“I am not what you call a civilized man! I have done with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right of appreciating. I do not therefore obey its laws, and I desire you never to allude to them before me again!” 

                                                -CAPTAIN NEMO, 20,000 leagues under the sea, Jules Verne

Captain Nemo was the one great fictional hero of my childhood. I envied the freedom he had, not just to roam the submarine realm, but his complete detachment from the insanity of his species. He had the freedom to choose between siding with people and siding with the beast, and he understood that the world of the free and honest wilderness was preferable to the contradictions and deceptions of the homo corpus iuris civilis or that anthropocentric body of law as written by human beings.

Nemo understood that the one great attribute that has allowed humankind to rise to dominance over nature is the same attribute that will someday destroy us: our remarkable ability to adapt to changing environments. It is a skill that has allowed us to survive the last great ice age. By virtue of our adaptive abilities, we have peopled all of the continents of the earth. We have exterminated any species that has gotten in our way and reformed the very landscape itself, where it has not conformed to our desires.

In our quest for territorial conquest, we have anthropocentrized the planet and brought it into accordance with the unilateral laws of humankind. We have stolen the homes of a hundred million species, and we have taken it all for ourselves. There is no spot too deep, too dry, too low, too wet, too high, too forsaken, for us not to invade, and no place we have not sought to develop for our profit and our pleasure.

We have long forgotten that humans without animals and humans without plants are humans without anything at all. It is the interdependence of all species, plants, and animals that allows us to participate in the mystery of life. Every extinction, every extirpation, every loss of habitat loosens our hold on the eco-reality of survival and brings us closer to the day of our own demise.

There are certain skills that we possess as a species that allow us to adapt easily — perhaps too easily. Because of these skills, we have weathered wars, famines, plagues, natural disasters, and personal tragedies. We survive.

The first skill is our ability to forget easily. Being able to forget makes it easier to get on with a new life. The second skill is being able to live in the present without giving too much thought to long-term consequences. This allows us to take what we need now, when and where we need it. These skills stood us in good stead when we lived in a world where our numbers were limited, and when resources were bountiful. If we killed all the animals in one area or ate all the plants, we could simply move on to the next hunting and gathering ground. Eventually, the habitat that we had plundered would rejuvenate itself.

A third skill was one that we shared with wolves and hyenas: The ability to hunt and cooperate in packs. For us, the packs became tribes, and today these tribes have evolved into nations. The problem is that tribalism does not work when there are no more frontiers. There no longer exists the possibility of moving on to greener pastures. The pastures are all occupied. Yet although we have encompassed the globe with our numbers, we have retained a belief in the separateness of our cultures. This separateness is the breeding ground of continuing conflict and prejudice. We do not see one species of Homo sapiens; we see hundreds of competing subspecies of the same.

On planet Earth today, we have divided ourselves by colored flags, and we have drawn ludicrous geometric lines upon our lands and seas that impose barriers between people. We require passes to cross these lines and to add insult to injury, we must purchase these passes from the government to enable us to travel across lines that do not exist within the natural world. 

When we cross one imaginary line, we enter another large prison where we must conform to the peculiarities of law imposed by another group of humans who wish to exercise control over us.

This is why I love being at sea. Only upon the briny deep, beyond the stench of land and man, is there any remnant of freedom remaining. On land, we can only exist, and we have little choice but to conform to the rules imposed for survival.

Forced to stay in a confined habitat, we begin to adapt to its diminishment. We begin to accept that the impoverishment of our environment is, well, just the way it is, and because we so easily forget, we begin to believe that this is the way it always has been. In perpetuating this evolving myth, we make ourselves believe that our lives are richer and more secure than those of our ancestors, and we also project a richer, more comfortable life for our children’s children.

An example: If this were the year 1965 and I were to address a group of people from that era with a prediction that in thirty years they would be buying water in bottles, they would have thought I was nuts. If I were to further tell them that the water would cost more than the equivalent amount of gasoline, they would have laughed me from the room. Yet we have come to accept that this is so. Water is purchased in bottles and jugs in an industry that realizes billions of dollars in profits each year. It has become more valuable than gasoline. We adapted to it, without any conscious awareness of doing so. At the same time, we have forgotten the era of clear water, water that could be consumed straight from the tap, from a well, or a mountain stream.

