They Didn't Stand a Chance

My apologies for such a dismal post topic, but modernity made me do it. I’ve borne witness to a number of the following tragedies first-hand. When exposed to similar atrocities in your own life, I recommend repeating the mantra that appears at the end of every point below. I think it helps in fighting human supremacism, validating other life and recognizing the pain we inflict—often unwittingly as we animate the maw of modernity. Evolution did not prepare the plants and animals of this planet for a sudden and dramatic up-ending of the world they were customized to inhabit. That’s on us.

Twenty Terrible Tales

A massive tree that took hundreds of years to attain tremendous height and bulk was no match for an hour of chainsaw action. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A gangly moose was minding its own business in the willow thicket along the stream edge, when—BAM—its head was taken to grace the lodge wall. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Domesticated bees were bred to produce more honey and be less aggressive. Weakened against parasites and disease, their colonies crashed. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A deer, finding itself on a strange, hard, flat ribbon stood transfixed as two unearthly lights sped closer, seemingly set to pass on either side. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Orangutans who lived for countless generations in the dense and biodiverse rainforest found their home destroyed and replaced by oil palms. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance. [Warning: only watch the link if you are ready to be haunted for life by seeing the skinny, muddy “bean” at the end of all things.  It grieves me to my core.]

A butterfly created a caterpillar who had the misfortune to eat pesticide-coated leaves, undergoing metamorphosis into a dead lump. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The noble forebears of our dumb-bred domesticated (captive) animals had no evolutionary answer to ropes and tall fences. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The chattering swallows returned in spring to raise a new set of chicks. But the local mosquitos had been exterminated, leaving the parents and chicks to starve. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

An 80-year-old tortoise followed the familiar route through the forest, across a road that wasn’t there in its youth, just as a truck came along. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The wasps weren’t bothering anybody when they went about their business raising young in a nest under the eaves, only to be shot by a 3 meter jet of poison. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Native grasses and flowers tried to restore health to a corn field, only to be coated in herbicide dropped by an airplane. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Crabs, lobsters, clams, and oysters found that they were no longer able to make protective shells in more acidic water, ultimately perishing from this earth. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A rough-skinned newt, in bursts of slowness, made its way across a wet road at dusk, only to have its innards abruptly and rudely squashed out through its mouth. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The exquisite ruffed grouse cruised into a clearing, aiming for trees that turned out to be a reflection in a house window. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Salmon had fed the forest for millions of years, but demand for heat pumps, electric vehicles, and chat-bots put a dam in their way. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A large prairie dog colony had lived on this patch of land as long as anyone could remember. The commercial developer orchestrated their final solution. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The polar bear cubs got exhausted from swimming in a futile effort to find ice and seals. Their inevitable end was cold, wet, hungry, and oh-so skinny. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The foxes in the Mojave desert required large unobstructed habitat, which vast new solar farms fenced, shaded, and uprooted. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A sea turtle had no notion of the word “bycatch,” yet found itself dying in a crowded net all the same, only to be discarded as waste upon discovery. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Pursuers of modernity forgot themselves, thinking they owned and controlled the world, no longer subject to limits or part of a larger ecology. The world taught them a cruel lesson on the definition of unsustainability. They, for a change, might have known better, but as it was didn’t stand a chance.

End Note

The common thread is forcing plants and animals out of their evolutionary context, as we have done to ourselves as well via modernity.

I kept coming up with more examples, and eventually decided to stop because I felt I was beating a dead horse. It’s surprising how many more examples I could have used, and I suspect you could come up with a number not covered here yourself. It is telling that we are not running short on grim accounts of biodiversity loss.

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34 thoughts on “They Didn't Stand a Chance

  1. Whenever I hear about how electricity from wind and solar is cheaper than any other, I think of how meaningless that is to all of the species currently going extinct.

    • Yes, and even more than meaningless: bad news! Anything that keeps modernity powered will be bad for species (including humans, ultimately).

      • A fertilizer spill in Iowa just killed about 800,000 fish. The animals that depend on those fish for food will have a lean summer. They didn't stand a chance.

