently become aware of. Yet we still suffer from human supremacism—the idea that we’re superior to the rest of nature and that the laws of nature don’t apply to us.

There’s a quote I find particularly chilling from Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “father” of scientific management and one of the leaders of the so-called Efficiency Movement. He said, “In the past, man was first. In the future, the system will be first.”

That’s what we’ve come to. We think “the system” must go on, even though the system is one of converting the living to the dead. That’s what we call “production,” or “progress.” The system doesn’t recognize the value of a redwood tree until it’s turned into two-by- fours.

The operator of the Daiichi nuclear plant at Fukushima said that the world would continue to rely on nuclear power because people couldn’t live without electricity. But that’s wrong. People lived without electricity for thousands of years. What we can’t live without is a functioning planet. So it’s not the system that must go on. The system is what needs to be stopped. It’s the planet that must go on.

Originally published by The MOON Magazine

Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen
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