During the months of coronavirus lockdown, I’ve been eating more from the wild. I haven’t been working as much, there have been shortages of things I want to eat and I simply won’t wear the mandatory mask to the grocery store. Things haven’t been dire though and I certainly haven’t gone hungry. I just did what many have traditionally done during times of economic hardship: eat more of the plants and animals.
I’m not the only one doing it either. I believe I’ve watched a blossoming forager’s movement grow online and those foragers have certainly had more time on their hands to get their hands dirty. Several times, while following fishermen’s groups, I’ve seen men swear that the fish and wildlife regulations would be out the window if they needed to feed their families. I heard more reports of people wantonly bagging the trout that the State of Pennsylvania dispensed for us all to share this year.
This is natural – it’s what poor people naturally do to provide sustenance for themselves and their children when times are tough. And on the macro scale, poor nations turn their trees into charcoal and eat their animals.
It seems to be a matter of historical record as well that people have always eaten more of nature’s bounty when times have been tough. Stories of necessitated foraging during the deprivations incurred in America’s Civil War are numerous, especially in the south. Environmental historian Daniel Botkin mentions in his 1995 book “Our Natural History (The Lessons of Lewis and Clark)” that the economic downturn of 1873 exacerbated the slaughter of America’s buffalo herds. Aldo Leopold recorded the depredation of the Wisconsin countryside during the Great Depression. It’s commonly known that there have been times and places in America’s history in which an extra squirrel for the stew pot can’t be declined.
I knew a young lady from Belarus who loved to go out and follow the trails of the Pennsylvania countryside, learning all the plants and animals. She was delighted by even the most mundane of our forest creatures, such as the chipmunks.
“We don’t have any of these in Belarus,” I remember her once informing me. “We don’t really have any small animals like this.”
And if one knows anything of the history of this part of eastern Europe, this doesn’t really seem odd. Belarus has been economically marginal for a very long time and has participated in some of the great 20th Century eastern European famines and wars. It goes without saying that good conservation practices take a back seat when tomorrow’s only meal is on the line.
In Africa, it has been notoriously difficult to reign in the wanton slaughter of endangered wildlife by indigenous peoples even in Africa’s great parks. Here too, one is willing to risk even the potentially lethal force of wardens when one has not eaten for days.
In the west we enjoy the tradition of wealth passed on by earlier generations and this prosperity is hardly the accident of good fortune that all too many environmentalists, politicians and media figures would have us believe. In the United States we benefit from vibrant capitalism, the freest economic system ever proven to work. This has brought us unprecedented prosperity from our most prosperous citizens to those who live crowded into our worst slums. Think how many people have historically risked everything for the chance to immigrate and live in an American slum. American work and housing would be better than what they’d had and upward mobility was always far more likely in a society that rewarded individual excellence.
American capitalism saved the whales by finding and developing substitutes for whale oil such as, importantly, petroleum. Earlier though, coal began to save our forests by offering a more energy-dense energy source than trees. Petroleum has done so even more effectively and our forests have returned on a grand scale. We’re told all too often that desperate measures must be taken to forestall deforestation but each year nowadays, we’re a little closer than we’ve ever been to enjoying the primeval forests of 1600.
Plastics too have reduced reliance on wood manufacture. And saving the trees is no small thing. Intact forest means more homes for birds. As a forest ages, the complexity of its understory is enhanced and micro-habitats suitable for so much of our native fauna is created. Trees fall, often already displaying spacious hollow interiors and wood rats, fishers and even bears don’t hesitate to move in. Amphibians, particularly the salamanders, thrive in mature forest. The streams that drain such forests are typically healthy and cool, full of brook trout, the right kind of feeders for healthy rivers. Such is the situation of the eastern United States today, more often than not.
We enjoy enormously cleaner air today than we did forty years ago. Our Appalachian mountaintops are generally forested though they would have likely been clear cut a hundred years ago. Our rivers are homes for species of fish nearly lost to history a century ago. We ride bicycles along nearly flat rail trails winding through the foothills (the gifts of industry), generally surrounded by green growth from lichens to lofty sycamores. Even in the places we live, we’re aware of what poisons the earth and waters today and far less of those pollutants are heading down into the nearest gullies and rivers below. We can afford modern wastewater treatment in our rich nation. Also, our environmental enforcers are less susceptible to bribery – they’re already paid well.
But the greatest good done for the environment by wealth is simply the enabling of every day people to care about their environment. We don’t typically have to decide between sustenance and ecological integrity. Here in the United States, we’ve proven not only that we can have both but that the two are naturally complimentary. And even among our own population, it’s the wealthy who push for environmental change, not the poor.
No one would claim that the environment of the United States is without problems. But we should all beware the voices that tell us the environment is nothing but problems. We should believe our own eyes, recognize the enormous good transpiring all around us and then perhaps go on to question the motives of the doom-sayers.