Trophic Avalanche:  Our Final Ride?


“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.”
This is the first verse of a hymn entitled “Conflict:  Light Shining out of Darkness.”written by William Cowper in 1773.  The author failed at a suicide attempt after penning his creation.  More than likely he was simply overcome with the mystery of God’s ways.  Since that time, some version of the first six words have been repeated by devout Christians more than seven hundred trillion times (estimate).  I’ve personally heard a form of the phrase at least three hundred thousand times (also an estimate).
My best guess is that most of the mysteries of the universe are far too convoluted and complicated to be deciphered and understood by the likes of you and me.  Believe whichever big man in the sky theory you choose, but in the end you’re going to be just as cold and dead as I am.  If there happens to be a future for sentient beings beyond the last breath, then we’ll all go there hand in hand regardless of whether or not we leave a groveling trail of prayers in our wake.
But this little article isn’t about religion or life after death.  It does concern a mysterious and marvelous natural process which can be studied and understood to some extent.  An eye-opening four and a half minute film titled “How Wolves Change Rivers” narrated by George Monbiot, gave me a name to attach to a phenomenon of which I’ve been numbly and somewhat dumbly aware for many years.  “Trophic cascade” is a chain of events, a cascade if you will.  It shows how even small changes in the number of predators at the top of a food chain can radically alter not only every level of the chain, but the very landscape itself.
In the case of “How Wolves Change Rivers”, the subject of study is the reintroduction of a few gray wolves into the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  After about seventy years of absence in the area, 31 wolves were let loose in Yellowstone National Park during 1995-96.  Within a very short period of time, the entire landscape was transformed.
In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, wolves and other mammals of prey lacked any kind of government protection from hunters.  Wolves kill livestock and compete with hunters for game animals, so they have been traditionally vilified, victimized, and eliminated.  Seven decades without one of the most voracious predators in the ecosystem resulted in explosions of antelope, deer and elk populations, overgrazing of grasslands and elimination of vast stands of aspens, willows, and cottonwoods.  This process cascaded down through the food chain, resulting in drastic reductions in species of birds and mammals of all descriptions.  Receding grasslands and forests resulted in meandering rivers and a transformation of the landscape.
But like magic, shortly after the first Canadian gray wolves were released in the Lamar Valley, the cascading process began a remarkable reversal.  As the wolves started thinning the herds of deer and elk, the grasslands began rejuvenating.  Deciduous trees resumed growth.  Forests flourished and bird habitat was restored.  The burgeoning coyote population was thinned by the wolves as well, benefitting their prey and prompting a resurgence of beaver, muskrat, pine marten, otter, and other mid-sized mammal populations.  It is thought that the populations of virtually every type of mammal, bird, reptile, fish, bush, and tree were altered by the reintroduction of the wolves to Yellowstone.  As regenerating forests and grasses stabilized river banks, even the rivers stopped their meandering and began flowing once again along the semi-straight and narrow.
But this article isn’t about tropic cascade.  The story of How Wolves Change Rivers was provided as an introduction to what I call “trophic avalanche”.  It involves examining the history and evolution of earth’s greatest predator.  If you don’t know which beast I’m talking about, take a look in the mirror.
Humans really got the short end of the stick, predator-wise.  But in spite of being small, slow, weak, and even lacking decent canine teeth, they finally reached the top of the food chain after they developed tools, gained control of fire, and began hunting in packs.  Physically, compared to saber-toothed tigers, humans were laughable.  But God works in mysterious ways.
Eons passed.  As human populations grew they migrated into new territory, pushing ever further into unknown and hostile lands.  Finally reaching the western hemisphere some unknown tens of thousands of years ago, they eventually penetrated the ends of the earth.  It was time to start fine-tuning society.  Agriculture provided more balanced nutrition.  Rules were established by the alpha males.  Wars broke out between packs.  Caves and encampments turned into towns.  The seeds of modern human civilization were sprouting like weeds.
Each time a small group of humans migrated into new territory, they set off a trophic cascade.  Competitors for top spot on the food chain were unceremoniously slaughtered.  Since a wooly mammoth or giant ground sloth could feed a whole community for months, many large herbaceous mammals went extinct.  And so simultaneously, thousands of trophic cascades triggered an earthly metamorphosis.  The planet would never be the same, but life is change and the human effect was destined to grow in leaps and bounds.  It had only just begun.  Evidently the Lord’s will.
Thousands of years of human domination passed.  Although his presence had rendered untold numbers of plants and animals extinct, and man-caused trophic cascades had become a permanent condition, nobody saw the next big thing coming.  “What’s that?” you must be asking.  Climate change?  Volcanoes?  Meteors?  Tsunamis and earthquakes?  Good guesses but wrong.  The next big thing was likely the biggest thing to ever exacerbate radical change on earth:  Goldsmiths.
Thanks to Adrian Kuzminski and his article titled “The Financial-Industrial Revolution’s Origin and Destiny”, I now believe I’m getting a handle on exactly why the human population has grown so wildly over the last 300 years, and to even greater extremes in my own lifetime.  About the time English settlers were gaining a foothold in North America, English goldsmiths stumbled upon a mysterious new form of alchemy.  They learned how to turn thin air into money.  Owners of gold bullion deposited their treasures with goldsmiths for safe keeping and were issued certificates of redemption.  As caches of gold grew, the goldsmiths found that very few customers redeemed their certificates for physical gold, and they could issue more certificates than they had gold on hand.  Many more.  These certificates were loaned to other trusting customers at tidy interest rates, and voila…fractional reserve banking was born.
