Nathan Englander came to my attention nearly six years ago. A novelist who lives in Brooklyn, he got me thinking about story-telling in a way that was very important to me, two years into our residency in India. He did something important for me again this last week, focusing my attention on an act I would normally ignore. But his point resonated with me because of the subject’s connection to the state of nature. So I thought about how to link to his op-ed in a manner consistent with our objectives on this site.
Four years ago Richard Conniff, who writes about wildlife and human and animal behavior, started a long series of regular appearances in our pages. The day after Nathan Englander published the op-ed I mentioned above, Richard Conniff published an op-ed referencing the same act, a day in advance of Earth Day. And it is powerful. So I knew how to proceed, and with this excerpt you may be inclined to read both op-eds in full:
I was thinking about Mr. Buckel and about despair a few nights later, over a drink with Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society. As director of that organization’s worldwide field conservation work, Mr. Walston routinely comes face-to-face with the dark forces of human overpopulation, mass extinction of species, climate change and pollution. But he is also the co-author of a paper being published this week in the journal BioScience that begins with the uplifting words of Winston Churchill to the British nation in June 1940, under the shadow of the Nazi conquest of France: “In casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye,” Churchill declared, “I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”
Mr. Walston and his co-authors go on to argue against the increasingly common view that these are the end times for life as we know it. Instead, they suggest that what the natural world is experiencing is a bottleneck — long, painful, undoubtedly frightening and likely to get worse in the short term — but with the forces of an eventual breakthrough and environmental recovery already gathering strength around us.
Mr. Walston sipped his beer and listed what he called “the four pillars” of conservation in the modern era — a stabilized human population, increasingly concentrated in urban areas, able to escape extreme poverty, and with a shared understanding of nature and the environment — “and all four are happening right now.” He singled out the trend toward urbanization as the biggest driver of environmental progress, bigger perhaps than all the conservation efforts undertaken by governments and environmental groups alike.
Cities have of course endured a reputation for much of the industrial era as a blight, the stinking antithesis of conservation. “But what happens in urban areas?” Mr. Walston asked. New arrivals from the countryside “get better access to medical care, they experience decreased child mortality and in time that leads them to have fewer children” — the so-called demographic transition — and those children go on to better schooling and potentially more rewarding work lives.
The pace of the global movement away from rural areas and into urbanized areas — a category that includes suburbs and small towns as well as city centers — is startling. In my own lifetime, we have gone from 30 percent of the world’s population living in urban areas to 54 percent today, with the likelihood that the number will rise as high as 90 percent later in this century.
Unfortunately, that means the bottleneck will get worse over the next few decades, according to Mr. Walston and his co-authors, because urbanization imposes short-term costs, including an increase in overall consumption. But it also leads to reduced per capita energy consumption, as well as reduced birthrates, and it reopens old habitat in abandoned rural areas to wildlife.
That’s already begun to happen in Europe, where wolves, bears, lynx, bison and other species have moved out of protected areas to re-wild a densely populated (but highly urban) continent. If we can hold on into the next century, Mr. Walston said, urbanization could set up the conditions for that sort of recovery worldwide.
Holding on for another century is of course no easy thing. It will require the kind of “intense vigilance and exertion” Churchill called for in the dark early hours of World War II. We will need to undertake a far more concerted effort not just to establish protected areas, Mr. Walston said, but to ensure that they still contain the species said to be living there, as the stock for an eventual recovery. (“Protected area” is now often a euphemism for empty forests and oceans.)…
Read the whole op-ed here.