June 15, 2021
EP. 109 — 12,000 Years of Humans Altering Earth with Dr. Jacquelyn Gill
As nature lovers, we prize the idea of places untouched by human influence. But new research shows that such places were few and far between as long as 12,000 years ago. This week paleo-ecologist Dr. Jacquelyn Gill is on the show to talk about the surprisingly strong effect humans have had on nature for thousands and thousands of years, and how knowing this changes our relationship with the natural world.
109 — 12,000 Years of Humans Altering Earth with Dr. Jacquelyn Gill
Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hello, welcome to Factually, I’m Adam Conover. It’s so wonderful to have you listen to the show once again. We thank you for being here. This week, let’s talk about nature. If you’re a nature lover like I am (and I’m guessing you are); I think all humans have deep down, the love of nature in their hearts. What are you looking for when you go out to the national park, into the wilderness: on your camping trip, on your birdwatching expedition? What is the perfect experience of the natural world for you? Well, for me, I think what I’m looking for is the wildest possible space: some place untouched by the hairy monkey hand of humanity. As nature lovers, we want to see the most remote mountain, the deepest ocean. We want to be like John Muir: stepping into an untouched wilderness that hasn’t been touched by human hands for tens of thousands of years. That’s what we’re looking for in our hearts, right? Well, that makes it tough to be a nature lover because we’re well aware that kind of nature, that untouched wilderness, is disappearing. Climate change is happening right now and it ain’t stopping. That’s changing temperatures across the globe. Plus, the icebergs are melting and the Marianas Trench at the bottom of the ocean, well, it is littered with micro plastics. We have touched the planet, the world over and in fact, if you have listened to the show before you know; that that story of John Muir is a myth. When John Muir stepped foot in Yosemite, he was looking at a landscape that had been managed actively by Native Americans for centuries. Then he went and managed it even more himself and kicked them all out and messed with the landscape in his own way. So when you go to Yosemite, you’re not seeing an untouched wilderness that’s been preserved in amber by the National Parks Department. No, you are seeing a space that humans have altered for millennia and continue to alter day by day. OK, but say you where to go: ‘Adam, I’m a nature lover. You know what? I’m going to invent a time machine and I’m going to go back in time to find that untouched wilderness I love so much.’ Well, I hate to break it to you but a mind blowing study shows that humans have actually been doing this; we have been altering the earth in this way on a far more massive scale and far further back in history than we ever imagined. According to this study, three quarters of the Earth’s ecology has been shaped by human society for at least 12,000 years. That’s right. For 12 millennia, we have shaped 75% of the Earth’s entire surface. The ecological record shows the impact of people all over the planet: planting crops, domesticating herds and using fire to control the landscape. We can see the impact of early farmers, hunter/gatherers and pastoralists sharing landscapes over most of the planet for 10,000 years before the common era. So if you’re that nature lover, you want to find that untouched nature. You got to go way, way, far back. We literally do not have written records of a time in which pure, untouched nature existed on Earth on a large scale. So what do we, as nature lovers, do with this information? Should we just sit around moping? Should we feel deeply sad that we’ve so massively altered the natural world that we love? Or is there a deeper perspective that we can draw from this that might reshape how we think about what we consider natural, and that might reshape our relationship with the world as it is rather than the world that we wish still existed? Well, to help us answer these questions, our guest today is one of the authors of that study I just mentioned. She has the incredibly cool job of being a paleo ecologist which she’s going to tell us all about and she is also the host of the climate change podcast ‘Warm Regards.’ I am so thrilled to have her on the show. Please welcome Dr. Jaquelyn Gill. Jaquelyn, thank you so much for coming to the show.
Speaker 2 [00:04:01] It’s really good to be here.
Speaker 1 [00:04:03] You are, among other things, a paleoecologist. Tell me what that means.
Speaker 2 [00:04:08] People are probably familiar with the idea of ecology; understanding where things live on the planet, why, what they do, different plant animal species. I do that, but over long periods of time. Hundreds to thousands, to tens of thousands of years or longer.
Speaker 1 [00:04:28] I think a lot of people are familiar with a paleontologist through the Jurassic Park version; looking at the fossil record to understand a particular species. But you’re looking at ecology’s view of that.
Speaker 2 [00:04:42] Yeah, yeah, exactly. I’m less interested in individual species per say. I’m really interested in what they do to each other; how they interact. I do a lot of work on how herbivores, big animals like wooly mammoths, affected ecosystems and what we lose from an ecosystem when we lose an animal like a wooly mammoth: what are the consequences of those things? I actually like to think of myself as a little bit of a forensic scientist, because we have to use these really creative tools, lacking a time machine to go back and reconstruct those past environments. But I would say it’s very much about trying to fill in the picture of what past nature looked like on Earth and how it responded to climate change or people showing up in a place for the first time or the addition or removal of different plants and animals.
Speaker 1 [00:05:39] So that we understand what happens with the wooly mammoth, when a creature like that is removed from the environment, that makes it sound like you’re talking about today; like it’s part of the point to understand what happens in ecosystems today and not just in the past?
