In a 2013 talk presented to an audience of park rangers, environmental educators, and fellow ecologists, Michael Soule told a story about riding his bicycle in Paonia, Colorado, where he lives. He had come upon a turtle that had been hit and was lying in the middle of the road, its shell cracked and guts hanging out. There was no chance it would survive, but Soule stopped anyway, picked it up, carried it to a ditch, and carefully set it in the grass. As he did, he heard laughter and turned to see a car parked nearby. The passengers were laughing at him: an elderly man stupid enough to waste his time on a soon-to-be-deceased turtle. “That’s the end of that story,” he said. Then he clenched his jaw and fought back tears.
Soule has been at the center of the global environmental movement for decades: as a scientist investigating the role of large carnivores in regulating healthy ecosystems, as an activist supporting conservation initiatives, and as a theorist engaging the thorny problem of how humans can get along with the rest of nature. Raised in San Diego, California, in the 1930s and 1940s, he studied natural history as an adolescent, avidly exploring the local deserts, mountain ranges, and coastal canyons. He went on to earn a PhD in population biology at Stanford University under the tutelage of Paul R. Ehrlich, author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. Soule’s early research led him to the Adriatic Sea and the West Indies, among other places, for projects involving insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. Eventually he returned to San Diego, where he became a tenured professor at the city’s University of California campus.
Conventional success didn’t bring Soule happiness, though, so he turned to meditation as a means of settling his anxious, competitive mind. Drawn to Buddhism since his college days, he quit his job in 1978 and moved with his wife and their children to the Los Angeles Zen Center. Five years later the challenges of communal religious life had grown too burdensome, and he and his wife divorced. Soule took a position at the University of Michigan and didn’t meditate again for eighteen years. When he resumed his Buddhist practice, around the time of his sixtieth birthday, he began traveling to Oregon to study with an established Zen teacher there: his ex-wife.
Soule was midway through his career when he concluded once and for all that it made no sense to conduct detached scientific research while wilderness and wildlife were being destroyed by human activity. Deciding that something had to be done, he and a handful of colleagues established the field of conservation biology, a new discipline dedicated to preserving the diversity of living creatures on the planet. In 1991 Soule cofounded the Wildlands Network (wildlandsnetwork.org), which works to link wild habitats in North America.
Emotion is the driving force behind Soule’s attempts to better the world, and he believes this is the case for all people who genuinely engage environmental problems. In a 2014 article in The New Yorker about conservation in the twenty-first century, he is quoted as saying, “At my age and stage, I don’t mind admitting I’ve just always been in love with wild nature.”
Soule is professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
S: You once described conservation biology as a “crisis discipline.” What’s the crisis?
Soule: That phrase is from a paper I published in 1985, outlining what was then a new field of study. The crisis, both then and now, is what’s called the Sixth Great Extinction. It’s the only extinction event in the planet’s history caused by an animal, as opposed to volcanic activity or an ice age or a meteor impact. The animal is us.
The number of species is decreasing. Once one is gone, it’s always gone. Life will go on, but the planet won’t be the same.
S: Not long ago you predicted that the planet will be unlivable for people and the majority of large mammals by the end of the twenty-first century. This prediction seems more daunting than what most of us are prepared to accept. Can you back it up?
Soule: It’s not some special insight of my own creation. It’s a conclusion that many scientists from various fields have come to together. When we started the field of conservation biology in the 1980s, we weren’t aware of global warming, which has since become a major issue, mostly because it’s begun to directly affect our lives. Few people — few politicians, especially — actually give a damn about the damages to nature. Scientists, however, are coming out and saying that, unless we act in a determined and organized way, what we’re doing to the climate will mean the end of civilization as we know it. Most of the large animals are already gone or are disappearing quick. It’s migrate, adapt, or perish. Humanity won’t last either, not in our current numbers.
Climate change spells disaster. The world won’t be recognizable to us in fifty to a hundred years. Scientists conduct research, write books, and hold conferences, and politicians occasionally pass new legislation, but as a society we’re not doing much of anything about it. We appear stuck.
S: Why doesn’t society act?
Soule: For one thing, it’s because of how we’re organized. In U.S. politics we’ve got two-year terms for congressional representatives, four-year terms for presidents, and six-year terms for senators. Most politicians care only about what will happen on their watch and in the next election. The shit won’t hit the fan today. Twenty or thirty years from now, it will be disastrous, but by then these people who are neglecting their responsibilities will be retired or dead.
And it’s not just politicians. We all think this way. It’s human nature to be concerned mostly with short-term threats. We don’t change our behavior to avoid future disasters. Instead we wait around for something to force us to change. It’s part of our genetic makeup. Population biologist Paul Ehrlich, who was my mentor at Stanford, pointed out that we didn’t evolve to deal with these medium- and long-term crises. Immediate crises we can deal with superbly. When the lion is circling our camp right now, we’re very capable of protecting our children and our livestock.
