History is all too human—busy with battles, emperors, and land grabs. Yet, it is our relationship with animals that has changed the face of the planet, as far back as our mammoth-hunting days 30,000 years ago.
We went where the meat went, following herd migrations of animals like mammoth to the vast frigid grasslands of the steppe that stretched across the northern hemisphere from central France to Alaska, the largest terrestrial biome on the planet. The soils were fertile, and the foraging rich. One adult mammoth could consume over 400 pounds of herbage a day and scatter a vast tonnage of fertilizer ensuring a continuous cycle of nutrients. We hunted and hunted. As herds dwindled, our skills only improved. Large mammals with long pregnancies and few offspring could not reproduce in number or in time to replace themselves. We could never have imagined this loss, let alone the impacts it would have to the whole ecosystem. Without the mammoth grazing and dispersing seeds and nutrients, grassland became dominated by tundra vegetation which, uneaten, became waterlogged and frozen, turning to acid peat where grasses struggled to regrow.
Then, we became farmers. No need to chase after food anymore: we grew it. Or corralled it into warm, living larders. But these would need safekeeping, and here are the seeds of our 12,000-year war against nature. The way we thought about animals informed how we treated them. We ordered the natural world into a hierarchy, a narrowing ladder that climbed, getting warmer and better all the way up to man (and woman one rung below). We were not a branch on the evolutionary tree—we were the pinnacle. Thus, we became separated from the interrelated community of which we are part.
We had dominion over the beasts with orders to subdue them and multiply ourselves. This relationship has shaped our minds, our lives, our land, our civilization, and will shape our future too. Animals were to serve us. But without them we wouldn’t have gotten very far. They provided the meat, milk, fur, leather, wool, fertilizer, pulling power, and then horsepower. We could fell forests, straighten rivers, or stop them entirely.
Although we are tropical animals, we have used our big brains to outsmart our natural limitations to occupy every possible ecological niche. There is no ecosystem immune to us. And now we are in trouble. Yet our saviors are all around us. What’s more, they can do it for free.
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Take, for instance, the sperm whale, who defecates 50 tons of iron fertilizer each year in the upper layer of the ocean where plants grow. Phytoplankton captures as much CO2 as terrestrial plants, seeds clouds which reflect sunlight, and provides half our oxygen. Phytoplankton feeds plankton who feed krill who feed little fish who feed bigger fish. The presence of whales increases marine life. The body of a great whale at the end of her life takes 33 tons of carbon, captured over a 70-year lifespan, to the ocean bed, removing it from the atmosphere for centuries. What is her ecological impact? Or the impact of her loss? Producing, say, 10 young, who produce 10 young, who produce 10 young, and so on. Before 19-century commercial whaling devastated populations the effect would have been phenomenal. Imagine if we could protect recovering populations of great whales and allow them to thrive in our oceans. In Chile, a network of smart acoustic buoys monitor the locations of whales and provide shipping with alternative routes—a world first to protect whales for the role they play. Save the whale to save the seas to save the planet. Whales might come to our rescue.
Or beavers. The life-giving power of fresh water is the expertise of beavers, nature’s architects and engineers. After centuries of the rapacious fur trade, the loss of beavers affected the hydrology of the land. Creeks dried up; beaver meadowlands became tinderbox dry and wildfires began to rage. Now, beavers are making a comeback not only in America, but in British rivers too, not seen since the 16th century.
Busy holding back the flood waters and creating dynamic habitats teaming with life, herbivores can repair life support systems for free by browsing, grazing, rootling, fertilizing, opening glades, aerating the soil, and transporting seeds. Predators will keep them in check from overgrazing. These dynamic natural processes can solve some of our biggest challenges: fire risk, flood mitigation, soil health, insect collapse, carbon sequestration. It’s the most exciting environmental fix out there—with legs on. One recent study estimated that thriving populations of just nine key groups of animals (sharks, grey wolves, sea otters, musk oxen, wildebeest, ocean fish, American bison, African elephants, and whales) could facilitate the additional capture 6.41 gigatons of CO2 each year. In fact, it’s almost the amount calculated to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Animals maintain ecosystems that take CO2 out of the atmosphere and their absence can trigger breakdowns that turn carbon sinks into carbon sources.
It’s not just large animals. Without insects to pollinate plants where would we be? (Up a tree with a feather duster.) Pollinators like bees, moths, butterflies, beetles, and flies have a global economic benefit of $500 billion a year, and insects are indispensable in the food web. Yet chemicals like neonicotinoids decimate populations indiscriminately worldwide, and these short term gains have long term costs. Systemic neonicotinoids have a long residual life and are water soluble, and we cannot feed the planet from degraded soil. Soil is one of the richest ecosystems on Earth. Billions of organisms within it provide a myriad of services, from recycling to decomposing to aerating. There is more carbon in the soil than the atmosphere and all the plants and animals combined. Plato lamented the destruction of soils and forests in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago; pollen analysis reveals a fertile land of rich soil long since washed away after trees were felled—many turned into ships for war and colonization.
War, wealth, and power have always taken precedence over nature. But imagine if nature took precedence. Imagine if understanding came before fear or quick profit. Imagine if we could all see our animal cousins as the miraculous eco-engineers they are (and as the individual beings they are) and safeguard their prospects and their homes, the seas, rivers, grasslands, wetlands, and forests. To reimagine our home, we have to begin to imagine theirs. To try to put ourselves in their whale skin or bison fur. Complex beings are fairly simple on one level, needing space, water, food, shelter, and mates, like we do. Aside from all the free services and natural capital they provide, there is that other priceless commodity: pure joy.
Imagine a global commons of ocean protection zones that is bold and big and serious, that seeds the seas around them. It’s not hard to imagine—we’re already helping it happen. Bald eagles, once on the brink, have barreled back into American skies; wolf howls shiver over brows of Spanish hills; in 1941, there were just 21 whooping cranes and now there are 800; sea otters, by keeping urchins in check, are restoring the great kelp forests, one of the most dynamic ecosystems on the planet; and blue whales have returned to the southern Atlantic seas around South Georgia, including mothers and calves, 60 years after whaling so very nearly disappeared the largest animal that ever breathed on Earth.
Life supports life. Animals are the key. Variety and abundance are the strengths. Animals could save us. The paradox is, now, only we can save them.
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