Speaker 2 [00:05:55] Yeah, absolutely, and one of the reasons is that the biodiversity and climate crises just feel huge. They feel enormous. They feel like ‘This has never happened before. We don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know what the future is going to be like.’ And for me, the fossil record is really comforting in this odd way because it’s like, ‘OK, we actually have had species extinctions relatively recently. We have gone through periods of climate change.’ And to me, that information means that we’re not headed into the future totally blindfolded. We have these (what we call) ‘natural experiments’ from the past, the very recent past. When it comes to wooly mammoths, you can think about the modern analog of elephants because mammoths were an elephant. They were a species of elephant. We know why elephants are going extinct today. We know why they’re threatened. What interests me is, what can we do to prevent that? And also, if elephants were to go extinct, what would be the consequences? And we haven’t asked those kinds of questions enough. Partly because we haven’t had that luxury. We’re so urgently worried about protecting elephants, that thinking about what happens next is hopefully a road we never go down anyway. But for me, we can just look to the past and say, ‘OK, wooly mammoths and mastodons and Columbian mammoths (and other big elephants) that used to trundle around the landscape: they were pretty important, too. When they died, that had consequences that in a lot of ways are still playing out thousands of years later.’ Hopefully that information can help us just increase that sense of urgency, that we need to do something now to protect elephants because it’s too late for the mammoths but maybe the information can save other species.
Speaker 1 [00:07:39] I was going to ask you, because when you said, ‘OK, it’s comforting to know that the climate has always changed.’ Well, sometimes you hear that argument from climate deniers or people who are advocating that we don’t take action to stop climate change. They say, ‘Oh, well, the climate has always changed. Oh, everything’s always shifting around and we’re still here. So no big deal.’ But you’re saying, ‘Well, no, hold on a second. What we want to learn from that is that those changes can be bad.’ We can look at fossil record and say, ‘Wait this was actually a bad thing and that’s why we would want to prevent it.’
Speaker 2 [00:08:12] Yeah, exactly. If you are OK with your lifestyle being completely disrupted: losing your favorite foods and beverages and dying earlier than you normally would have; yeah, sure. Fine. If that’s comforting to you, I guess, that’s your call. But to be serious about it, there’s two lessons that I take from that. One is we that often focus a lot on these catastrophic examples and I do that too, I work on extinction. But there’s also a lot of resilience in the natural world; more than I think we appreciate. To me, what that does is: it gives me hope for the future that – If not hope, at least it makes the problem feel a little bit more approachable. If you’re standing from the perspective of needing to save all of the things: all of the species, protecting all the species, that problem is so outside the scope of human ability. A million species would be outside the scope of human ability. But if you were instead able to say, ‘OK, we have this record of change in the past and from that we can say these kinds of ecosystems are probably going to be OK or OK for longer, whereas these others are going to be way more at risk.’ Then that allows us to focus our attention, it’s like doing a kind of medical triage. It doesn’t mean that everything is going to be OK. We actually do talk in climate change advocacy about climate winners and losers. What we want to do is reduce the number of losers as much as we can. The fossil record tells us not only who’s likely to be a loser, but how we can reduce that likelihood.
Speaker 1 [00:10:01] Yeah, you should come up with a better name than loser, though, because it does sound like ‘Who’s likely to be a loser,’ like ‘All these species are losers.’ It’s a little derogatory. Something is being done to them, or to those those ecosystems. I’m just curious, since you’re talking about wooly mammoths, what did happen when wooly mammoths went extinct? What was the effect of that?
Speaker 2 [00:10:27] That is something that we are really at the of the frontier of figuring out. There’s growing evidence that suggests there were big changes in the ecosystem. In some cases, in places like the Arctic, where there may have been long term consequences; such that the Arctic today may actually be more vulnerable to climate change in the absence of big animals like mammoths. Those mammoths are thought to – We talk about ‘ecosystem services,’ right? Which I don’t like, it sounds really corporate, but it basically reminds us that these animals play roles. They’re not just pretty window dressing on the landscape. So if you think about everything that a wooly mammoth does: it eats, it poops. It brushes the snow away in the wintertime to get to plants. All of those activities are beneficial for certain kinds of plants and animals and may be detrimental to others. But in the case of the Arctic, there’s growing evidence that suggests that if you have big herbivores like a wooly mammoth or a muskox walking around accessing the plants under the snow, it helps keep the ground colder and that helps the permafrost (that layer of frozen ground) stay cold longer, which means that in the warm summers it’s less likely to thaw as much. If that permafrost doesn’t thaw, it’s not releasing carbon into the atmosphere which then accelerates and amplifies warming.
Speaker 1 [00:12:03] Oh, wow.
Speaker 2 [00:12:04] That’s just one example of some hypotheses that are actively being researched, both using fossils and in places you might have heard of. Pleistocene Park: it’s like the Ice Age version of Jurassic Park. People are trying to experimentally demonstrate that this is true. There have been other examples where if you put up a fence and you keep large herbivores out and then you warm the ecosystem; if you have herbivores eating plants, then the plants actually respond less to that warming. If you keep the herbivores out, the plants respond more. There’s more of a negative impact of that warming. We’re not entirely sure why, but these big animals seem to be playing an important role in dampening the effect of climate change.
Speaker 1 [00:12:54] Yeah, so wooly mammoths going extinct, or leaving the permafrost area, actually caused some amount of carbon to be released into the atmosphere at that time or contributed to warming to some degree?
Speaker 2 [00:13:11] That is one of the million dollar questions in my field right now, and there’s good evidence to support that. But we’re still chasing down that idea.
Speaker 1 [00:13:23] Well, what’s interesting to me about that is (correct me if I’m wrong) humans played a role in the extinction of the wooly mammoth, correct?
Speaker 2 [00:13:29] So that’s super debated at the moment, but to reveal my own biases; I’m very much in the school of thought that you can’t explain the extinction of these huge animals without people.