Maybe we can’t change, even though the day of reckoning approaches. In western Colorado we’re at the edge of the Southwest, a very dry place. Climatologists say that water-stressed regions will be altered dramatically. Drought will become the norm. What little water remains will be the most valuable resource. In some parts of the world it already is. Most people who study climate change agree that droughts, rising seas, forest fires, and hurricanes will exert such overwhelming stress on daily life that even politicians will be concerned. By then it will be too late for a lot of species and a lot of places and a lot of human communities. It’s an “interesting time,” as the Chinese say.
S: What do you mean?
Soule: There’s a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” An invading enemy makes for “interesting times.” So does a global extinction crisis. It’s much better to live in boring times.
It’s human nature to be concerned mostly with short-term threats. We don’t change our behavior to avoid future disasters. Instead we wait around for something to force us to change.
S: John McPhee, in his book Annals of the Former World, says that writing about geologic time scales is “mind-fracturing.”
Soule: Yes, and it’s not only time that’s hard for us to grasp but space. We have evolved to comprehend issues at the scale of a watershed or mountain range. Thinking about anything “global” presents a serious cognitive challenge.
Few fields in science deal with these widespread, long-term issues. People in politics and business and the media don’t look at these phenomena. Our life spans are so short that we just can’t deal psychologically with long-term changes in the environment. We’re not equipped.
S: To shift the scale: What about the microscopic? You’ve written that we aren’t just losing grandeur but also subtlety.
Soule: The obvious losses in the natural world, such as the whales and elephants — the megafauna — are manifestations of the more invisible losses. One of the delights of exploring nature is entering that realm of subtlety where the smallest detail matters: The molecular composition of the soil. The microscopic creatures in the water.
Subtle changes go unnoticed unless one is a naturalist and has spent time in the field getting to know the flora and fauna over seasons and years. The changes we see, if we see them at all, are the larger trends that result from the small changes. There are some politicians who recognize what’s happening, but it’s political suicide to publicize these issues. At best, a fraction of your constituency cares. Publicly discussing the environment only alienates the majority of your supporters.
S: You keep steering us back to politics. Is that because conservation biologists’ work is of limited value unless it actually alters the political process?
Soule: If we want to make changes to the way society operates, we’ve got to be political. There’s no way around it. But conservative politicians are in the business of denying that anything bad is happening, and just about all politicians want to avoid controversy. In the most recent presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both avoided talking about environmental issues. About half of American voters are Democrats, and about half are Republicans. If that split is immutable, we have to accept gridlock. Progressives who support environmental protections aren’t going to be able to make the majority adopt their viewpoint.
S: Aren’t there any groups of voters who do place a higher premium on environmental issues?
Soule: There are people who work for government agencies that protect habitat. There are people who work on behalf of hunting and fishing interests. There are people whose business is to conserve natural resources.
For the record, I don’t like the term “natural resources.” It almost always refers to resources valuable to humans, not to the huge diversity of nonhuman species.
Maybe it’s a foolish hope to lean on, but religious Christians represent another potential group of voters who care about nature. The Bible says God created everything and pronounced it good. That must mean biodiversity is good, right? If we’re destroying creation, surely that’s a bad thing in the eyes of God.
I don’t know how many conservative Christians feel that way — probably not very many — but at least there’s some common ground there, a point of contact between the religious folks and conservationists. Maybe together these groups can act as a kind of brake on our short-term economic impulses.
S: We’ve been discussing imminent threat as a motivator for people to take action, but what about the love of nature? Might it stir people to action better than fear?
Soule: We need both. Anxiety and passion often go hand in hand for conservation biologists. We are dealing with a diminishing asset — wildness — whether it’s the disappearance of a single species or an entire fauna, such as Africa’s wildlife. Lurking in the minds of most conservation biologists is a singular realization: our subject matter is disappearing. When this awareness becomes commonplace — just part of the job, another day at the office — much anxiety and passion can be lost, bumped out by the everyday concerns of making a living. So we have to keep feeling our way through the crisis. We have to feel frightened, to feel the loss and not just understand it from behind a desk.
I have always loved, and will always love, wild nature: Plants and animals. Places that are still intact. Though others might avoid the word, I insist that we talk about “love” in conservation, because we only protect what we love. The reason we act when something threatens our family or our neighborhood is because we love these people and places. Maybe it takes a tangible threat to our home environment to make us realize that we really do love the earth.
These days, from what I can tell, not many people are passionate about biodiversity. At best, families pack into the car and head out for a summer camping trip. If you’re wealthy, maybe you fly to a resort town where you own a second or third home. For many the enjoyment of nature usually involves a snowmobile or off-road vehicle — a “gas toy,” as my wife calls them. When the vacation ends, it’s back to the “real world.” Of course, the real world is the one where the permafrost is melting and the extinction rates are ramping up, all of it very rapidly. But, as I’ve said, our time scales of concern are days and weeks, not decades and centuries. The big picture is lost.
I once did a rough estimate of what percentage of Americans truly care about the diversity of species and ecosystems. I approached the estimate by looking at charitable giving: To what causes do people donate money? It turned out that less than half of 1 percent of donations went to conservation organizations. That’s just enough to keep some of these organizations alive — and, by extension, to keep some endangered species alive. Half of 1 percent. Or less.
S: Many of us have probably forgotten, if we ever knew in the first place, why biodiversity is important. What is its value?
Soule: I don’t know. All I know is that I spent a tremendous amount of time outside as a kid, wandering around, mostly by myself, and that I always felt at home in nature. And nature is biodiversity. It’s difficult to speak about this feeling of being at home — of finding solace in nature — because the experience is emotional. It’s the heart that falls in love.
Nobody else in my family shared my particular fascination. I lived near the coast in San Diego and was always out on the beaches, or on the cliffs above the beaches, or on the chaparral slopes, or in the nearby mountains. When I was a teenager, somebody told me I ought to go to the natural history museum; a bunch of kids who cared about butterflies and snakes and rodents hung out there. That’s how I found my people. There were probably twenty of us junior naturalists. We studied birds and lizards the way other kids memorized the San Diego Padres’ batting lineup and the makes and models of automobiles.
We loved the desert because it was full of reptiles. We would take field trips down to the Anza-Borrego Desert and Baja California. Our parents were nervous about letting their teenage children roam around Mexico totally unsupervised. We played a game while driving: Who could recognize a species of plant or animal in the distance and shout out its Latin name first? Our little competition helped us learn the scientific names of hundreds of plants and animals. That’s what got us excited. My mother must have thought I was strange, but she encouraged my pursuit. That support from her and from my friends was a blessing.
S: But what’s the value of biodiversity from the scientific perspective?
Soule: I could talk about the integrity and resiliency of ecosystems and other principles you might find in a textbook, but that misses the point. People always look for the rational reason, the utilitarian argument, the economic justification. My interest in nature never had a payoff, except emotionally. When I’m in a place with many creatures, I feel good, and when there are no creatures around, I feel bad. It’s not rational. It’s a personal aesthetic. You just want to be around the things you love because they make you feel happy.
When I was with that group of kids, we never once talked about why we wanted to explore dry washes in the Borrego Desert, or why we wanted to study plants in the Cuyamaca Mountains. It was just so satisfying to be out there, flipping over rocks in search of creatures.
Species have an intrinsic value. They’re valuable simply because they exist. They don’t need our stamp of approval. Biodiversity doesn’t have to be of use. Almost everything important in our lives comes back to love, to what feels good, to the people and places we like to be around and the activities that stimulate us.
S: San Diego has grown considerably during your lifetime. What has it been like to watch that transformation?
Soule: I left San Diego to go to graduate school at Stanford, and by the time I returned to teach at UC San Diego in the 1970s, the city was expanding and the canyons were filling up with houses. I studied the local disappearance of songbirds and began to think through various strategies for preserving and linking patches of their habitat.
Visiting San Diego over the past twenty or thirty years, I’ve found that every place I once loved has been destroyed. Every place. That creates a sadness. It’s hard not to see the destruction of those places as a symbol of what’s happening elsewhere. The sadness is very personal, too. There’s a sense of the erosion of the self. Those were the places that I identified with as a child. Now they no longer exist. Thus, part of me has gone extinct.
S: There’s a poem by Kenneth Rexroth about hiking alongside a creek that he used to visit with his wife before she died. The creek is still jumping over the same boulders and fallen logs. The same species of birds are still calling. This place brings him and his wife back together. But if that place disappears, then what?
Soule: Yes. Then what? There’s a unique kind of grief that results from the loss of natural areas.
S: Did witnessing your hometown succumb to development — concrete and pollution and the rest — prompt your involvement in conservation?
Soule: The degradation has probably motivated my work to some extent. But, really, the deeper motivation comes from passion and excitement. What gives you a charge? I was relieved as a high-school student to learn that a person can actually be paid to study beetles and cactuses, to be a professional ecologist.
S: Biologist E.O. Wilson released a book not long ago in which he argues that to preserve biodiversity, we need to set aside half of the planet’s surface. Do you agree?
