Human beings, oaks, seeing forests and trees

A recent article in Science Now describes a very interesting situation regarding oak trees in North America. Based on a recent survey of plant life in several forests that were surveyed in detail in 1950, researchers concluded that (1) oak trees are in decline; (2) smaller plant species that depend on the oak forest environment are fading out in favor of intrusive species; (3) human activity is the primary cause of this change. There really shouldn't be anything all that surprising about that, it sounds like just another human-caused environmental tragedy in the offing, where human beings upset the natural order.

However, the concept of "natural order" is something that pulls random philosophizers' chains. What the heck is "natural order" if it doesn't include human activity? Aren't humans "natural"?

Well, the story of the oaks is a pretty interesting example of why the idea of natural order is overly simplistic.

It turns out that one of the major mechanisms whereby human activity is killing off the oak forests is the control of forest fires. Oaks, it seems, need fire to succeed. They are capable of surviving most forest fires, and after a fire, less fire-resistant vegetation, including maple trees, their primary competitor for lifegiving solar radiation, is thinned out, allowing the hardier oaks to thrive. This is also a reasonably familiar theme--we have heard, for example, that fire control in the West causes the buildup of thick forests filled with flammable underbrush, so that when a fire does come, it is much more difficult to control. Once again, human beings, messing with the natural order.

But here is where the article spins into random philosophizing territory: it turns out that Indians, over hundreds of years, had depended on the oaks for acorns, one of their primary food sources. No dummies, they figured out about oaks and fires, so for hundreds of years, they had been deliberately setting fires in North American forests to bolster the oaks, thereby increasing their own food supply.

Therefore, the preponderance of oaks in North American forests is the product of human intervention in the first place!

So where is that natural order argument now? The fact is, when it comes to oaks versus maples in North America, we can't see the forest for the trees. Who knows which species would naturally be dominant (i.e., without humans)? Probably, it would vary over the centuries, perhaps with variations in rainfall and fires. Probably, oaks would be far more limited, on average, than they were when Europeans arrived.

It seems to me that it does no good to talk about abstractions like "natural order". It's just a little too close to "divinely ordained" for my taste. I think that humans should do things to benefit humanity, and fuck natural order arguments. The truth is, humans can not survive as a species in an unfriendly environment, and so doing things that would make big changes should be done only after careful scrutiny and with great care.

That is, if we want more oaks, and after adequate study we conclude that no great harm would be caused by selective burns in oak forests, then why not do it? On the other hand, maybe maples are pretty cool trees too, and so maybe burning wouldn't be such a great idea. Either way, let's make the decision after figuring out what we want as human beings, and what effects a certain endeavor will have on us as a species, without worrying about the abstract "natural order".

Greg Shenaut

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