In the next step of radical change, a group of businessmen took the goldsmiths’ example to heart and assumed the British Royal Debt in exchange for the sole right to issue currency.  Later another group of businessmen in the United States would join in the best Ponzi scheme in history and the Federal Reserve would be the result.  Suddenly, for the first time ever, there was unlimited money in circulation.  Loans were easy to come by, and the new deluge of cash in the market sparked the industrial revolution.  The wholesale rape and pillage of earth’s resources was underway.  Cash became the new God and profit the new religion.
Country bumpkins by the millions ditched their plows, put on shoes, and moved into cities for a shot at fame and fortune.  Since nobody realized that their new found fortunes were just smoke and mirrors, the grand illusion created prosperity beyond anyone’s wildest fantasies. The seven seas filled with merchant ships carrying cargoes of precious metals, spices, strange new foods, and human slaves.  Merchants hawked exotic wares from faraway lands.  Couples started having larger families and lifespans grew longer.  200 million people at the time of Christ had become 500 million when the English goldsmiths started doing their magic.  By the time I was born, 300 years later, 2.5 billion humans roamed the earth.  Today that figure has reached 7.2 billion, with no signs of slowing.
Which brings us finally to “trophic avalanche”.   Trophic avalanches happen when excessive, outrageously large increases in the number of predators at the top of a food chain take place world-wide.  This phenomenon has never been studied because it has never before happened until this very moment in time.  A trophic cascade is a somewhat gentle process, with the activity of a few predators at the top of the food chain cascading down the line and altering the life cycles of an entire ecosystem…sometimes for the better.  Our current trophic avalanche involves obscenely large numbers of top tier carnivores battling it out for dwindling resources in every corner of the planet.  Initial indicators suggest that the end result isn’t likely to involve many winners.  A cascade is gentle.  An avalanche is anything but gentle.  If you’ve ever skied in the Rocky Mountain West and watched an avalanche in action, you understand that everything in its path is likely to be destroyed, buried in snow and suffocated.  This includes the idiot at the top who was, against all the best advice, skiing on an unstable slab.
The trophic avalanche has begun, and there is no place to run.  No place to hide.  Cash is God and there’s no stopping the legions of worshippers.  This God works in mysterious ways.  Without a care for the future His destruction careens down the mountain of doom, carrying with it dozens of once thriving species each day.  Here today, extinct tomorrow.  By mid-century fully half of all species are likely to disappear forever.  The most majestic tug the hardest at the heartstrings.  To the many sorts of whales, porpoises, dolphins, elephants, bears, great apes, monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers, rhinos, giraffes, koalas, and pandas, God will show no mercy.
Then there are the tiny beings. some like the honeybees will be missed even more sorely than we might want to think about.  With Monsanto’s Glyphosate and other modern marvels of the agro-chemical industry decimating their numbers, the bees are in serious trouble, and that spells big trouble for life as we know it.  Add to this the wholesale slaughter of micro-organisms in the soil and we can all send out a hearty message of thanks to the agro-chemical industry for hastening our imminent demise.  Sterile soil and the death of master-pollinators; a plan designed in the bowels of Hell and the boardrooms of Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta.
The new God is a voracious God.  In His complete disregard for the safety of earth’s creatures, He’s created a toxic environment in which the human cancer rate has increased to dizzying heights.  In 1900, only 3% of the population died of cancer.  Today that number is 30%.  But even with the aid of a myriad of other environmentally linked diseases, cancer can’t seem to put a dent in the human population explosion, nor put the brakes on trophic avalanche.
The end of the world as we know it is happening now, in slow motion.  Like a bad dream.  A predator population out of control loosened that unstable slab and we’re all taking a final dive down the mountain, trying to keep our heads out of the suffocating snow.  Oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, mining waste, plastic refuse, and sewage fill our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.  Excessive atmospheric carbon dioxide, global climate change, melting icecaps, drowning coastal cities.  Society armed to the teeth, mass-murders, child molesting, police violence, an electronically crazed, disoriented, delusional, misinformed population of zombie wage-slaves, aimlessly roaming the landscape.  Free-market capitalism leveling the playing field, paving the way for widespread desperation, abject poverty, and starvation for all.  Non-stop warfare for profit, cities destroyed, massive refugee crises.  The fate of our planet in the hands of maniacs, and nuclear holocaust on the horizon.
Trophic cascades are initiated by small changes in the number of predators at the top of the food chain.  Maybe nuclear war won’t be so bad after all.  Could the result possibly be long range improvement on our tiny blue planet?  Perhaps we should all take the advice of Dr. Strangelove, learn to stop worrying, and love the bomb.  Maybe the sacrifice of a few billion people will be necessary to ameliorate the caustic effects of the ongoing trophic avalanche.  Too bad all other species will become collateral damage, but then God moves in a mysterious way, and time has a way of healing wounds  If you believe in Him, pray I’m wrong.  I’m taking yoga classes so I can get limber enough to kiss my ass good-bye.


“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable “trophic cascade” occurred. What is a trophic cascade and how exactly do wolves change rivers? George Monbiot explains in this movie remix.

About the Author
JOHN R. HALL, Senior Contributing Editor  •
John R. Hall is a street-trained agnotologist with an advanced degree in American Ignorance. Other hats include: photojournalist, novelist, restaurateur, mountaineer, grocer, nurseryman, and janitor. He’s written three novels which have been read by almost nobody: ‘Embracing Darwin’, ‘Last Dance in Lubberland’, and ‘Atlas fumbled’. An untrained writer and college drop-out, he began his short career in journalism writing the ‘Excursion’ column for The Jackson Hole News & Guide. More recently he penned the ‘Left Column’ for The Molokai Island Times; appropriately on the island once known as a leper colony. John currently resides, writes, and protests injustice in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and walks among the spirits of those who once occupied the 79 Disappeared Pueblos.

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