The Noah Option

Ron Maxwell

Most Rappahannock residents, nature lovers as we are, understand the growing threats to wildlife and the wilderness required to sustain it.

While outright shooting, trapping and other direct means of extermination have been unleashed on the large fauna of North America for centuries, it’s the ongoing encroachment of development and “progress: which has accelerated the habitat destruction which hastens the ultimate death knell for our wild animal cousins.

In 2016 the biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson published what many consider his most important book — a treatise on saving the planet entitled Half-Earth.

Wilson’s remarkable book reminds us that every living thing is, like we humans, the result of millions of years of evolution. We have all arrived here together, the perfect possum, the perfect bear, the perfect fox, the (almost) perfect human. Now however, we are living in a precarious moment of evolution, wherein our species, Homo Sapiens, (supposedly the “smart” species) is recklessly and mindlessly on course to destroy the rest of life on earth. Not by means of a nuclear war (which would only accelerate the catastrophe) but by consuming, killing, poisoning and crowding out all wildlife everywhere, including in the oceans.

Is this an exaggeration?

At the current rate of killing (an elephant murdered on average every fifteen minutes) the African elephant will be extinct within seven years. One species of rhinoceros became extinct a year ago; another will soon follow. Mind boggling though it may be, even giraffes are being shot – for sport.

We’ve been inculcated over time to uncritically accept and to use euphemisms for mass murder: we harvest, we cull, we manage, we control. Bird species in particular are in steep decline as clear cutting and unsupervised ‘selective’ cutting have drastically reduced their myriad habitat. Not only in Amazonia and the Malaysian archipelago, but all across North America as well.

Our predicament is deeply imbedded in our genes. Our species is wired to think in terms of the immediate future. Simply put, “How do we get from today to tomorrow?” It’s how we’ve survived and thrived over the millennia. It’s how we avoided the sabre-tooth tiger or endured the numbing cold of the high latitudes. But now our incredible reproductive success in passing along our genes to future generations blinds us to the longer-range damage we are doing. We’re just not wired to routinely look decades or generations into the future. We can do it, but it takes an effort, a certain re-thinking of priorities, a shift of consciousness; coming to grips with the truth, that we are just part of the intricate web of life — not its creator, not its master, not its angel of death.

One such shift is to see wild animals not as nuisances, as pests, as threats or only as useful commodities to be monetized – but as fellow creatures on life’s long journey on our earth. To be accepted and appreciated just for who and what they are. I believe it’s one of the reasons tourists flock to the Shenandoah National Park or why we love living in Rappahannock County. Because in addition to our domesticated animals and beloved pets, we are in regular contact with a host of wild animals which enrich and enliven our days.

To quote Wilson, “The biosphere and the ten million species that compose it (can) no longer be treated as a commodity, but as something vastly more important — a mysterious entity still beyond the boundaries of our imagination yet vital to long-term human existence.”

Wilson posits the notion that the only way to save our wild kin as well as ourselves is to secure half the planet as wilderness — to just leave it alone. He argues, with elegance and power, that only in this restoration do we begin to have a chance to first slow and eventually stop the ongoing catastrophe of mass extinction.

“Every expansion of human activity reduces the population size of more and more species, raising their vulnerability and the rate of extinction accordingly.”

Conversely, if human populations can accelerate the replacement of extensive economic growth (developing more and more land) with intensive economic growth (devising better ways of using the land already developed), with an intention to enlarge wilderness instead of reducing it, biodiversity and wildlife conservation can be protected and enhanced.

We should bear in mind that the beautiful world our species inherited took the biosphere 3.8 billion years to build. Are we really just going to continue down the current path, undoing all of this wonderful creation in the space of a few human generations?

An aspect of Half-Earth I find both appealing and empowering is that restoration of wilderness is not dependent on big governments or international treaties. It’s a concept that any one person and any community anywhere can implement. We don’t have to wait for legislation or a finding from the EPA. Practicing Half-Earth means you can just leave half of your own property in wilderness. It means you can save as many trees as the forests you can own. It means a grove of trees and the wildlife it supports is of far greater intrinsic value than the price of its timber in board feet. It means a local community can decide to reverse outdated and counterproductive policies of “growth” and “development” to see the deep wisdom in just letting things alone – letting nature be nature.

Thanks to the presence of the Shenandoah National Park, citizens in all the surrounding counties can voluntarily expand the wilderness beyond the park boundaries – therein extending and protecting wildlife corridors, habitat and ecosystems. This can be done at the regional, county and municipal level and by private property owners on their own initiative. Isn’t that an empowering thought? That we can actually do something to improve the harmony of life and of all living things right here. That we can confront and reverse species extinction and biodiversity loss right here.

We in Rappahannock County are already blessed with the big head start bequeathed us by the wise people who came before — who ingeniously devised the long-sighted comprehensive plan which so far has succeeded in protecting this place for generations unborn — both wild and human.

How uniquely positioned we are. We are within striking distance of actually achieving Wilson’s admirable goal within our own county, even within our own lifetimes. We could be one of the very first counties in America to make Half-Earth a reality in our own backyards!

Ron Maxwell, a resident of Flint Hill, is a writer and film director best known for the American Civil War epics “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals,” and “Copperhead.”

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1 Comment

  1. So very well written! It’s been a shame for me to see landowners cutting down trees and ruining wildlife habitats on ther road I’ve lived on for the last 25 years, N. Poes Rd in Flint Hill. Done apparently to create some type of aesthetic with stone fences reminiscent of Middleburg or Upperville… the cavalier statement after the fact ” the wildlife will find somewhere else to live” shows an ignorance and disrespect for our fellow inhabitants.

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