When Rodney King uttered his now-famous plea for understanding in Los
Angeles in 1992, he was speaking of human relationships, trying to calm the
rioting that swirled around his beating by the Los Angeles Police
Department. It’s too bad he didn’t copyright the phrase; it is so useful in
so many situations. For instance, I’m writing this in Sacramento across the
street from the state capitol, a building now swirling with protesters,
lobbyists, and all kinds of citizens bemoaning the severe budget cuts
looming in the wake of voter rejection of propositions 1A through 1F. Can’t
we all get along? Can’t we decide through rational conversation what we’d
like our government to do, how to pay for it, and move on? Apparently not.
Human beings often don’t get along very well with each other, and so we have
wars and lawyers, riots and revolutions. We also don’t get along well with
our fellow travelers on the earth, particularly those creatures that are
large, taste good, or eat meat. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond describes the evidence linking human migration to North
America and Australia with the extinction of most large or carnivorous land
mammals on those continents. In more modern times, here in California we
have pushed wolves and grizzly bears to extinction. The last grizzly bear in
California was shot in 1922, leaving only the one on our state flag.
As this issue of Coast & Ocean makes clear, our inability to
coexist extends to our oceans. Whales, sharks, sea turtles, tuna, manatees,
swordfish, have all been hunted, fished, or casually killed "by accident"
when they collide with boats, nets, or other human activities. So prevalent
is our tendency to extirpate the largest creatures first and then move on
that scientists have coined a phrase for it: "fishing down the food chain."
Eaten all the big fish? Go after the little ones . . . and don’t worry if a
few sea turtles get in the way.
Over the long haul of geological time, species come and go. There have been
repeated mass extinctions in the life of our planet; the most recent one
allowed mammals to emerge from the shadows of dinosaurs, and thus led to us.
I accept that some creatures will go extinct in the normal course of events.
What I have never understood is the casual indifference we so often show
toward the rest of creation. Why exactly did we exterminate the passenger
pigeon, and push both bison and the right whale to the brink? We do not
tolerate hunters who cut off one leg of a deer, leaving it to die in the
forest, but we seem fine with slicing off the fins of sharks and tossing
them back into the water to bleed to death.
I am not exactly an animal-rights guy, and I am certainly no vegetarian. In
fact, I like venison and shark, and have even eaten turtle soup. Animals eat
other animals and plants all the time. It’s the way nature works, and we are
as much a product of evolution as anything else that has ever grown, swum,
slithered, crawled, or walked the earth. Lions, however, don’t eat all of
the antelopes, and orcas don’t eat all of the seals. Humans, on the other
hand, have displayed a tendency to eat all of the cod, all of the whales,
and exterminate anything that competes with us for food or just seems like
it might get in our way. I just don’t get it.
Maybe I never grew up. Children are fascinated by nature, animals in
particular. It is perfectly natural to be fascinated by creatures that walk
the earth like us, going about their business, but are not us. All through
history animals have been imbued with human characteristics, played key
roles in mythology and religion, and continue to be characters in stories.
(See Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo, etc.) Somewhere along the line
we lose our fascination and start to think of them only as food or
competition, or both. I’m not sure why that happens, but the global
consequences have been severe. We go from living with the animals and plants
in a state of wonderment and joy, to viewing nature as merely something for
our use. Even worse, we assume that nature is limitless and can be exploited
endlessly without consequences.
This last assumption has done great damage, nowhere more so than in our
oceans. Until very recently in California, the law and policy said, in
essence, "Take as much as you possibly can out of the ocean. Leave only
enough to come back next year, and assume that the supply of fish is
limitless." The groundfish collapse of the past decade proved all of this
false, as surely as the cod collapse on the East Coast did in the '80s. We
now know better, although knowledge is taking a long time to make its way
into policy and practice.
Can’t we all just get along? I wish we could. It seems no easier for humans
to get along with each other than it is for us to adopt a different ethic
toward land and water, one that leads us to take only what we need, to waste
nothing, and return enough to make sure that our children inherit no less
than we did. I don’t have a good answer for Rodney King, but he sure asked a
Sam Schuchat is the executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy.