Today is Blog Action Day. Thousands of blogs around the world are going to be commenting on a single issue, and this year's issue is the environment. Hardly surprising - the environment is rather a hot topic at the moment. Indeed, for perhaps the first time in history, the environment is practically overshadowing the economy as a deciding issue in the upcoming national elections here in Australia.
The concept of environmental awareness (at least in the modern sense) is actually a relatively recent one. There was a time when the world's resources seemed almost inexhaustible. Expectations were that production would rise ever higher as more and more of the world was turned over the cultivation, while "unproductive" ecotypes such as prairie and wetland would be drained, fertilised, and pressed into human service. Those who suggested forbearance were little heeded, with their warnings of future impacts usually dismissed as so much scare-mongering. It is only in more recent years that we have realised just how much effect the loss of these "wastelands" can have on our own livelihoods.
To fall back on Dicken's over-quoted opening to the Tale of Two Cities, we are currently in what are, environmentally speaking, the best and the worst of times. The cumulative effect of centuries of human impact means that we are perhaps the first generation in whose time the result of that impact has become obvious. Talk to someone of your grandparents' generation with experience in the fishing industry, and they will tell you of vast catches of fish pulled up in minutes in areas were searching for days will bring up a tiny fraction of the catch. Seafood catches such as crayfish and squid that are now widely sought were once tossed overboard as bycatch, thought only suitable for use as burley or bait. As one character says early in Frank Herbert's Dune, "We were living in a paradise for our species and didn't know it".
A number of years ago, my family went fishing for the day at the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand. At the time, half the islands were a marine reserve, while the other half were open to recreational fishing (the reserve has since been enlarged to cover the entire area). In the area where we were sitting, just outside the reserve, the abundance of fish was something I had never seen before. Any line put down got a bite in a matter of seconds. Bits of bait tossed over the side barely even hit the water before being swallowed. Just think - once, almost the entire ocean was like this. There is a British TV programme hosted by the guy that used to be Baldrick called The Worst Jobs in History - in one episode, an explanation was given of how the Vikings used to transport ships across land barriers, rolling them across logs greased with the fat from fish. Think on how much fish that would have required, and how much must have been available to be considered for use in that manner.
We hear accounts of flocks of birds so large that they blotted out the sun. "If you simply closed your eyes and threw your spear, why, there would be something good to eat on the end of it", as someone says in Neil Gaiman's The Doll's House. Alexander Wilson observed a flight of passenger pigeons in Kentucky in 1806 for which he wrote: "If we suppose this column to have been one mile in breadth (and I believe it to have been much more) and that it moved at the rate of one mile a minute; four hours, the time it continued passing, would make its whole length two hundred and forty miles. Again supposing that each square yard of this moving body comprehended three pigeons, the square yards in the whole space, multiplied by three, would give two thousand two hundred and thirty millions, two hundred and seventy-two thousand pigeons!" (Fisher & Peterson, 1964 - italics mine). Let me repeat that - roughly two and a quarter billion birds in a single flock!
And yet, it is precisely the loss of this abundance that has allowed the environmental movement to gain the force it has today. Those concerned with preserving the environment are no longer the lone voice of Elijah crying in the wilderness, they are - or should be - all of us who wish to live our lives able to see the beauty of the world that surrounds us. Genesis claims that God gave dominion over the world to Man - therefore, the preservation of the world is man's responsibility.
If I may end on a slightly lighter note, I recently overheard a conversation that seemed to sum up all the difficulties of achieving a balance between our modern lifestyles and preserving the world around us:
PERSON 1: "You know, if it weren't for the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, we wouldn't have all these problems - no pollution, no global warming..."
PERSON 2: "Yeah, but we'd be living surrounded by pig shit".
Fisher, J., & T. T. Peterson. 1964. The World of Birds: A comprehensie guide to general ornithology. Macdonald: London.