Predators Like Us

Leave it to a practicing member of an indigenous culture to “say it like it is,” in the most direct way imaginable. I had watched a very interesting episode of “Nature” on PBS (January 28, 2015), about the incursion of killer whales into the Arctic seas. It got me thinking of the predatory practices of ‘Man’ in the world, writ small and large. The arrival of killer whales – Orcas – happened because of the warming of those waters due to human induced global warming. The disruption of local ecologies has not been caused by human predation by indigenous hunters. Instead, humans have plundered various components of the earth’s systems on a planetary scale, with increasingly obvious destabilizing effects.

The killer whales are hunters, perhaps the most effective hunting species in all the oceans of the planet. Their effectiveness is largely due to their highly complex communication and coordination in trapping and dispatching their prey. Orcas are among the very smartest mammals of the sea. They have played their predator role in balanced oceanic ecologies for a very long time. But now, planetary scale human environmental predation has resulted in climate changes that allow the Orcas to range much farther north than ever before. They now reach into arctic seas where they had never before ventured. Such changes have consequences.

The hunting practices of killer whales since their Arctic incursion have altered the ecology of the region. In talking with the PBS film makers, an Inuit hunter commented on the effects of the arrival of killer whales in his hunting grounds in a very matter of fact way. The Orcas attack Narwhal (Monodon monoceros), a medium sized predatory whale that feeds primarily on small deep-water flatfish and codfish. The Narwhal is a critical component of the Inuit diet. Because of its rapier like snout protruding like a horn, Narwhals are called the “unicorn of the sea.” With only about 75,000 in existence, primarily in the Arctic, they are classified as ‘near threatened” with extinction. With the incursion of Orcas into the arctic and their prodigious group hunting skills incorporating military-like strategy, Narwhals survival as a species could be more severely threatened.

The Inuit hunter casually commented, “They are predators like us.” That got me to thinking of the many and various ways humans are indeed quite predatory creatures. In the past, and still today for some indigenous peoples in various locations around the globe, humans are predators. Within a particular region their predations are mostly in balance with the other elements of the local ecology. In some other settings humans may be primarily pastoralists or agrarian peoples rather than hunters. Industrialists, on the other hand, are primarily predators, but their prey are not limited to animal populations. They (we) prey upon the land itself and extract all manner of materials and organisms needed for industrial processes.

In some regions where severe drought or other climate changes have disrupted a local ecosystem, indigenous groups may over-hunt or over fish. They may also over harvest forests, just like the Easter Islanders did, severely damaging the ecosystem upon which they depend for survival. But the Inuit, human predators in the arctic, did not disrupt the ecological balance between Narwhal, and Orca – there never was one. Before climate changes allowed their northern migration, Orcas were not part of that ecology. Instead, it is the predatory extractive practices of modern industrial societies far away that have altered the relationships between arctic species, including humans.

World industrial economic waste has changed climate conditions so that an external species could enter the arctic ecosystem, disrupting its former balance. All the long term local consequences of this ecological disruption will not be known immediately. It is likely, however, that at minimum local Inuit hunters will be forced to adapt to a declining Narwhal population. Similar situations are occurring all over the world. The particulars in each case are different. But the process is the same.

Planetary climate disruption has diverse local effects, from drought to floods to more powerful storms to changed water temperature and ocean acidity. These changes can alter species relations either with each other or with changed conditions of their environment. In each case the result is the same: increasing rates of species extinctions. [“Climate deniers” seem incapable of thinking of complex systems or consequences of interactive changes within or among them.]

The industrial age was born of a culture that perceived humanity as separate and apart from nature and preordained to dominate it. Western industrial culture was launched and is driven by the belief that is it destined to control the natural world. Such beliefs, or very similar ones, are now held worldwide. Yet the world industrial system is just past its peak. The near exhaustion of resources to extract, the record concentration of wealth, the faltering of the world financial system all collide, producing chaos. They both cause and combine with the tipping point of earth-systems destabilization to form the greatest crisis of human survival ever. The world economic growth machine has hit the wall.

The earth systems that could sustain industry at smaller scale as innovative technologies accelerated exploitation of limited resources are now being destabilized. Contrary to the ideology of individual free will in an economy of ever-expanding opportunity, Mother Earth presents us with a very limited choice. Either adapt to the realities of earth-systems limits or die. To survive we have but one choice. Human populations must radically change the ways we live in the real world by abandoning the illusions we have held to for centuries.

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