There was once a time when we did not have to think about what poisons were in the meat and fish that people ate, or what kind of pesticides, herbicides, and radiation our vegetables were exposed to. We have forgotten that era also.

And so we continue, accepting less and less, and believing it to be more and more. We have replaced quality with quantity. At the same time, the very quantity of human lives on this planet has cheapened the quality of them.

For those who can’t accept this and can see no escape from it, the only path left open is frustration, anger, or insanity. We dismiss each incident as an aberration forgetting that the aberrations are becoming more and more the norm. The daily violence to nonhuman life, animals, vegetation, and to habitats, is so widespread and so common that we have accepted it as part of the environment that we have adapted ourselves to. We have forgotten the myriad of living things that our one species has destroyed and vanquished from the planet Earth forever.

We have forgotten that beluga whales dwelt in Long Island Sound a mere 300 years ago. Today a few hundred beluga cling to life in a tributary of the St. Lawrence River, the remainder confined to the high Arctic where they continue to be hunted. We have forgotten that walrus once hauled out and mated upon the shores of Nova Scotia and Maine. Today not a single walrus survives in the Atlantic. We have forgotten that the polar bear came by that name recently. Two hundred years ago it was simply the white bear and commonly found throughout eastern Canada and down into New England. Now it survives in the northern polar region only, hence the name.

We all know of the extermination of the tens of millions of bison on the Western Plains, but how many remember the eastern bison that migrated in vast herds between the Great Lakes and Georgia? It was bigger than its western cousin, a rich and beautiful coal-black in color. The last great herd was slaughtered in the White Mountains of Union County in Pennsylvania during the fierce winter of 1799-1800 as they huddled helplessly in the deep snow. The following year, a bull, cow, and calf were seen in the same county. A farmer promptly shot the bull. It was the last sighting ever in that state. The last one seen in West Virginia was killed in 1815. A cow and calf were seen in 1825. They were both shot and that was the very last sighting. The once mighty herds of Bison bison pennylsvanicus were declared extinct.

We have forgotten that there was a species called the Oregon bison. It was a larger animal than the plains bison, with wider, straighter horns. In 1850 the Bison bison oreganus was declared extinct. Yet today in the State of Oregon there are very few people even aware that the Oregon buffalo ever existed.

In our oceans, the animals fared just as poorly. The most amazing sea cow of them all, the Goliath of manatees, the leviathan of dugongs, the Steller’s sea cow, was slaughtered within a few years of its discovery by the Russians. Gone in 1767, and today all but forgotten.

Few people have heard of the sea mink. This once-plentiful resident of the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia was a full twenty-five centimeters longer than the common mink. The pelt was thicker, and that was its death sentence. The last pelt of Mustela macrodon was sold to a fur buyer in Jones Port, Maine, in 1880. It was never seen again.

The Atlantic gray whale, once called the scrag whale, was exterminated so efficiently and so thoughtlessly that for many years afterward, the whale was considered a myth: the slaughter had been forgotten. Before the gray disappeared, the Basques had obliterated the last of the Biscayan right whales. The Atlantic, once called the Sea of Whales, has witnessed the decimation of the gentle giants during the last few centuries. Yet the killing continues as the Norwegians slaughter Minke whales, the Faeroese slaughter pilot whales, and the Icelanders kill hundreds of endangered fin whales. 

And lest we forget the fish, it should be noted that humans have eradicated hundreds of species during the last century alone. Most people have never heard of them. Long forgotten are the names, Parras pupfish, Utah Lake sculpin, Lake Titicaca orestias, harelip sucker, thicktail chub, or New Zealand grayling. None of us will ever see one. Yet even when fish we consider commercially valuable hover on the brink of extinction, we fret about and look for scapegoats. Tomorrow will most likely see the complete disappearance of the Bluefin tuna, the orange roughy, the Coho salmon, and so many more. We’ll blame it on seals, on birds, on the weather, on changing climatic conditions, on anything but ourselves.

We go toward our demise like innocents, absolved of guilt, comforted with the belief that either God or technology will be our salvation. If we don’t slay directly, we destroy indirectly with toxic pollution. The much-beloved orca, so belatedly adored after years of persecution, is not safe from the human befouling of our oceans. The entire population of orca whales in the Pacific Northwest is now threatened by pollution and the numbers are falling rapidly. And what do we do? We sit on the beach and count them, learning to recognize every dorsal fin, scribbling notes of their behavior into a pad, and beseeching the government to do something to protect them. Yet very few people actually lift a finger to stop the destruction.

