Politics & Policy

Nature Lovers, Nature Fetishists

Stop feeding the squirrels.

Cosmo doesn’t like the National Mall. It’s surprising that such a deeply patriotic dog would take an active dislike of the eternal home of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials or of that towering symbol of our phallocracy (as the feminoids call it), the Washington Monument. I was down there with Cosmo the Wonderdog the other day because I had to pick up the missus from work for an afternoon appointment. She works at the Justice Department — with her head and heart wired together for some full-tilt boogie for freedom and justice, I might add — and since the Mall is right there, I figured me and the boy could give the squirrels in our neighborhood a break.

And that’s where the trouble began. You see, the squirrels on the Mall defy the natural order of things. In a more judgmental age — i.e., one with its priorities in better order — we would call these creatures satanic. It turns out that the Mall squirrels have been hand-fed by tourists for so long, they’ve lost their fear of humans. That would be bad enough, but these rats in fuzzy pajamas are too dumb to realize that dogs aren’t humans (longtime readers know of my theory that rats put on squirrel costumes during the day — that’s why you never see squirrels at night, and see so few rats during the day). The little buggers kept coming right up to Cosmo, expecting him to give them some popcorn or maybe a piece of Twizzler.

Do you have any idea how insulting that is for a dog like Cosmo? It’s like Yasser Arafat asking Ariel Sharon for his daughter’s phone number. It’s like Peter Singer asking the Pope to blurb his new book. It’s like Sid Blumenthal asking to get into Heaven as if he had spent his entire life fixing the broken wings of little birds. It’s like the French army offering to protect the United States.

And what really rankled was that I had to keep Cosmo on a leash. Cosmo comes pretty close to catching squirrels under normal circumstances, i.e., when they see him from 20 feet away and soil their little fuzzy Jacobin culottes (which just shows you how unprincipled they are, since Jacobins aren’t supposed to wear culottes) and flee in terror. Not only is there no sport in grabbing and thrashing a squirrel who basically jumps into your mouth, but I don’t actually want Coz to tear open one of these woolly packets of pestilence — especially not in front of a bunch of Westchester fifth graders on a school trip.

Cosmo’s response to being punished for the wicked ways of squirrels was very similar to Mr. Burns’s attitude when he lamented, under very different circumstances: “This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That’s democracy for you.” (Which is why I told Cosmo, “You are noble and poetic in defeat, kiddo.”).

Anyway, I bring all of this up for three reasons. First, a number of readers have requested more updates on Cosmo (and if the few of you who defy the 11th commandment of “love me, love my dog” don’t like it, you can go sulk in a corner and pet your cats or gerbils, or whatever it is you people do). Second, a friend of mine is dropping off Cosmo’s friend Chester (a Chesapeake Bay retriever) to stay at my place for the weekend, so I have dogs on the brain.

Ideological Indians

And third, because it seemed like a worthwhile segue into an abbreviated discussion of nature.

Over at The Atlantic’s website, there’s a fascinating interview with Charles Mann on the subject of the “pristine myth.” Mann wrote an excellent cover story for the March issue of the Atlantic titled “1491″ — which, as you can probably deduce from the title, was about North America before the pale penis people arrived. It picks up where Shepard Krech’s wonderful 1999 book The Ecological Indian: Myth and History left off. If you’re looking to do some heavier thinking than this column is providing today I won’t be offended if you leave now to check things out over there.

Anyway, one of the points addressed in the interview is E. O. Wilson’s concept of a “keystone species,” which he defines as a species which “affects the survival and abundance of many other species.” There are plenty of keystone species, when you think about it. But the most important and obvious one is ours. Human beings are this planet’s keystone species, and we have been for thousands and thousands of years. Because of us, mastodons and woolly mammoths do quite poorly while rats and deer thrive. Cockroaches and cows, pigeons and dogs rely on us — perhaps not for their survival, but certainly for their current population levels and their lives as they know them.

This has been true for all human societies, including the folks who were living here in 1491. Indians — or native indigenous peoples or whatever you want to call them — were not the Rousseauvian noble savages at peace with the planet that pretty much every kiddie and college textbook claims. In fact, it’s a bit racist to claim that the humans who were here left no impact whatsoever on the environment (though, of course, it’s never racist to say things about ethnic groups that the ethnic groups want to hear). Because to assert that would be to say, in effect, that the Indians were somehow less human than pretty much everyone else. In fact, it’s a bit racist to say “Indians did this” or “Indians believed that” too. Because “Indian” actually describes a huge variety of peoples and cultures who held myriad beliefs — often in direct opposition to one another.

My favorite way to point this out is by noting that in Dances with Wolves — or pretty much any other movie featuring propagandistic treatment of Indians — there were good Indians and bad Indians. Were the Indians who were fighting with whitey any less Indian than the “good Indians”? You can’t pick and choose which tribes represent what Indians were “really like,” any more than you can say that the French are real Europeans and the Italians aren’t.

Anyway, there is now incontrovertible proof that the Indians were humans. And what I mean by this is that, as humans, they affected the environment here just as Europeans affected the environment in Europe. That’s what humans do. Deal with it.

Just last month, for one small example, anthropologists excavated an ancient bison-kill site outside Fort Collins, Colo. They found proof — once again — that some Indians liked to kill huge numbers of buffalo in order to cull the choicest cuts. The Ecological Indian is full of similar examples: For instance, some tribes considered it disrespectful to the beaver spirit (shh) not to kill every beaver they encountered.

Mann and others argue, with ample evidence, that the prairies, rain forests, and ecosystems of the coastal areas were, to a significant extent, human creations long before the great migration of mayonnaise-eaters ever took place. The “pristine myth” holds that the Americas “were an almost unmarked, even Edenic land,” says Mann. And that’s just bogus.

This isn’t any great indictment of Indians — Europeans can hardly throw stones on this score. The problem is one of ideology. By making the environmental nobility of Indians an ideological fact, environmentalists are capable of keeping the dream alive that humans don’t “need” to affect the environment.

This Rousseauvian nostalgia for a past that never was is at least as much of an impediment to environmental progress as it is an engine of it. Environmentalists — at least the honest ones — will argue that even if this utopian view of Indians is unrealistic, it’s still useful, because it maintains an ideal of a society that lives in harmony with nature (a very, very conservative argument, if you think about it).

But the problem is that this idea brings with it all sorts of baggage. Because Indians were replaced by white male capitalists (to truncate a very long story), it’s assumed that white male capitalists must be bad for the environment. As one textbook puts it:

As human activity interferes with the earth’s capacity to maintain a maximum range of tolerances for life, history traces the roots of degrading activity to: the advent of agriculture and the rise of civilization; the Judeo-Christian view of human beings as having domination over the earth; the industrial and scientific revolutions; and the rise of capitalism.

The problem is that this is largely bunk. The more economically advanced (i.e., the more successfully capitalistic), the better a society is at protecting its environment. This is an indisputable fact. But because we worship the prototypical anticapitalist poster-savages as being somehow better at protecting the environment, we reject all sorts of policies that would make the world safer and cleaner — because they might make some roadside Indian cry.

The trick for humans — Americans among them — is to figure out how to improve the plight of humans to the point where we can afford the luxury of not only worrying about the environment, but doing something about it (this is why America’s environment is vastly better than it was 30 years ago). I hope the whole world gets so rich. In the meantime, stop feeding the squirrels.

I gotta go. Chester’s here and they’ve figured out how to use my wife’s computer to order toys from Petco (after all, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog).


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