  2. What really gets me is when I see wildlife attempting to fight, and not standing a chance.
    I'll one up you another orangutan :

    What I'll ask though is this: where is the line of "doing wrong"*?
    Taking your line "did nothing wrong" and taking the implication from it that humanity is doing wrong.
    As in when a mega hurricane eventually hits and drowns an entire city, the humans there "did nothing wrong" .

    • Life has always been framed as a tragedy of the commons. Communities used to be easier to regulate since they were smaller, but modernity put a stop to that.

      I don't think it really matters where the "doing wrong" line is at this point. That one was blown away a long time ago. One day, we might be able to find our way back there, but for now, we have to quit running like crazy, which is exactly what we are doing. We still have a lot of energy to use up though, so I find it difficult to think that will occur anytime soon.

      • Trying to answer to my own question, the only thing I can come up with is the fable of "The Scorpion and the frog" .
        It's the nature of things…
        The nature of things can change, but that takes time.

  3. Heart-wrenching examples, to be sure. But aren't there less obvious examples where humans aren't involved? The young wildebeest separated from its herd and hunted down by the tiger did nothing wrong but didn't stand a chance. Humans, pre-modernity, did unspeakable things to other species who did nothing wrong, though they probably stood a chance.

    Some of the stuff we do seems unnatural but there is nothing in this world that is unnatural. Modernity is a blight on this world but humans are doing exactly as nature intended. Nature did nothing wrong, but didn't stand a chance.

    • Fair points, but nature doesn't intend anything. Some experiments that emerge are deemed "wrong" in the fullness of time by the hand of evolution. To me the distinction is whether the activity is outside the context upon which evolution has operated for the community of life. Lions and wildebeests and hurricanes are "standard fare" to which life as a whole has adapted.

      • True, nature doesn't intend anything. It was shorthand for how evolution works. There is no target or design but all life prey on other life or the waste of other life. Humans are doing the same, in over-drive. It's difficult to understand what "standard fare" is. Some natural catastrophe can completely alter the playing field and then the ecosystems oscillate until some temporarily climax state is reached.

        I don't wish to excuse modernity. Clearly humans could have done something else but going against the rules of evolution is hard.

    • "there is nothing in this world that is unnatural ". A confident assertion, but is it true ? You evidently think that because humans
      have the capacity to synthesise non-biodegradable pesticides , for
      one example, therefore those pesticides are " natural ".
      Were those pesticides part of the biosphere before humans synthesised them ? No. Did the havoc wrought to the biosphere by those pesticides exist before humans synthesised them ? No.
      Modern humans have diverged so much from the requirements
      of a biosphere that can continue for a long period, that the civilisation
      that currently exists will itself not continue for a long period.
      There are many examples of things that you would oh-so- confidently assert are "natural" that cannot possibly continue for centuries, let alone millenia. In the end, the biosphere itself will have the last word on what is " natural ". The ecological , energetic,and
      material limits that this industrial civilisation are transgressing means
      that it will itself be ephemeral. Perhaps we could just as confidently
      define industrial civilisation as "unnatural ".

      • I'm not condoning anything humans do but I'm writing literally. A rock is natural, a cat is natural, a human is natural. A beaver building a dam is natural. A human digging some iron ore and smelting it is natural. Of course, the latter may be termed artificial but it is no more unnatural than breaking off a small branch to act as a digging tool or a spear. It's just a refinement, though one that does a lot more damage than breaking off a branch. Humans have learned to manipulate matter (natural) to a great degree but that doesn't turn matter into something unnatural. A dam built by a beaver is natural but wouldn't be there without the beaver, so is artificial, in some way.Human built artifacts are artificial but not unnatural.

        That's all I'm saying: there is nothing unnatural in the universe.

        • It seems to me that your definition of 'natural' is too wide, and communication becomes difficult if there is not an accepted meaning for a word, and qualifiers have to be added to determine what someone means.
          If I understand you correctly, you would call human- synthesised non-biodegradeable pesticides " natural" .
          Is that correct ? Would you include Tokyo as part of the "natural world" ?