Speaker 1 [00:13:51] Yeah. I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book ‘The Sixth Extinction’ years and years ago, but the version of it that I remember is that there is at least a very strong correlation between humans arriving in an area and the megafauna in that area disappearing.
Speaker 2 [00:14:09] Oh, yeah, it’s very tight because that’s one of the first things that if you look at the global picture: people arrive, animals go extinct, people arrive, animals go extinct. That’s one of the big patterns that you have to be able to explain. If you want to explain these extinctions, which are global, you have to explain the fact that they don’t happen everywhere at the same time (which you would expect if it was a climate driven extinction) and they seem to happen relatively soon after people show up. That’s one one of the big patterns, the other pattern is why just really big animals and why just mostly mammals. Why not fishes and birds and plants? This emphasis on these really big animals going extinct tells us that there’s something unique and special here. It’s geologically superlative, usually extinction risk is not just based on how big you are and being a mammal. Right?
Speaker 1 [00:15:15] Yeah, but it might be dependent on, ‘Hey, there’s a new animal roaming around that’s especially good at killing large calorie stores and eating them and turning them into clothing and et cetera.’
Speaker 2 [00:15:29] Yeah and people have tried to model this mathematically and they’ve shown that you don’t have to run around and kill every one. You actually don’t have to kill very many, animals that are long lived and don’t have a lot of offspring and put a lot of attention into their offspring (people fall into that category generally), you don’t actually have to reduce their populations very much to contribute to an extinction, especially when you factor in that there was some climate changing during this period which we know is going to stress populations. One thing that people should remember (and one thing that frustrates me about these debates, and they’ve gotten nasty at times), is this ‘climate versus humans versus climate versus humans.’ Extinction is rarely a simple story. It’s usually a one two punch. Usually you knock down populations with some kind of environmental stress and then something else comes along. It’s bad luck, in a lot of ways.
Speaker 1 [00:16:29] Well, it’s both things. It’s many factors at once. There’s a great term that came up when I was reading about the 2016 election that I learned this term. It’s ‘overdetermined,’ that there’s many inputs happening at once and it’s often hard to pick out exactly which one it is; like why did Trump win the 2016 election? Was it this? Was it that? Well, it’s all those things at once. You can’t really blame one thing and you also can’t say, ‘Well, it’s very hard to piece out which ones were sufficient, which were necessary. All these things happen together.’ It strikes me that extinction kind of works the same way. Where at the very least, humanity is part of the story.
Speaker 2 [00:17:11] Most people don’t like stories like that. We want clean, simple, tidy answers. But the natural world is rarely tidy. It’s rarely simple. Maybe every now and then we get something like a big asteroid that is like, ‘OK, well, that’s a pretty clear cause.’ But most of the time it’s going to be these messy, complex interactions. We can as scientists and as ecologists, we can have physics envy, but our systems will never be that straightforward or simple.
Speaker 1 [00:17:41] What strikes me about what you said is that if humans contributed to wooly mammoths and these other species going extinct and the disappearance of those species is affecting the warming of the permafrost; that’s a macro effect that we’re having on the climate at a very early period. And so when I’m working my way towards here, is that you are an author on a study in April that said that humans have been shaping nature for the last 12,000 years; which is very contrary to what a lot of our narrative is. A lot of times the story is ‘Oh, the Industrial Revolution is when we started to really affect the planet and before that, especially in certain parts of the globe, humans lived in cooperation with nature and didn’t affect things that much.’ This paper seems to upend that and I wonder if you could tell us about it.
Speaker 2 [00:18:29] One of the things that I find really interesting about this, is how some people get really upset about this idea and other people feel very validated because it reinforces their own lived experiences, particularly indigenous peoples. You might think ‘Are we saying that people have caused widespread environmental degradation?’ No, that’s not actually what we’re saying. What we’re saying is that it’s not the presence or absence of people that’s the problem. It’s what we do, what we choose to do. It was actually the rise of things like colonialism and capitalism and those extractive policies that are more strongly associated with environmental degradation and extinction risk than the presence of people, per say. There are some notable exceptions, these global extinctions of wooly mammoths. And I should also put in a plug for giant beavers (the size of black bears) and wooly rhinos and lots of other cool animals, too. All of those animals go extinct. Half of any species in North America larger than an adult German shepherd go extinct. That’s not an insignificant event. But with that aside, if you look at the pattern of biodiversity on the planet; 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity today is being managed on indigenous lands. These are places where people have been for thousands of years. This is not an an accident and in a lot of cases, people have enhanced biodiversity. These indigenous land use practices have helped shape biodiversity. We’re not saying that people have been a scourge on the planet since we first evolved tool use and spread across the globe. We’re not a virus. We’re also not saying, ‘Oh, people have lived in total harmony with nature all over the planet and it’s only until recently that we’ve seen everything totally collapse.’ Like so many things I’ve been saying, the real picture is messier than that. I think a lot of people today have this idea that humans are inherently bad. If you care about the planet, if you’re an environmentalist, if you care about biodiversity, you might think ‘What we need to do is remove people.’ What our study shows is that there are ways of living with nature that can be in harmony or even enhance biodiversity. It’s not an inherently negative relationship and the reason that that’s important, is not only because if you actually genuinely care about saving biodiversity. It’s important for us to understand our relationship as people with the rest of nature, because we’re part of nature. But it’s also important from the perspective of enforcing indigenous agency. So many conservation efforts have tried to take nature away from the people who have lived with it for thousands of years, as though from Washington, D.C. we might know better than people in Ghana or people in the Brazilian rainforest how better to manage their ecosystems. Those efforts so often fail. So just from a conservation perspective, I think what we need is – We’ve known for a long time that we need to adjust our approach to how we live with the natural world and also how Western societies engage with indigenous cultures. What we’re just doing with this study is saying, ‘Here’s 12,000 years of data that supports that.’