Soule: Let me be clear: I don’t have a plan for protecting the planet, and I don’t have a solution to our problems. In fact, I’m not very hopeful that a solution exists. The trends of population growth and energy extraction and technological development are all moving in the wrong direction. I’m keenly aware of this. Every day I confront the fact that our world is becoming the opposite of what I would like it to be. This is exacerbated by Trump.
When I heard Wilson’s 50 percent idea, I said to myself: Which 50 percent? And what will we do about the people who own that 50 percent and make a living on it? The Amazon Basin, for example, is rapidly being turned into cropland. It’s easy to make a bumper sticker that says, SAVE 50 PERCENT! but the devil is in the details.
What can be done to preserve biodiversity? At the global scale, maybe not much. My hope is a catastrophe. We need something of that magnitude to wake society up. That’s a grim thought. It’s not what I would prefer to hope for, but it’s something.
The Great Depression was a catastrophe that sparked an awakening. Things got so bad in the 1920s and 1930s that people actually changed. They worked together and depended on one another.
The reason we act when something threatens our family or our neighborhood is because we love these people and places. Maybe it takes a tangible threat to our home environment to make us realize that we really do love the earth.
S: You mentioned population a moment ago. The mainstream conservation organizations don’t really talk about human population growth.
Soule: It’s slowly coming back into the conversation. For the past two or three decades, talk of controlling population was politically incorrect. It was seen as a code for limiting the number of dark-skinned people, who were having too many kids. But actually the world’s wealthy populations consume a lot more resources and generate a lot more greenhouse gasses than do the poor.
S: Is population growth at the root of our environmental problems, and if so, what can be done?
Soule: Paul and Anne Ehrlich and John Holdren wrote a book called Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, in which they pointed out that there’s never just one root to a problem. It’s always a web. Population is a factor, but it can’t be isolated from technology, medicine, agriculture, culture, consumption. In the American West we keep digging ourselves deeper into this climate-change hole by thinking that our happiness is dependent on having a truck andan ATV and a snowmobile and a bunch of other gas toys.
But even if we cleaned up our act and curbed our appetites, the sheer number of people would still pose a problem. We’re at 7 billion and counting. That’s far too many humans. Some scientists have estimated that we’re two or three or even four times over the planet’s carrying capacity. If we want to stabilize and maintain stressed ecosystems, our birth rate has to come down. As I said about climate change, though, these problems only become “issues” when they impact someone’s bottom line. When people realize that having three or four kids is not in their self-interest, maybe then they will change their behavior.
S: Conservationists who don’t view humanity as more important than the rest of nature sometimes get tagged as misanthropes. What are your thoughts on that?
Soule: On the whole, I don’t mind being called a misanthrope. I think there are too many of us, and we’re destroying too much of nature. If saying that makes me a misanthrope, fine; I’ll accept the label. I’d rather be called something positive, like pro-nature or pro-wilderness or pro-lizards, but that’s probably not going to happen.
A big problem for the environmental movement today is that we feel powerless. We feel like there’s no way to make progress. So many people, so many agendas.
S: It’s an “interesting time.”
Soule: Right. Too interesting.
In 1985, when we started the Society for Conservation Biology, there was hope. It was enlivening. We actually believed that our research could turn things around. We believed we could fix the problems. Our agenda was to provide people with the theoretical and practical tools needed to do what was right for nature. And, because humans are a part of nature, that meant doing right for ourselves. But that optimism in the 1980s has turned to pessimism in 2018.
I may be pessimistic about what can actually be accomplished, but, even so, I recognize that every human is basically optimistic. It’s a product of natural selection. Optimism makes us more attractive to potential mates. When we wake up in the morning, most of us are unconsciously saying to ourselves: Here’s another day. The sun is rising. Let’s get going! That’s how we’re wired. But is it rational? When the newspaper offers us another story about a patch of habitat destroyed for profit, should we really take it in stride? I don’t think so. But it’s instinctive.
Joie de vivre: It’s the life force. It’s in us. It is us.
S: What’s happening amounts to a biodiversity holocaust. How do you handle this personally?
Soule: Denial. Humans are also blessed with a capacity not to think too much about things that are depressing. If I were totally rational, I’d probably have shot myself by now. Fortunately we’re not totally rational. When I sit down at my desk to read and write, I’m able to convince myself I can make a difference, despite my knowledge that the situation is bad and is going to get worse.
I also try to nurture happiness. Last winter my wife and I drove down to Baja California. I wanted to show her some of the ecosystems where I played when I was a teenager. Baja hasn’t changed all that much over the past five or six decades for the simple reason that there’s virtually no fresh water. Civilization only comes along and fucks things up when there’s water. The region has deteriorated somewhat — there are a lot more people — but Baja is looking pretty good. Because nobody could figure out how to make much money there, the wild creatures are still keeping busy. You can watch them and feel joy. We had a great time.