          • Words can be corrupted over time, making it difficult to communicate in an accurate way. What does "natural" mean? Some foods get packaged with the words "all natural ingredients" but almost all of them were obtained using machines or through processing not seen in the non-human world (how does a wheat berry get threshed, winnowed and milled in nature?). Is there a level of modernity that needs to be involved before "natural" transforms to "unnatural?" The twig used by a monjey as a poking tool to get insects out of a log is natural, right? Is the axe made from a branch and some worked stone, tied with fibres from a plant, natural? How about the axe made with composite materials in facilities that dispose of toxins into the sewerage? It's possible to separate out extremes (a lunar lander and a stone for cracking nuts, for example) but there is a whole range of in-betweens.

            It may seem obvious to look at something that humans made (or even did) and declare, "that's not natural" and yet it was made by something that is natural and using materials that were derived from natural materials. Even chemicals, like non-biodegradeable pesticides, weren't just conjured up out of thin air. They were manufactured by tools, using all natural ingredients to produce something that is unnatural. How could that be?

            So, yes, my definition is wide but the intention is to show that humans are natural and have made use of the remarkable abilities, that evolution provided, to do remarkable things. Not that I'm condoning any of it – I hate modernity. But, in a real sense, it's not unnatural. And it will decay and die.

            Perhaps it would be more accurate to differentiate artificial from the rest of nature by referring to them as man-made, rather than unnatural.

          • There is a risk of getting bogged down in semantics. "Man-made" = synthetic = artificial. All those could be synonyms for "unnatural", and the meaning is almost always clear from the context.
            'Unnatural' does not mean 'supernatural'.

            "Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin" said Gandhi.
            Anything made by machines can safely be said to be unnatural (or synthetic or artificial…)

          • James, you're right and Ghandi was right. However, we then have to get down to what machines are. Are they devices for making other stuff? If not, where is the line drawn? If that is the definition, then stones used to make axe heads and axes used to chop trees are machines, for just one example. At some point in the human evolution of tools, they, and what they helped make, became "artificial" or "unnatural".

    • Lots of comments/discussion about the word "natural," and indeed anything in the universe may be said to be natural. This could include rapid annihilation of most life on Earth in a full-scale nuclear war. Natural does not mean "fine."

      My instinct is to bypass definitions and assess value. It's hard to go wrong with valuing life, biodiversity, evolution, and ecological health—all of which are necessary for us to continue pondering value at all. Thus, rather than ask if something is "natural," I find it more illuminating to ask if it is in keeping with the conditions and modes that have been present for hundreds of thousands (and millions) of years, as that's what shaped the life, biodiversity, evolution, and ecological health that allowed humans to exist in the first place. Is the practice in question in this context, or out of context?

      • Mike, as to where the line should be drawn, maybe 'powered machines' might be more accurate (and that could have been what Gandhi meant, possibly). For example, I have no objection to someone using a rake to remove leaves, or an axe to fell a tree (if it's really necessary) or a spade to dig a hole. But I ******* hate leaf blowers, chainsaws, diggers… etc. etc. ad nauseam.

        Tom, I agree with your assessment about the criterion being whether a thing is compatible with the conditions that have existed for evolutionary time scales.
        Most, if not all, of modernity fails that test.
        It sounds flippant to say it, but it's a shame, what's happened, i.e. all that 'progress', up to and including now.

      • I'm not sure what is meant by "conditions and modes" but 65 million years ago, conditions changed utterly, as they did on at least four prior occasions. If any of those events didn't happen, humans might not be here (or, at least, not now). We don't know what events in the future might lead to what species. It's a tricky subject, indeed (I'm also not sure about assessing "value" since that seems to be a uniquely human notion), but I'm coming more and more to the conclusion that humans are a species and will continue to act like a species whatever a few individuals (including myself) would like to happen.

  4. Shooting a tiger or a moose, in order to stick its head on the walls of some mansion, is wrong. Why so? The answer is beyond the 'left brain', and beyond science… it is something innate.