Speaker 1 [00:22:11] Wow. That is a lot to dig into. Tell me, first of all, what is in the study? How did you go about it and what did you turn up?
Speaker 2 [00:22:21] It’s the first study that really took a global picture (or global snapshot) of the human relationship with nature going back for this long, twelve thousand years. It uses a couple of different data sets that are themselves just compilations of many, many, many studies across the globe and then models that try to basically simulate (like a video game) what the impacts of those relationships might be. So it’s using everything from computer simulations to actual archeological data, real information on the ground from the archeological and paleo ecological records. One of them is just human population: how many people were there and where were people? We’ve been on every continent except Antarctica for 12,000 years at least. So how long have we been in different places and how many of us were there? And then what was our land use like? What were we doing? Were we practicing agriculture or burning? Were we having more of a transient relationship; just moving through ecosystems but never staying in one place for very long? And it puts all that information together and then looks at the human environment relationship going back 12,000 years all the way to the present. And what we find is that even very early on; you can start to pick up the fingerprints of our actions, as people, on nature. Those actions aren’t always bad. We often think human impacts are inherently negative, and there’s a reason that I’m trying to avoid that term. If you imagine when people show up in a place for the first time, they might change how often fires happen. The changing frequency of fires is going to promote some kinds of plants versus others, and those changes in plants are going to bring different kinds of animals to that place. So you could imagine that even in small populations, people can have a noticeable impact. And again, that impact isn’t always negative. It just might change the way environments look. It might change what species live in a place or how many species there are. We move species around, we’re really good at that. That’s basically what the study does: it puts together a big, planet Earth-scale, picture of what we’ve been up to as a as a human race for twelve thousand years. And we find that by twelve thousand years ago, up to 70 percent of the planet was already starting to show, you could see the impacts of our actions in these places. Again, they’re not always negative but they do leave a fingerprint in the fossil and the archeological record.
Speaker 1 [00:25:09] Seventy percent, wow. That’s a huge amount of land. I’ve talked about on my television show and on this podcast before about examples of this: the myth is that either there were no people here before the colonizers showed up or that the people who were here sort of were just hanging out in the woods without really touching anything and just leaving everything as it was. We now know that (this is the example I’ve used a couple of times) indigenous folks throughout North America were doing controlled burns that were maintaining the the forest, burning away dead wood and also altering it. This was a form of land management, and that has always been one of the most stunning things that I’ve learned in my years of doing this. You’re saying that sort of land management was really happening globally, that’s not just an anecdote. Humans were doing that all over the world.
Speaker 2 [00:26:02] Those debates out of North America and in places like Australia and elsewhere, they are directly influencing the study that we did. We are, with that work, trying to (hopefully) put the pin in that myth and just say, ‘OK, we’re done.’ This idea of the pristine myth or the ecological Indian that was like a ghost on the landscape; that was a myth by colonizers who used that myth actively to take control over the natural resources in North America. It goes back to this idea that people thought they had a God given mandate to to take over the land because it wasn’t being developed by the peoples. And if native peoples weren’t ‘improving the land,’ then Europeans had to take over. This myth pops up over and over again. It pops back up in the 70’s with the rise of the environmental movement, and it’s understandable where it comes from. But in the end, it’s been damaging for both our management of ecosystems; because we can’t manage an ecosystem if we don’t know its history. People like me who study that prehistory, if we are pretending that people weren’t there doing things then we’re going to have a really messed up picture of what that landscape should look like. A lot of people here in North America, we go back to this pre European contact baseline, like that’s how we should restore ecosystems. But then we completely ignore that the ecosystems Europeans encountered were shaped by humans. So hopefully this myth can finally be put to rest. Based on some of the responses to the paper, I think we still have a lot of work to do but I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Speaker 1 [00:28:14] Well, it’s such a complicated issue. It’s a deep prejudice in our minds; to believe that humankind and nature are separate worlds and that the only important version of nature is the kind that is by itself: that is pristine, that is untouched by humanity. So the idea that 12,000 years ago, 70 percent of land was already managed to some degree or altered to some degree by human impact is deeply unsettling to people. I can imagine why some of the responses that you got, because people don’t want to believe it. And as you say, part of the myth of, ‘Oh, indigenous folks lived in harmony and didn’t actually touch anything.’ Part of that is a positive myth, or at least some of the people who promulgate are trying to say, ‘No, no, no, there’s a way to not touch anything and restore things back to the way they naturally were.’ But it’s a false dichotomy, because if we actually want to protect the natural world, we need to understand that there are no two worlds. It’s one world, that we fundamentally do alter the earth by being on it and by managing it. And so it’s a question of ‘How do we manage it? What do we do?’ Rather than trying to go back to some pristine, prehuman epoch.