S: You’ve said that your faith in the future is based in an attitude called “possibilism.” What’s that?
Soule: It’s kind of like magical thinking. I remind myself that it’s at least still possible that some series of events will arrest or reverse the current trends. The Galactic Police could arrive and say: Stop it! You’ve passed the threshold. You are no longer operating in a way that benefits the planet. Anything is possible.
Possibilism is an example of the intense optimism of our species. Many scientists think they’re rational, but they’re not. None of us are. There’s that famous quote from the philosopher Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” It’s true. We’re operating out of emotion most of the time.
S: You believe that the environmental crisis stems not from any one misguided culture or worldview but from a deeper, species-wide condition, right?
Soule: Yes. Human nature is powerful. People think the abuse of land and water and air is a result of the gas toys, the consumer culture, corporate greed, Western civilization, television. Get rid of all of that, the theory goes, and we’ll be OK. Is that more magical thinking? Probably. The impulse to do right by the natural world is not nearly as powerful as the impulse to improve my situation.
S: Is a kind of enlightened self-interest the best we can hope for then?
Soule: Enlightened self-interest is a delusion, a myth. Why should focusing on what I want be good for the world? Our personal desires may not harm the world, but they are still just our primate nature insisting that we compete for status and mates and wealth. Self-interest operates at the level of the individual organism. I’m not sure it’s ever really about “the world.”
S: But some people believe that if we understand ourselves as part of a larger whole, our self-interest expands to include our home environment. If we are the land, we should want to preserve the land.
Soule: That’s deep ecology. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, who coined the term, was the only mentor I’ve had as an adult. I spent a lot of time with him, hiking in the mountains of Norway and the deserts of Southern California, looking at plants, talking, and thinking. He was as close to a saint as anyone I’ve ever met, and he was absolutely on the side of biodiversity.
I’ve been studying and practicing Zen Buddhism for much of my life. I even lived in a Zen temple in Los Angeles for five years. I eventually became disillusioned, not with Zen but with the people there who thought of themselves as enlightened. It’s easy to talk about expanding our sense of self, but doing it is another thing.
Buddhist practice is — or, at least, it can be — a way to forget the self. As the Zen philosopher Dōgen Zenji wrote: “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” That last part is hard to understand, but I think it means you drop your ego, your me, and become one with nature.
I’ve seen studies that say about 50 percent of people have had some kind of transcendent experience in which the boundaries of self dissolve, either partially or completely, and the self expands out to include others, maybe even the whole world. I was fortunate enough to have a small version of this “opening,” as they put it in Zen, when I was a graduate student at Stanford. I was reading a science-fiction novel by Philip Wylie called The Disappearance: From the women’s perspective in the book, all the men had disappeared, and from the men’s perspective, all the women were gone. At the end there was this great reunion, and both sexes realized they needed the other to make them whole. I finished the book, put it down, and right then had this spontaneous mystical experience. I was still me — still a biological organism with personal needs — but I was also connected with all of nature in that moment. I realized our permeability, our interdependence. We really are part of nature. We’re at home there.
The experience had a huge impact on me. It changed my personality. I know, because people would come up to me afterward and say: Hey, you’re much nicer than you used to be!
S: Could a profound encounter with an animal or a landscape also bring about that kind of experience?
Soule: Other than that time with the book, my mystical experiences have all occurred in nature. I’ve had insights on my meditation cushion, but nothing as profound as ones I’ve had in nature. You can’t buy this at a store. It’s a gift.
One time I was walking in the backcountry here in Colorado, and I experienced another small opening: I was looking at the shells of land snails and wondering about their components. Where had that calcium traveled, and what shapes had it taken over the course of its geological history? It possibly had been in the bones of dinosaurs, in the teeth of mastodons, and now it was in these perfect, delicate shells cupped in my hand. That was another opening to a feeling that we’re all connected — in the paleontological as well as the spiritual sense. Are the two different? The feeling of connectedness was far more powerful than I can convey.
S: Was it a feeling of elation, a high?
Soule: I guess you could say it’s an expansion, and that expansion feels good. It’s like removing handcuffs and waving your arms over your head. You’ve got more freedom, more capacity, more possibility. You’ve realized that your little self is embedded within a larger self, and that larger self includes not only other people but all beings and places — everything. There’s a vastness.
Of course, the mind is skilled at grabbing anything that happens, banal or profound, and twisting it in such a way that it reinforces the ego and bolsters our self-importance. But then there are these moments when the mind is napping and neglects the ego. You never forget these moments.
S: Does such an experience of oneness necessarily lead to a biocentric worldview?
