No such thing as natural

Posted: May 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Next week, Dreamworks will release the animated movie, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." From the reviews, it promises to be a lovable "mustang-meets-mare" love story set in the Old West with all of the predictable bad white guys and good Indian guys. "Spirit," Hollywood insiders predict, has a good shot at being the must-see cartoon movie of the summer. It will also give a big boost to the folks trying to save America's wild horses. I think that's great, because I like wild horses. However, the effort is ironic since the American government spends millions every year to keep out so-called "invader species." Just last week, Congress held hearings to reauthorize the Invasive Species Act, which tries to keep foreign critters and plants out of America. You see, the mustangs are the quintessential "invasive species," in that they were left here by actual invaders, namely the Spanish conquistadors of the 1500s. North America hasn't had an indigenous equine since at least the last Ice Age about 8,000 years ago. The mustangs' defenders rightly describe the animals as "an enduring symbol of the American West." Perhaps the only thing more symbolic of the Old West is tumbleweed. But, oh darn, tumbleweed isn't indigenous to the United States, either. This hardy, though annoying, plant, also known as the Russian thistle, was accidentally introduced to South Dakota in the 1870s. So if you're ever watching a Western set in the 1860s and you see tumbleweed roll by, you can annoy everyone in the room by shouting, "That's not realistic!" Most environmentalists and conservationists would have you believe that alien species are always bad for the environment because the natural world is a finely tuned and balanced mechanism. That's why, for example, activists have tried to stifle the news that the foreign-born zebra mussel, which the United States has spent billions trying to eradicate, is responsible for radically improving the water quality of the Great Lakes, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey. Mustangs don't do too much for the environment, but they certainly are pretty. Which is why I think environmentalists are hypocritical. If they had the courage of their convictions, they'd say all the pretty horses have to go. Mustangs were brought here, like syphilis and kudzu (good name for a crime-fighting team; Syphilis &Kudzu) by European aggressors and therefore aren't "natural." Of course, I think this is absurd. America wasn't "natural" before Europeans got here. Indeed, the emerging scientific consensus is that native Americans (who aren't, strictly speaking, "native" to North America either) often had a more lasting impact on the environment than all the folks who followed after Christopher Columbus. "Like people everywhere, Indians survived by cleverly exploiting their environment," wrote Charles Mann in a riveting essay in the March Atlantic. "Indians often worked on such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did … but they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes." Take the Midwestern prairie. "Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms," Mann writes. I've always thought there was a certain amount of racism inherent to the propagandistic glorification of the American Indian. Environmentalists are enraptured with the idea that Native Americans lived in complete "balance" with the natural world. To make this argument you need to believe Native Americans are somehow different from people in every other human civilization. Well, the latest data has conclusively proven that Indians are human beings too. And human beings affect their environments for good and for ill, depending of course upon how you define good and ill. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently featured a fascinating story on the resurgence of wild animals and forests in the Eastern third of America. According to the U.S. Forest Service, New England has far more forests today than it did during the Civil War. New York State was only 25 percent forest in 1880. Today it is 66 percent forest. Roughly 70 percent of the land that was forested in 1600 is forest again today, the Journal reports. And, there are more beavers in Massachusetts today than when Paul Revere made his midnight ride in 1775. Now, one could argue that having more trees and beavers isn't good news. It largely depends on whether you like trees and furry animals and whether having "too many" trees and beavers is "bad" for other things we like. In other words, it's all a value judgment. For example, if I thought we could introduce endangered panda bears into the Catskills, I'd be in favor of it, because I like pandas. And, if America's rivers and lakes could be cleaned up with Eurasian zebra mussels, I'd certainly be open to the idea. The environmentalists hate this sort of thing because it suggests there is no objectively "natural" environment we can return to and appoints humans as the arrogant stewards of the Earth. That's a fine argument if you're willing to get rid of the pretty horses.
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