    Don't all species have inherent value irrespective of their value to humanity's long-term survival, and wouldn't they still, even if no humans existed to observe them?
    If humans crash and burn, taking down many species on the way, why should their fates matter? Why should any species deserve sparing from the human hordes? After all, all human activity is natural, the argument goes…

    In the fullness of time, all evolutionary experiments are doomed when the Sun expands and fries the Earth. That will happen, so why fret about right and wrong? Only if they actually exist.

    If a tree or a bird of prey or a lake or whatever is beautiful, that's not just a perception in the eyes of the beholder, due to evolution. Beauty is real. Truth is real. Who feels it, knows it.

  5. Is is possible for modernity to be wound down in an orderly way while minimizing long-term damage to the Biosphere? If so what should be done?

    • Nothing fundamental prevents a winding down of modernity, placing top priority on minimizing harm to biodiversity. It seems highly unlikely to go that way, as the majority of people on the planet seem to want modernity more than biodiversity (under the false understanding that it is even possible to maintain modernity in the long term without ecological health as a bedrock). Rather than a centrally-directed retreat, I think we must count on individuals and groups who peel off, no longer interested in supporting modernity. Just as many young people are deciding not to have kids, we could imagine a ground swell of people who innovate ways to live out of the yoke of modernity. Most won't elect to go that way, but we do what we can.

  6. We are the most successful species to colonize Earth. But it’s our inability to control our numbers that will lead to our downfall eventually. It’s an old story, from yeast in the Petri dish to the deer on St Matthew island, but since we cannot keep our numbers in check nature will do it for us in the form of the famous 4 horseman. We don’t really know why we are here or how we SHOULD live on the Earth, so we’ll probably be another failed species that had a go at existence once upon a time. It’s all very sad but maybe God has some other experiments going on, on other planets in the universe with species that will be more conscious of what they are doing.

    • I think ants, bacteria, fungi and viruses might disagree with your 1st sentence!

      • Yes! You’re right of course, I should have said the most successful large mammal, other wise rats would also have us beat. We just haven’t figured out how we’re supposed to live on the Earth, other creatures don’t have that problem.

        • Daniel Quinn would say that a branch of humans *forgot* how to live on the earth. For millions of years humans lived on Earth in a way that was at least not blatantly unsustainable, and some still do so. A very brief 10,000 years ago, some took a different path that has come to dominate as it heads for glorious failure. It's a new problem of our fabrication—elevating ourselves above creatures in a way that not all human creatures bought.

        • Actually I realised I was wrong and you were probably right as you said *species*. Ants etc aren't species. But that makes our impact all the more astounding. As Tom says below, some humans did/have figured out how to live within the community of life without destroying it, the rest of us have forgotten how (or choose not to).

  7. The question is "what is natural". I think the line could be drawn at where does humanity get away from the cycles of nature and make things linear? In other words add in non-sustainable amounts of fossil fuel energy.
    An example would be beaver dams compared to human dams. Beaver dams are fleeting things that are only around for a few years until the beavers cut down all the trees and move to a different location. Since their dams are trees and mud and stones they eventually wash out and continue on the cycles of nature. (I have taken apart quite a few beaver dams, sometimes it would be nice if they made their dams in a slightly different location) The trees that they like to eat and use for their dams are the fruiting bodies of a huge root system and grow back in a very short time. (they are all genetically identical over a surprisingly large area, all from the same roots). When humans make a dam they use fossil fuels to enhance the process, the dam never goes back into nature and even though the GHG emissions go back into the cycles, they overload the system and cause relatively instantaneous changes in climate that are impossible for other animals to adapt to.
    In addition human dams cause problems for everything because they block the natural passage of animals, beaver dams don't. Fish have evolved along with beavers so they can get over the dams whenever they want to.