Soule: No, probably not. But it would be nice if it did, because that’s the big question: How do you get people to feel the connections?
My childhood interest in nature was a particular quality of my personal psychology, probably based in genetics. It seems each person has some trait that is different from everybody else in his or her family, and apparently I got the passion-for-nature gene. Later on I was fortunate to have these spiritual experiences, which deepened that passion.
I think a spiritual practice is useful. For one thing, it can make us more aware of our self-centeredness. That self-centeredness will never entirely go away, but at least we can develop a sense of humor about it, learn to laugh at our greed and anger and foibles. We can never be perfect, but we can always be better.
S: What do you think of efforts like cap and trade, which use market forces to achieve conservation goals, typically by putting price tags on the right to pollute the air and water? Do these strategies work?
Soule: A professor at Stanford named Gretchen Daily, who also studied under Paul Ehrlich, supports this strategy. She argues that, in the absence of a fundamental shift in perspective, we should create financial incentives to do right for the environment. I don’t find that way of thinking either useful or attractive. When money enters the picture, it changes everything. People continue to care about money more than nature, and nothing really improves. Profiting from nature doesn’t make you want to save nature. The basis for conservation has to be love.
S: There’s been a lot of talk about divisions within the conservation community. What’s the “new conservation”?
Soule: A few years ago a couple of colleagues and I got into a public tiff with the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva. There was even an article in The New Yorker about it.
A handful of prominent scientists and writers, Kareiva among them, were promoting a vision of conservation that didn’t deserve the name. Instead of putting the emphasis on protecting biodiversity, the “new conservationists” argue for managing natural systems. They say that humans are already having an impact everywhere on the globe; why not make it a positive impact? Instead of wilderness, they want gardens.
There are lots of different approaches to conservation, but I don’t think any of them will work unless there’s a personal connection between the individual and the natural world. If conservation is just a rational, utilitarian program of resource management — we depend upon resources, so it would be in our best interest to conserve them — then biodiversity is in big trouble. And it is!
S: What do you think of the term “Anthropocene” — meaning a time on the planet characterized by the dominance of humans — to describe the current geologic epoch?
Soule: The concept of the Anthropocene was at the core of the tiff with Kareiva. It’s often used as a justification for making further intrusions into wild nature: we’re in control already, so we might as well keep exerting our will, or so the theory goes.
Saying we are in the “Anthropocene” can lead to human exceptionalism, the idea that finally we have defeated nature once and for all, and it’s our destiny to dominate the world. That’s an incredibly dangerous idea. It’s also totally absurd. We have destroyed much of the planet’s wilderness, but there’s still a lot of nature left. Nature is all around us.
If I were totally rational, I’d probably have shot myself by now. Fortunately we’re not totally rational. When I sit down at my desk to read and write, I’m able to convince myself I can make a difference, despite my knowledge that the situation is bad and is going to get worse.
S: How dominant is the human species really? Are we truly in some special category when it comes to disturbing the environment?
Soule: Our footprint covers every inch of the planet, and everything has been impacted and altered by our presence. This situation is incredibly depressing to me as a biologist who has focused on large carnivores, whose existence is almost over. There aren’t many wolves left. There aren’t many lions left. The world is becoming increasingly devoid of these powerful, beautiful, important species.
Bob Paine, an ecologist from the University of Washington, coined the term “keystone species.” Not all creatures are equal when it comes to maintaining the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural systems. If you remove the large predators, or even the medium-sized predators, ecosystems tend to collapse. Working in the canyons that are interwoven with suburban San Diego, I discovered that domestic cats were destroying biodiversity by killing songbirds and lizards. Because the canyon habitats were fragmented by development, coyotes, which normally regulate the feline populations, were absent.
One of the first things we humans do in a landscape — and we do it because we can — is “cleanse” the land by ridding it of any possible competitors. The Nazi philosophy of “might makes right” comes to mind: Any wild animals that could feed on our livestock must be trapped, shot, poisoned. They cost us money, and it’s part of the culture of the West to cleanse the land of any species that could hurt your personal bottom line. Kids are brought up in this culture. The violence is passed from one generation to the next until it becomes habit.
S: Before we started this interview, you mentioned “subversive ecology” to me. What’s that?
Soule: The subversive ecologist says: Maybe we’ve gone too far. We’ve simplified nature too much, rid it of too much of its variety. We’ve eliminated every threat, abolished every danger. Most state fish-and-game agencies in the U.S. support reducing the density of carnivorous predators, because they might kill deer before hunters can. They have removed most of the native fish from the mountainous areas of the country and replaced them with game fish like rainbow trout and smallmouth bass.