The great, late, misanthropic writer Edward Abbey once wrote: “It is not enough to understand the natural world: The point is to defend and preserve it.” And yet we who do not hesitate to slaughter tens of thousands of people in defense of oil wells will do nothing at all to defend the wild.

Why? Because it is an abstraction to us. Nature is not part of our system of values. If it were, we would fight for it; in fact, we would not hesitate to kill to defend it.

Don’t be shocked. For thousands of years the species Homo sapiens has killed, or to be more accurate, has conducted massive wholesale slaughter in the name of our beliefs, all of which encompass anthropocentric values. We have slaughtered millions in the name of the Prince of Peace and justified it by writing in a book that our various Gods saw as good.

It was this world that Nemo sought to escape, and the anthropocentric values of his world have been magnified a thousand-fold in our present-day world. Verne wrote his classic many years before the last century, a hundred years of the most bloody and cruel wars in history when hundreds of millions of normal human beings were butchered by other ”normal” human beings. He wrote it at a time when the human population numbered under two billion, when the most ruthless serial killer of his century, Jack the Ripper, butchered a mere six.

Six billion now, and yet there were only three billion of us in 1950. Shall we make that twelve billion in 2050 and twenty-four billion in 2100? The laws of ecology dictate that we will not. The Law of Finite Growth states that there are limits to growth. These limits for us are the carrying capacities of the ecosystems that support us. Presently, as our numbers increase, we literally steal carrying capacity from other species, thus escalating rates of species extinction. This leads us to the Law of Biodiversity: the strength of an ecosystem is dependent upon the diversity of species within it. This law ties into a third law, the Law of Interdependence, which states that we are completely and utterly dependent upon the existence of other species for our own survival.

Throughout the entire history of life on this planet, no species, and I mean absolutely no species, has ever survived unless these three basic laws of ecology have been adhered to. 

Overpopulation leads to loss of diversity and diminished habitat which leads to fewer and fewer species and functional ecosystems to support us, and all of this leads to a crash.

And what is a crash? Just another abstraction perhaps, but one with frightening ramifications. It means starvation, brutal competition for resources, pandemics, thirst and the brutalization of humanity inward upon itself instead of the present outward display that we think little about because the victims are from that abstract biocentric realm where all the other species dwell.

The poet Leonard Cohen once wrote, “We are lost among our suffering, and our pleasures are the seal.” We have created a whole industry to divert our attention away from our real threats. Keep us entertained, keep us amused, but don’t let us face the reality that in the end our greatest enemy will prove to be ourselves. Even the reality of the internet will collapse into irrelevancy when the very capacity of the Earth to support us is vanquished.

This was where Nemo was going. He was returning to the world where the laws of ecology still held meaning, and he was doing what Ed Abbey had advised, he was defending nature against humanity. In the end, he failed, and perhaps those of us who follow in the wake of the Nautilus will also fail, but if we do, at least we will not go the way of T. S. Eliot’s straw men: we will go with a bang and not a whimper.

As a biocentric conservationist, I am not as much concerned with what the world will be like a hundred years from now as I am concerned with what it will be like a thousand, and a million years from now. What is a millennium to the Earth, a mere blink of time? One thing I am certain of is that the Earth, her lands and oceans, will abide long after the memory of humankind has been removed without trace. Our stone edifices will crumble, our iron structures will rust into dust, our great works of art will rot and decay, and our music will fade.

The only legacy that will last is not in what we can create but in what we do not destroy. And thus, like Nemo, I share the belief that the most noble endeavor that one can pursue is the preservation of species and biodiversity. A species of bird or insect saved from ourselves in the present may survive to evolve into a continuum of life tomorrow. That is an achievement that will last eons.

Captain Nemo knew that his alliance was with the creatures of the sea and the laws of ecology. And thus he rejected the law of human beings, that lex scripta of nonsense that puts profit and property before life, and places the values of nations over nature. That was Nemo’s law, and perhaps, just perhaps, he was right. And all the rest of us, all seven and a half billion of us, are wrong. It’s worth thinking about, anyway.

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