Speaker 2 [00:29:41] Yeah, I would agree and it’s funny because I thought that I was a paleontologist, but I think at the end of the day what I really am; if I had to just distill my ultimate life’s work down, it would be as a binary destroyer. I just want us to stop thinking in terms of these black and white perspectives. If we could just remove every binary and replace it with a continuum in society, I think we would just be in a much better place because like you said, it’s not that it’s either humans/no humans. We know now, we have data to show that what we have thought of as our wildest and most remote places are or have been human landscapes to some extent. So this binary is false, but that doesn’t mean we have to let go of some idea that we have about the wild places that we love. Rather, it’s just thinking about the kinds of things that we do, the intensity of of our activities; are they extractive or are we facilitating nature? So it’s this continuum of beneficial to detrimental that’s going to vary based on where we are and based on what the climate’s doing and based on lots of other factors.
Speaker 1 [00:30:57] Yeah, it seems to me that we need to come up with a new set of values about how we talk about nature and what we’re trying to save, rather than ‘the human world bad, the natural world good’ and we want to go towards the natural world. We need to come up with richer ways of thinking about what it actually is that we are trying to support.
Speaker 2 [00:31:23] Yeah, I agree, and I want to just take a moment really quickly to say, when we say ‘we,’ I should be really clear about who the ‘we’ are that we’re talking about when we say that. Because when I talk to my native colleagues they’re like, ‘Yeah, no shit. We’ve known this for a really long time.’ It’s funny because on some levels, this idea of ‘we need to listen to indigenous peoples’ has been threaded through all along. It’s just that during a lot of those periods where we thought of natives walking lightly on the landscape, almost like they weren’t even really there; we were telling this version of them or twisting this reality that removed indigenous agency and indigenous sovereignty and all those things that we now know are super important for conservation efforts (and also just, you know, civil rights). I think we do still have a lot to learn; we as settlers and descendants of colonizers in these places that we live. I think you’re absolutely right. A lot of these centuries of colonial and extractive practices can be really hard to to grapple with because it forces us to rethink not only our relationship with nature, but our relationship with the long histories of the people who live in these places.
Speaker 1 [00:33:00] Yeah, man. OK, I have a lot more questions for you, but we have to take a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more Dr. Jaquelyn Gill. OK, we’re back with Jaquelyn Gill. I want to challenge something that you said a little bit, because it’s something that I think about a lot. You said that despite the fact that this paper says that humans have been affecting the natural world for twelve thousand years, that’s not always a bad thing. There are sort of good and bad ways to do it, and I agree with that. I do believe that the dichotomy between human and natural is wrong and we need to come up with more granular values to understand what it is that we want to save. But my understanding is also that there are certain ways, that by being on the planet humans affect the natural world in ways that maybe we don’t like and in ways that are hard to stomach. The one that always stuck with me the most is that by traveling, we bring species from one place to another. Now, my understanding is that by so doing, we necessarily reduce biodiversity; that if you’re transporting species across the globe and you’re bringing invasive species in and out. You’re sort of combining ecosystems, right? To the extent that biodiversity is something that we want to save, something that I wrestle with (and I would like you to tell me why I’m wrong); are humans just fundamentally a sort of biodiversity reducing organism to some extent? Even when we have our best practices, is that a fundamental truth: that when humans came to North America, we wiped out a lot of megafauna. It seems like it’s hard for us to not do that.
Speaker 2 [00:34:53] OK, there’s so many things that I want to respond to.
Speaker 1 [00:34:56] I know. I’m so sorry.
Speaker 2 [00:34:58] No, no, no, not at all. It’s more like ‘How much time do we have?’
Speaker 1 [00:35:01] We have as much time as we need.
Speaker 2 [00:35:03] You’re getting the Jaquelyn Gill view of the world. So one really funny thing about that is – and I’m gonna get so many people mad. One of my colleagues here at U Maine, Brian McGill, was on a paper that looked at global biodiversity trends. What they found is that if you look place by place (so not at the whole earth, but place by place), biodiversity numbers are actually pretty stable and that’s because species extinctions or extirpation; when you take a species out of a place, but it’s still alive somewhere else. We don’t have Caribou here in Maine right now, they’ve been here in the past but they’re not extinct globally. So that would be an extirpation. If you look at those numbers, the balance is is pretty even. That’s because for every species we take away, we’re bringing something new in. What this tells us is that species richness, meaning how many species there are, is actually not doing a very good job of capturing the full global picture of our impacts on the planet. We’re very good at eliminating some species with our actions. We move things around and not all things that we move around are inherently bad; not all non-native species are invasive, for example. Some native species can become invasive under certain conditions. Think about like a cat tail on the side of a road that’s getting lots of disturbance and fertilizer by the highway, that can become invasive even though it evolved here in North America.
Speaker 1 [00:36:39] I always imagine ‘invasive’ meant purely from somewhere else. But you mean invasive in terms of dominating other species, pushing other species out or being sort of detrimental to the ecosystem.
Speaker 2 [00:36:50] Yeah, and people are starting to parse these terms a little bit differently to capture some of these nuances. When I take my students out into the forest, there will be some species that are non-native and aren’t having any detrimental effects. Then there will be other species that are technically native, not even technically. They are native, but they’re having hugely detrimental effects because of something else that we’re doing that’s tweaking that balance or that relationship. One of the things that you said that I really appreciated, was that you said something about changing and impacting biodiversity in ways we don’t like. What you did there is you admitted that a lot of our conservation goals and targets are based on values. I think that that’s not a bad thing. As long as we’re open about that, as long as we’re honest about that, because I deeply believe that biodiversity has fundamental value. Not just the value that we confer upon it, but I also believe that as humans we like certain kinds of ecosystems. We don’t like others. We like certain species. We’re not super jazzed about others and being honest about that is our first step towards having some more clarity about our relationship with nature and what our impacts are. I guess what I would say is, yes, humans have had both positive and negative influences on biodiversity, which is this nebulous term. Are we talking about individual species that we care about, are we talking about just how many there are? Because if you just look at how many there are, that number hasn’t actually changed. If you go place by place, like where I live, where you live. Globally, yes, the number is going down and that is a bad, bad thing. What we need to challenge ourselves to do, is to think about what kinds of actions we’re having on the planet and whether those actions are having a positive or negative impacts based on a whole bunch of different metrics. The answers are very rarely going to be easy or simple. They’re probably going to be messy and muddy and you and I talking about a place that we both love, might have completely different ideas about what it should look like. This is all really vague. So I’m going to try to bring it down to a concrete example.
Speaker 1 [00:39:23] Sure, please.
Speaker 2 [00:39:24] Yeah. OK, Acadia National Park is right down the road for me. It’s one of my favorite places in the whole world and I’m very lucky to live nearby it. In the 1940’s, there was a fire that burned half of the island. If you’ve ever been to Acadia, you might have in your mind the rugged coast but if you go inland a little bit there are these beautiful birches and those birches are an artifact of that fire. Those birches are now dying because they don’t live very long. They’re are pioneer species; they come in right after a disturbance. They flourish and then they get replaced by some secondary tree like a conifer tree, in this part of the world. But a lot of people are really upset that those birch trees are not being managed or cared for by the park, that they’re not being protected, that the park that they’re visiting now doesn’t look like the park of their childhood. But the only way to do that would be to set half of the island on fire, and that’s not necessarily something that people want. Then you turn around and you ask the same people, ‘OK, well, we’re trying to eradicate invasive species from Acadia, because a lot of those non-native invasive species are having damaging effects on some of the rare plants that we love. We do know some of the rare plants have been declining in Acadia over the last decades.’ And people say, ‘Cool, cool, cool, we like it, we’re on board.’ And then we say, ‘Yeah, so we’re going to take the lupines away.’ And I don’t know if you’re familiar with how important lupines are in this part of the world, but there was this children’s book, Miss Rumphious. It’s all about this snowy white haired lady riding around on her bicycle who wants to do something beautiful in the world and so she decides she’s going to broadcast lupine seeds everywhere. So these beautiful lupines grow up.
Speaker 1 [00:41:13] What are lupines?
Speaker 2 [00:41:13] Literally. Oh, gosh, if you don’t know, google l-u-p-i-n-e. You’re probably like, ‘Is she talking about werewolves, what the hell is going on there?’ They’re these beautiful, spiky flowers that are like a purply blue and they’ll just cover the hillside. They’re really beautiful. They’re actually from your – You’re in the West Coast, right?
Speaker 1 [00:41:35] Yes, I’m from Los Angeles. Or I’m in Los Angeles, rather. I’m from the East Coast.
Speaker 2 [00:41:40] There is a native lupine, but the ones that are being spread around are actually from the West Coast and they will choke out the local one and they will choke out a whole bunch of other plants, too. But people love them and they have a strong association with this children’s book. When you tell them, ‘OK, we’re going to get rid of all the non-native species from the park, including the lupine.’ People are like, ‘No, you can’t do that. This is important to me. It doesn’t matter what the impacts are.’ And so to me, it’s a powerful reminder that our preferences and our cultures and our experiences are deeply bound up in our ideas of nature. So it’s easy to say we’re going to make these decisions because that’s what’s right for the natural world and to take ourselves out of it but those biases, those preferences, those cultural choices have always been there and they will always be a part of those decisions. And we just need to be open and honest about that. In some cases, it might be OK and in other cases we might have to make trade offs, like maybe we do burn half of the island. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we let the lupines go. Maybe we don’t. Right? So what I’m trying to say, I guess, is that these are messy conversations. They’re deeply personal. They’re very place based. They’re going to vary depending on where you live. But our perceptions of what is natural are shaped by our experiences, by history, by our cultures and that makes answering questions like your question really hard in a one hour podcast. Is that a fair answer?
Speaker 1 [00:43:29] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, these are the questions that I wrestle with all the time. This is a topic that we’ve done on the show multiple times and we’ll continue to do it, because it’s one that I keep looping around to. There are times when I feel like I understand it and all comes together to me where I’m like, ‘No, we exist. We are part of the natural world. We are, in fact, an animal species ourselves, and we manage the landscape and that means that our real goal should be to decide what our values are in a way that allows us to live and help the natural world flourish in a way that isn’t so stressed out all the time about it, in a way that’s healthier. And we can we can work our way towards that.’ And then there’s other times when I feel like (and this is how I put it when we had Elizabeth Kolbert on the show) I’m part of a fire that’s burning through a forest. Humanity consumes natural resources. We alter the world that we’re moving through. We’re just part of a fire that says, ‘Oh, my God, what are we doing?’ But we’re somehow unable to stop, and I vacillate between those two ways of looking at myself and my relationship with the world. The former is the one that I think is correct and I hope is correct. But then the latter is the one where, when I look at a study like yours that says we’ve been affecting the world for twelve thousand years and when I think about the fact that wherever humans go; wooly mammoths and other megafauna just disappear. No matter what. I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We seem to have this effect that also causes us pain.’ The fact that it’s human values and it’s not an objective national truth about the world is an important one. But at the same time, I care about biodiversity. Biodiversity doesn’t care, it’s me caring. Great. Maybe I could affect what I care about. OK, I’ll do my best. But at the same time, I’m also looking around going ‘The thing that I care about seems to not be doing well and it’s because of me and no matter what I do, I’m not going to be able to fix it entirely.’ That causes me pain, and that’s what I wrestle with.
