There is a saying in English that Nature is raw in tooth and claw.
Incontrovertible it may be, but it does require some modification. Because the species homo sapiens, unquestionably a part of Nature, does not follow the rules that appear to govern every other species. Our species has introduced the strange concept of compassion into all its relationships. And this is exactly what is threatening to destroy the world as we know it today.
Compassion probably has its origins in our religions, which, for the most part, are governed by the extremely questionable idea that human beings are at the centre of everything.
These less than epoch-making reflections are stimulated by the David Attenborough series, Our Planet, which sets out to show the glory, beauty and mystery of the life cycle that dominates every other species, except ours. In one extraordinary sequence after another, these films show that for most species, Nature really is raw in tooth and claw, and this is what keeps them ticking over. In different parts of the world at different times, tens of thousands, even millions, of creatures gather in vast agglomerations, basically in search of food, the higher creatures in the food chain feasting on the lower, with not a sign of compassion evident.
Although some of these events draw millions, Attenborough leaves us in no doubt that human activities have already greatly reduced their numbers, usually because of the immense human demand for space, for habitats, because of our human assumption that every aspect of life should be available to the sacred objective of satisfying the unquenchable greed of humanity. Fifty years ago, he intones, the first man walked on the moon. Since then, our human population has doubled, a really striking fact for anyone who has lived through both events. Meantime, bison, which were numbered in millions, are now down to 30,000, 100 million sharks are killed every year, 90 per cent of all large oceanic hunters have disappeared from the oceans, and without them at the top of the food chain, the ocean community is changing irrevocably, “beyond recognition.”
The Attenborough film led me to have the fantastic thought that the world is made up of collectivities, each obeying its own rules, yet somehow mysteriously collaborating with other collectivities in the desperate search for the food necessary to their survival.
For example, spinner dolphins of up to 10,000 in a single pod gather off the coast of Costa Rica, an extremely companionable species who touch each other and talk, communicate in their mysterious way, closely shadowed by the more powerful yellow fin tuna, both looking for a species of fish so common that it is of no interest even to the voracious humans, the lantern fish, tiny fish as long as a finger, which gather in their millions, in groups mobilized by the dolphins, driven by them towards the surface, where they fall prey to the many species that have gathered especially for this purpose.
Or, the series produces an amazing shot of the blue whale, the largest animal ever to have existed, 30 metres in length, weighing 200 tonnes, of which there once were three million, now down to a few thousands, observable in our time only in the gulf of California along he Mexican Pacific coast, in a photograph showing mother and baby whale, eight metres in length, weighing six tonnes, “ in the most intimate mother-calf interaction every captured on film,” states the commentary.
Or how to explain the amazing intuition of the flamingos who gather from hundreds of miles, whenever --- and this may happen only once in ten years --- an immense cloudburst occurs over one of our apparently dead deserts. The flamingos arrive in their thousands with the intention of breeding. Very quickly, the cloudburst dissipates, the water is no more, the baby chicks, just emerged from the egg, unable yet to fly, have to begin to walk in search of water, the only thing that can keep them alive, shepherded along the way of the knowing adult birds.
Even in the planet’s most remote areas, such as the Antarctic, apparently devoid of life throughout the winter, life emerges from the depths, springing up with the arrival of the sun’s warmth, drawing up vast swarms --- numbering in the trillions ---- of krill, tiny organisms that form the basic food for many of the superior creatures of the deep. Gentoo penguins, a smaller variety that have spent most of their lives at sea, now come towards the shore in search of the krill, and lay themselves open to attack from the humpback whales, most of which have headed for the Antarctic waters, making journeys of 8,000 kilometres to get there so they can feast on the krill, and on the penguins, their first meal in months, according to the commentary. But these are three collectivities, krill, penguins, whales, that gather to collaborate in ensuring the survival of each.
Attenborough, in commentary, remarks that the waters immediately north of the Antarctic ocean are the roughest on the planet, providing huge storms that smash the ice, and open the oceans to the albatross, the most majestic of birds with their 10 metre wing span, whose chicks must spend a year before growing to flight, but then, once airborne, they manage to stay out at sea for the rest of their lives. I understand this information about the rough seas, because I was born and grew to adulthood in the south part of the South Island of New Zealand, surrounded by persistently rough seas, our climate dictated by the Roaring Forties, the gales that sweep westward across the world south of Australia, then hit our Southern Alps along the spine of the South Island, and drop huge quantities of water, leaving us, 50 or 100 miles further on, to live a comfortable life with a moderate rainfall.
It seems that in almost everything, our feeling, our compassion, our intelligence, our understanding of how the world works, our species is in fact the dominant one. And yet, for all our brains, our science, our examination of the world that surrounds us, how is it that the decisions we make are leading us inexorably to destroy the fine system that Nature has bequeathed to us.
Attenborough makes no secret of the fact that all is not yet lost. In various places, where our conscience has been aroused collectively and we have managed to take international action, we have succeeded in allowing declining species to revive, in some places spectacularly so. In these instances, the earth has in fact shown a remarkable resilience.
And this eight-part series ends with a story from one of the most all-pervasive disasters that has ever occurred, the meltdown of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. The town of 100,000 people became instantly uninhabitable, a ghost town, utterly deserted by order of the government, declared to be uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years.
Yet, within ten years, vegetation was growing again in Chernobyl, animals began to appear, roe deer, horses, even the top predator from wild Europe, as wolves moved back in, until today there are more wolves living in the exclusion zone than outside it.
I remember in the early 1970s sitting through day after day of testimony given about Nature and its works by scientists testifying on behalf of the James Bay Cree, and hearing from them a most amazing fact. Every habitat in Nature is already occupied to its maximum carrying capacity by some animal or other. Thus, every intervention by humans in any habitat must be preceded by the most careful study, minute scrutiny, great sensitivity to the needs of whatever animals are likely to be disturbed by our actions.
At about the same time, I learned of a long experiment conducted over 25 years on a small island in Lake Superior, where the resident populations of moose and wolves were left to organize their lives without interference from humans. The result was that they kept themselves in perfect balance, neither the wolves nor the moose ever gaining the upper hand. Nature, it seems, knows whereof it is dealing.
David Attenborough’s monumental series gives us the same message. If only we human beings could keep our hands to ourselves, mind our own business, let Nature get on with its beautiful system, if only we could glory in what has been bequeathed to us, all would be well.
I have noticed hopeful markers along the way of my life. When I was introduced to the James Bay Cree, still living their subsistence life in the 1960s, I discovered a people whose ethic was not that of Western religions, but rather of their own understanding of how Nature works. They invested everything, every animal with whom they were sharing the land, every tree, rock, the very wind itself, with a spirit of its own that they dare not violate, for fear of repercussions.
It has always struck me as a terrible irony that at the very moment in history when we desperately need to learn what those old hunters were telling us, we were invading their hunting territories and offering them false promises for a brighter future.
Ah well, as someone I know keeps repeating, Wot the hell! Wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai.