A while back I was out running the trail near my home. Part of the trail runs alongside an increasingly busy major north south roadway and a stretch of open-flowing irrigation canal. On the far side of the canal a field and remnant forest including a number of huge several hundred-year-old Ponderosa Pines, usually teem with ducks, geese, hawks, and a couple of resident Kingfishers. The place was likely an old homestead as you could see the remains of low rock walls and even one patch of flowering crab apple and lilac trees. The flowering trees out in the midst of the big pines and junipers always made me smile and I wondered at the story behind how they grew there. This past summer the place was home to flocks of lesser goldfinch and cedar waxwings. A few weeks ago, I took a little different route through the field and noticed a large four-point buck deer lying in the tall grass. He had already seen me. I stopped. Then Freya, my large enthusiastic hound dog, noticed and took off like a shot toward him. The magnificent creature quickly stood up and shook his antlers at her and my dog veered off like she’d hit a force field. I laughed and we quickly gave the big deer his space.
A week ago, I went out for a run and found that the field and forest were gone. The huge old trees gone. The birds gone. No deer in sight. Instead, just bulldozers and a giant track hoe leveling and flattening the earth, no doubt preparing it for a bunch of new houses. We call this development. In fact, we call all human construction development. It’s a misnomer. There is a qualitative difference between development and growth. Development is about making things better not just bigger. Growth is just growth.
I live in one of those areas in the U.S. that is mushrooming right now due to its high quality of life and abundant outdoor recreation opportunities. The expansion and construction rate is staggering. I realize that in some ways this adds prosperity and opportunity to these communities. Even the increasing diversity of people moving into all those new homes is beneficial. However, the negative trade-offs are rarely taken seriously.
There are two layers to the expansion of the human built environment that we should be very concerned about. The more obvious is the erosion of quality of life as traffic mushrooms, urban wildlife vanish, noise pollution ratchets ever higher and the very outdoor recreation opportunities we loved are no longer available. That’s all happening in my home town as I type.
The much bigger, and more serious issue, is the scale of human spread, and impact, on the planet as a whole. There is a staggering trend under way that few people know about, though every single one of us should, if we want to have a livable, vibrant planet. According to a landmark 2018 study by the National Academy of Sciences, by weight humans and our livestock species now make up 96 percent of all mammal life on the planet. Humans ourselves account for about 36 percent of the biomass of all mammals and our domesticated livestock, mostly cows and pigs, account for the other 60 percent. This means that human expansion and our mass cultivation of livestock has reduced wild mammals to only 4 percent of all mammalian life on Earth. Similarly, the biomass of poultry is about three times higher than that of wild birds. This is a profound reshaping of the composition of living creatures on our planet. We tell children’s stories filled with lions and deer and frogs and hedgehogs but a more accurate depiction would be stories populated with caged cows, pigs and chickens. Is this really how we want our world to look and function?
Between our cities and suburbs, livestock facilities, grazing lands and agricultural sites, fisheries and fishing vessels and off-shore oil platforms, the human built environment has pushed wild creatures and habitats to the margins of the planet.
At some point humanity has to stop expanding our consumption and displacement of non-human and wild nature. After all, physical space on this planet is a finite resource.
Of course, there are many places in the world where humans are living in very poor, even unsanitary conditions, and improvement in those built environments is a must. That means, in some respects, the burden of responsibility to voluntarily check unbridled growth lies on the shoulders and hearts of wealthier communities. These are the communities that must ask the questions, “How much is enough?” and “What does actual qualitative community development look, sound, and feel like?”.
Are we made better when another patch of important urban habitat is razed to set up more cookie-cutter McMansions that pump money toward the “developer?” Are we made better when our neighborhoods become less walkable and bikeable due to never-ending streams of cars and trucks? Are we made richer when bird song can no longer be heard over the sound of rock-crushers, back-up alarms, and bulldozers?
I wonder where the waxwings will go now and if the big buck will find a quiet place to rest. To paraphrase western author Edward Abby, growth for the sake of growth or greed is the ideology of the cancer cell. Earth is not going to be a great place for humans if there’s no place on it for non-humans. How much is enough?