A subversive ecologist might wonder if we could “informally” reintroduce native species that have been eliminated. It’s a sort of biological monkey-wrenching. Let’s bring mountain lions back to places where they’ve been extirpated by ranchers and hunters. Let’s bring back the “varmints” that keep ecosystems functioning. Is it wrong to help them survive?
The prevailing cleanse-the-land attitude isn’t universal. One time I was with some friends in the Carpathian Mountains in Europe, and we came across a shepherd bringing his flock down from the higher elevations in the fall. We asked through a translator: “What do you think of wolves?” The shepherd said, “Well, they’re a problem, but they have to eat something, don’t they?” He was philosophical about the loss of a few sheep, viewing it as a sort of payment for borrowing the wolves’ land. The wolves had been on the land much longer than humans, and he appreciated that.
That encounter with the shepherd made my day. You’ll never hear an American rancher say anything good about wolves. It was a relief to discover that not everybody considers it our obligation to rid the land of these “harmful” species.
“I don’t think humans should be removed from the planet. I actually like people, some more than others. But, as my son used to say when he was three years old, too much of anything is not too good.”
S: Do you think that the urge to control carnivore populations has to do with a fear of uncertainty — a fear of the wild?
Soule: Wildness is uncertain, unpredictable. A lot of people in the agricultural community feel it’s their job to reduce the wild to virtually nothing: Sterilize the crops with pesticides and herbicides. String up fences. Kill the predators, one and all.
And wildness is diversity, too. Its opposite is a land simplified to the point of homogeneity. Sometimes I call the epoch we’re living in the Homogocene, because we’re making nature homogeneous. If you travel to any part of the globe with a Mediterranean climate — Southern California or South Africa or Chile — you’ll find the same plants growing. You’ll see date palms. You’ll see agave. You’ll see guavas. You’ll see various types of citrus. They’ve almost all been imported. In Hawaii, if you’re below a thousand meters, you’ll see the same plants you will anywhere else in the tropics: same flowers, same fruit trees. This is the Homogocene world. It’s boring and sad, but it’s understandable to us. We can control these species. We have some power in this reduced world.
S: Sometimes people accuse scientists of reducing the world by summing it up with labels. What do you say to that?
Soule: The word scientistic is sometimes used to refer to that reduction of the world’s natural beauty and mystery. You’re being “scientistic” when you describe the world with dead symbols and use your intellect as a tool for dominance. But a naturalist who spends days and weeks in the field studying the particularity of some subject is not being scientistic. He or she is wondering, searching, asking questions.
I personally feel that classifying and naming organisms leads to the appreciation of difference. Naming something helps us focus on it and recognize it. When I see a side-blotched lizard, its name, Uta stansburiana, helps me love it in particular. If that lizard blends into all lizards, then I’m missing the joy of diversity. So I don’t see naming as a means of controlling the land.
I did my dissertation on side-blotched lizards. One of the reasons I like lizards so much is because they are different from me, but not so different that I can’t understand them. I’m familiar enough with some lizard species to intuit their behaviors. I can predict where they will be and what they will be doing at certain times of year and under certain conditions. Some might say that by predicting the lizards’ behaviors, I’m reducing the individuals to a kind of textbook category, but it’s really a nuanced appreciation, a relationship akin to love. When you intuitively understand another being, you enter into a kind of love.
S: The writer Terry Tempest Williams says you recognize the intersection of biology and beauty as the miraculous.
Soule: That’s a wonderful way of putting it. Mystical experience is a moment of touching the miraculous. It opens you up to new insights that are beyond the me. Those kinds of openings come into your life the way an animal comes from the forest into a meadow, or the way a land snail’s white shell appears at your feet. Cleansing the world of wildness — as if that were even possible — would mean cleansing the world of this possibility.
S: Earlier you said that the world is becoming less like the world you want it to be. How do you want the world to be?
Soule: To start with, I don’t think humans should be removed from the planet. I actually like people, some more than others. But, as my son used to say when he was three years old, too much of anything is not too good. Because there are so many humans, we’re losing biological diversity. I want to live in a world that is complex and interesting and miraculous. And that means wild.
S: We also talked earlier about what the world will look like fifty to a hundred years from now. What do you envision?
Soule: We’re in a tricky situation. Assuming no cooperation occurs among world leaders, climate change will be addressed country by country, politician by politician. Things may be done at the local and state level, and occasionally at the national level, but if there’s no effective regulation at the global level, then it’s fair to assume that only a major catastrophe or series of catastrophes will cause us to change direction.
S: Do you foresee specific catastrophes?