Speaker 2 [00:45:45] I want you to know that I am right there with you and that I am deeply wounded by how close we came to still having wooly mammoths running around now. The fact that it was such a near miss, to me, is something that I find deeply upsetting and unsettling and the fact that we are at risk of being a generation away from people who can’t see a living elephant or a living rhinoceros would be such a compounded tragedy, because we have that lesson of the wooly mammoth and the wooly rhino that tell us, ‘Hey, let’s not do this. We have some agency here. We can turn the tide,’ and then choosing not to do that. I don’t want to say that it’s easy. To go back to your fire metaphor, I think that’s a really powerful one; because I think fire in and of itself – and I know that being where you are, your relationship with fire is going to be really different than mine and it might be too soon to bring this up. But where I live, we could do with a little bit of ground fires that manage the understory and kill some invasive species and lower our tick populations, which are giving everyone Lyme disease. A little bit of well managed, thoughtful application of fire would be really beneficial. Fire is a powerful tool. A lot of species of plants need it to reproduce, but it can also rage out of control if used poorly. It can devastate ecosystems and habitat. It can cause people to lose their homes or their livelihoods, or their lives. To break down that ‘are we good or bad’ binary into something more like fire, there’s a continuum. A little bit in certain applications, in natural fire regimes, can be really valuable. Too much fire suppression, or climate change can interact to turn fire into a massively destructive conflagration that is accelerating climate change in Siberia. There’s a whole range of ways in which fire’s impact on our communities and our ecosystems play out. I find comfort in that, it’s not comforting, like, ‘Yes, we can be this destructive force,’ but more like, ‘OK, we know what the full range of possibilities are. We know that there are examples.’ This is why I turn back to the prehistoric record over and over and over again, because I see not only extinction and destruction and loss and collapse, but also resilience and choice and agency and survival and persistence and adaptation. There are all of those options out there in front of us and our biodiversity story is not yet written. We still have the agency to decide; are we going to be the the conflagration or are we going to be something that is part of the natural world and enhances ecosystems and creates space for lots of species to coexist and thrive together?
Speaker 1 [00:49:30] Yeah, I agree. I agree with all of that. I think every couple of months I wrestle with all of this anew and come back to the point that you just brought me to, which is that we do have choice in agency and that we don’t just need to weep over what’s lost or give up and say, ‘Well, we can’t do anything.’ We have the ability to make a better natural human world tomorrow than exists today. I think the binary is very deep in me, as much as I try to fight it, and what I express to you is hard to get away from. I still end up having those binary values in me, and what’s important about the work that you do is it helps us escape it. To say, ‘Well, let’s look at what actually happened and what actually worked.’ I see a lot of people, for instance, solely blame capitalism and the industrial revolution for negative changes and say, ‘Hey, indigenous folks or other folks, (the non colonizers) did a better job and we can just do that.’ It’s like, well, it’s still more complex than that because capitalism didn’t kill the wooly mammoth. So we have to look a lot more closely at what our effects are.
Speaker 2 [00:50:49] I’m always super suspicious of simplistic narratives and I think there’s a few reasons that in this particular moment, you were talking about – I can’t remember the really great phrase you used, but multiple interacting causal mechanisms
Speaker 1 [00:51:04] Overdetermined?
Speaker 2 [00:51:05] Overdeterminism. Yeah, there’s a lot of reasons why I think that we’re falling into this trap of trying to look for simple solutions. One is that it helps galvanize movements, and I get that. Conditions are super shitty for lots of people, so there’s really good reasons why it’s easy to just focus on these big structural elements. But at the same time, I worry that people are forgetting that corporations produce products that people buy. There is a consumer. It’s not just that Exxon creates its own money and then shoves it into a CO2 machine. There are products that are being produced, and people are purchasing those products. The biggest emitters in the world, if you look, some of the top are actually state run energy companies. They’re not corporations, which isn’t to say that all of these things don’t operate in a capitalist system. But overall, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘individual actions don’t matter because we have these large structural problems.’ But then we forget that collectives can be really powerful in addressing them. We can’t give away our agency either, and I worry that part of the rise that we see in climate anxiety or eco grief is because a lot of these problems just seem so big, and they’re intractable. But because we focus so much on large scale forces that are really difficult to change as individuals or as communities. But one of the other things I wanted to circle back to is, just thinking about what you said about feeling like you’re going through this cycle over and over. It made me really think of the cycles of grief and how grief is really non-linear. I think it’s OK and you shouldn’t beat yourself up (if I can just be your biodiversity therapist for a second), it’s OK if you go through these cycles of feeling. Because we’re not just mourning this event that happened in the past. It’s something that’s continual and ongoing and every time you turn around, it feels like there’s some new crisis or some new loss. But there are stories of survival and resilience out there, too. More importantly, we can help write those stories and if the work that I do: putting the dead to work, putting the past to work to to save the future. If that has any value, I would hope it’s that it helps people to understand that there are other ways forward and that we are not committed. I’m not going to mourn a planet whose obituary has not yet been written. It’s not even flatlined. Just as if I were to if to go into the doctor with acute appendicitis, that doctor (I would hope) would tell me, ‘OK, if we don’t get your appendix out, you’re going to die. But we have the tools at our disposal. Fortunately, we know how to remove appendices and we’re going to do it.’ And I would say, ‘Cool, awesome.’ I wouldn’t expect to go to the doctor and have him say, ‘Sorry, you’re doomed. We can’t do anything for you.’ Because we know that’s not true, we know that’s not true about my appendix (which I don’t actually have but that’s another story). We also know that it’s not true about the planet. I just I worry that if we drift too far into despair then we give up, and there’s really good reasons not to do that. One of them being that this is kind of a cool place to live. This Earth.