    • If that's the question, it did not come from the original post but became the dominant theme in the comments, to my disappointment. Definitions of a word hold little interest for me, as they have little to do with the world as presented to us, and seldom produce wisdom. It's enough to say that humans of modernity are doing things that have not been a part of the evolutionary context, and therefore are not time-tested (thus likely to fail). The beaver contrast and evolutionary context is perfectly good on its own, without resorting to any hair splitting over what is natural. Everything in the universe is natural, but then we learn nothing of value.

      • Does it matter that the things modernity does are likely to fail? If something is of value, does that mean 'to humans'? Is the natural world only meaningful in a practical sense, i.e. to provide a habitat for humans?
        To me the answer is 'no' to all three.
        Ascribing any value to Nature outside its usefulness to humans is 'non-scientific', or even 'spiritual'. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It seems to be the subtext of some of your recent posts. Maybe something that you feel but are unwilling to state overtly, for fear of being accused of being 'unscientific'?

        • Whoa, easy there—maybe tone down the accusations. Having "denounced" my role in science (Confessions post; calling myself a villain), overtly embracing/advocating a more spiritual approach in a pair of posts (Religion of Life), constantly emphasizing the value of the more-than-human world and communities of life (Are WE Lucky post, e.g.), I wouldn't call any of this subtext!

          As for utility only for humans: again my emphasis on and admiration for more-than-human life, and my constant assault on human supremacist attitudes are relevant clues. But I also know that I am writing for humans embedded in a human supremacist culture, so see merit in pointing out that humans can't ignore other life: their failure is our failure, if that's all you happen to care about. My approach is to get people to ask exactly these questions, rather than a more boring and less effective set of statements of my own beliefs. Personally, it would be my preference that humans get to share a long future in a biodiverse world, but the whole thing is 99.99% as amazing and wonderful without humans at all—past or future.

      • I have been thinking about what you said and you are right. There is no line, everything is "natural". Humans are different than all other animals. Humans have the ability to use and transform fossil energy and can avoid the usual constraints that other animals have on their population. It is very unfortunate that most humans are choosing to ignore the looming end of a finite energy source and live for the day. They are learning no lessons in ecosphere management from observing other animals, even if they are pointed out and described very clearly.
        Humans have a wide range of ability to learn, observe, and apply knowledge to different situations. Some humans are only just "trainable", others are "educable", and others are able to synthesize and apply. The "right people" need to be learning the lessons from seeing the failure of every human attempt at ecosystem management but they aren't because anything they do to limit the endless expansion of the human economy is met with resistance.
        Over the years I have sent countless links to your articles to friends and relatives without comment, I don't know i they ever read them. I have a few hard copies of your textbook and have given it to people, again without comment. If I send people estimates of the size of solar arrays or wind farms and the size of the storage systems necessary to replace small fossil fuel power plants they don't comment. If I talk with them in person you can see their eyes "glaze over".
        That is a big problem and I don't know how to deal with it. I guess we will just have to do what we can and they and get others to understand the problems.

  8. [substantially reduced by editor for brevity] …just wanted to bring this back to the idea that we are nature, reality is all there is and everything is evolving through time. From my vantage point there's no outside purpose to it all. Our species has co-evolved to this point in time where we are a generally pro-social mammal with tool-using abilities far exceeding other species before us. That process has also endowed us with an intelligence and a knowledge base which leads some of us to reason that we are evolving down a path that is wiping out most competitors and will greatly increase the general level of suffering. That path is trying to dominate and "win" at this complex game of life. That path is also evolved behavior which tends towards dynamic equilibrium as long as nobody "wins" too much. I would define suffering as denying agency to others (in ours and other species now and in the future) to avoid outcomes that we would expect them to avoid if they had that agency. In the most extreme form the outcome of this suffering is excess death and extinction. I think many here agree our current exponential trajectory is condemning untold fellow species as well as our "civilization project".

    Evolution has also given us pro-social tendencies and empowered us with empathy and mirror neurons and a predictive ability to see all this. Perhaps this blog – along with many other thought leaders with some form of media presence – can influence our species' evolution towards a future with less suffering and more joy for all life.

    Fingers crossed (that this is the inevitable path that we will find joy in executing as little agents with happy and necessary delusions of individual free will)

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