Soule: The global extinction crisis will continue to ramp up, and many more species will be lost. Actually this crisis started ten thousand years ago with the disappearance of many species of megafauna, such as mastodons, due to overhunting by human beings using much more primitive technology than we now possess — spears, for instance. These days we’re orders of magnitude more destructive, in part because of our numbers but mostly because of our technology and the way that it magnifies an individual’s footprint. Thousands of years ago most of the damage inflicted upon biodiversity was limited to human habitats, particularly those near villages. Now we’re able to expand our desires for food, energy, and control to the oceans and rain forests and mountains. These environments won’t appear “empty” to most people, but the complexity and richness that once defined them will be greatly reduced. And some places will become desolate. Many regions already are moving in that direction.
S: It strikes me that the tragedy of losing a single species is only a small part of the larger tragedy of unraveling ecosystems.
Soule: That’s right. And not all species are equal. Unfortunately the keystone species that hold ecosystems together are also the ones that humans often hunt for food and sport, and they require the most habitat, the most room to roam, which is increasingly hard to come by in the twenty-first century, whether you’re a bear or a whale.
As we speak, we’re well on our way to destroying the last of the oceans’ large fish, such as the tuna. On land we’ve nearly completed the project of destroying keystone species like elephants. The elephants in Africa and Asia today are being annihilated not only for their ivory but also because their feeding activities are incompatible with the large-scale agriculture needed to feed growing human populations. Elephants don’t pay any attention to property lines; nor do they have much patience for fences, which are spreading everywhere.
The few large creatures that remain will leave giant holes in nature when they finally do disappear. Some species will persist, particularly in the more technologically sophisticated countries. But in places where there’s a lot of poverty, which is much of the world, there won’t be much sympathy for wild animals. There are so many mouths to feed. Attempts are being made to expand agriculture, and when you expand agriculture, you cut into what little habitat is left for wild creatures. Wildlife habitat will be severely compromised in the next fifty years by agriculture. Maybe we’ll be able to back off before everything is destroyed. That’s my hope. But it might be too late.
S: Do you see any check on human population growth?
Soule: Not really. Human beings will survive. We’re extremely resourceful. I don’t see any reason to assume that our species will go extinct just because we’ve degraded the environment.
I traveled to India several decades ago, and I was struck by how human overcrowding has eliminated much of the wildlife there. Rats were about the most common wild creatures I encountered. Monkeys and cattle were around, too, because both have spiritual value in India. It’s not a very rosy picture, is it?
S: Which countries do you think are the most prominent defenders of the environment?
Soule: There are conservationists who are doing good work, but countries themselves aren’t shining examples of a conservation ethic. Attempts have been made to establish refuges, particularly in the developed West. National parks really are an inspiring idea, but there just aren’t enough of them around the globe. I hate to say it, given how horrendous our record is in many ways, but before Trump, the U.S. was a leader in environmental legislation. Sadly, wildlife is considered food in most of the world.
As with the monkeys and cattle in India, some cultures might decide that certain creatures have value and need to be protected. They might even encourage those creatures to flourish. But economic “necessity” generally works against the protection of large animals, which require a lot of space and food. In Thailand, for instance, it’s illegal to kill wild elephants, but bribery and corruption are rampant, and the elephants die anyway.
Or take Europe, where conservation measures are being implemented. Even in Scandinavia, which is considered to be a pretty enlightened place, people raise sheep, which are disastrous to the habitats where they graze. The Scandinavians also have a long history of raising reindeer. Where a culture is committed to domesticated animals, there’s never going to be much patience or sympathy for wild species.
S: President Trump has named several allies of the fossil-fuel industry to his cabinet, including climate-change denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. What does that portend for the environment?
Soule: Everybody I’ve talked to in the conservation and environmental fields is despairing about what’s happening in the U.S. right now. These billionaires are out for their own interests, and they’ve got very little concern for society or the environment. It is “me-ism” run rampant.
But we’ve got to put it in perspective. There’s always a pendulum swing, and currently it’s to the right. There will eventually be a swing back in the other direction. Meanwhile this administration is going to be a disaster for nature. The only habitats that will remain relatively wild over the coming years will be those where wealthy people play and hunt and fish and pursue other outdoor hobbies. By the time the pendulum swings back again, a lot more biodiversity will have been destroyed.
S: In this conversation you’ve spoken as both a scientist and a mystic. How do you see those two sides of your personality interacting?
Soule: For me science and mysticism are not in conflict. People try to study these spontaneous experiences of openness I spoke of, to locate where they occur in the brain, but we don’t have the capacity yet to understand the physiological processes involved. We know only that they come, they go, and they leave behind this powerful sense of connection.
The longer I live, the more I come to see that there is a part of life that is mysterious. I’m not saying anything about religion or alternative realities or deities — just that there’s an undeniable mystery. There’s no place to hang certain experiences. They don’t fit in. But I’m grateful for them.
This interview was originally published on the Sun
Cover Photo by Mattias Klum