Speaker 1 [00:55:10] Oh, that’s all very, very nice and very helpful. I think what I’m taking away from it is that anything that reduces our agency is not a great perspective on it. I want people to not get me wrong. I’m a critic of capitalism. But if we say, ‘Hold on, saying capitalism is the whole problem, we have to destroy capitalism.’ I agree. We have to destroy capitalism. But if we wait around to destroy capitalism before we focus on the natural world, it’s going to take a little while and we should be considering that we have the ability to be better stewards at the same time as we are doing that. We don’t need to entirely take ourselves out of it. And I wrestle all the time with the need to go fight structural climate change (structural causes of climate change) and my individual role in it; my own individual responsibility. How much time I put in trying to obsessively reduce my own emissions versus what am I doing to change the world. The old the old question of ‘Is it worth it to fly somewhere if your flight is to a climate conference’ or whatever. It’s like this bizarre loop I get caught in, and maybe I will never get out of that loop. Maybe I’ll always go back and forth. But it’s a bad idea to reduce my own agency and to say, ‘Let’s just start grieving already’ or ‘Let’s put off doing anything because we need to solve some other problem first’ or anything along those lines. I don’t know, hopefully there’s a way. I do think that my perspective is enriched by understanding that humans fundamentally change the natural world; that’s what human civilization does. That’s what your paper shows. But that shouldn’t drive me to grief and paralysis, it should (hopefully) push me to understanding that I can affect it in positive ways. That gives me agency. It doesn’t take it away.
Speaker 2 [00:57:16] You know how we always say depression as a liar? Depression tells us things like ‘You’re useless. You’ll never enjoy things. Nobody likes you.’ That’s true for planet Earth, too. It’s not just true for us. It’s OK to grieve when a place that’s important to you is destroyed by a wildfire, that is OK to do. It is OK to be concerned and worried. All of those are normal, healthy emotions. But if you become immobilized by your grief or your depression or your anxiety, just as you would do for yourself, you should get help. Because we need you, planet Earth needs you too. I mean, we’re getting a little bit more metaphysical than I expected. I think it’s important, though, because I never want to tell someone not to feel what they’re feeling because I think that’s not an appropriate thing to do. I wouldn’t say ‘You shouldn’t feel grief. You should feel hope.’ We’re all more motivated by different things. I have close friends who are motivated by anger, others who are motivated by worry. But there is some good research on this that, collectively, if people are only afraid or or they’re only sad then they can shut down (on average, not everybody but most people broadly). You have to give them a sense of agency; kind of a hopeful worry, right? I guess if you want to use that phrase. That our actions matter, it will always be worth it to fight for the things that we care about and everyone can pitch in from wherever you’re at. Those are the messages that I hope that people will take from this kind of work and also that it can feel very much like we’re just stumbling in the dark, or going into the future with a blindfold on. That we don’t know our way. I take great comfort in the fact that the fossil record is like a blueprint. It’s literally showing us, it’s like planet Earth left us a whole series of clues about what to do to get us out of this. What works, what doesn’t work. We have that. Those are tools we have at our disposal and to me, that is incredibly empowering. Whether you’re motivated by stubbornness like I am, or whatever it is that you need to get you off of the the couch of your climate grief or whatever, do that thing. If you feel like it’s too late or it’s time to give up, the science shows that’s not true and we need you.
Speaker 1 [01:00:13] That is a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much, Jaquelyn, for that stirring call to action and for helping me once again process my climate grief, my biodiversity grief. I can’t thank you enough for coming on the show. Where can folks find you and find out more about your work?
Speaker 2 [01:00:32] You can find me on Twitter @JaquelynGill and I also host a podcast called ‘Warm Regards.’ So if you enjoy these kinds of conversations, you can find us there as well. Wherever you listen to your podcasts, isn’t that what we all say?
Speaker 1 [01:00:50] That’s what we all have to say. That’s the podcaster’s curse: to say that goddamn phrase.
Speaker 2 [01:00:56] But we all know that! Why do we say – Anyway, whatever
Speaker 1 [01:00:59] People still ask ‘Well, where can I hear your podcast?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, what app do you use?’ OK, thank you so much for being on the show.
Speaker 2 [01:01:10] Thank you so much for having me, and I’ll send you a bill for the therapy.
Speaker 1 [01:01:17] Thank you. Well, thank you once again to Jaquelyn Gill for coming on the show and thank you for listening. If you want to support the show, hey, buy one of our incredible guest’s books at factuallypod.com/books. When you do, you will be supporting not just this show but also your local bookstore through our bookshop.org shop. Once again, that you URL is factuallypod.com/books. I want to thank our producers: Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. Our incredible engineer; Andrew Carson. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I recorded this very episode on. You can find me online at AdamConover.net or @AdamConover wherever you get your social media. Thank you so much for listening and we will see you next week on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books