Trophic Avalanche:  Our Final Ride?

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“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.

 

ADDENDUM
“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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13 thoughts on “Trophic Avalanche:  Our Final Ride?

  1. This is so brilliant, it took my breath away!

    And while many gifted writers dare not venture into the risky business of offering advice to readers, John R. Hall fearlessly shares an invaluable insight into how he’s dealing with the looming catastrophe …

    “I’m taking yoga classes so I can get limber enough to kiss my ass good-bye.”

    I’ve already ordered my yoga mat and a very flattering Hello Kitty leotard for my svelte but aging body.

  2. uh this is a great piece. if you had to read just one thing that basically summarizes the history of the world, the entire history of the planet that we can have any possible knowledge of anyway this would be it!

    i am also as the author uncertain as to whether the planet itself is capable of surviving the obvious evolutionary mistake of humans.

    1. One of the only inspiring things I ever saw on MySpace — remember MySpace? — was this on someone’s profile … “Humans are a sexually transmitted disease.”

  3. Well, let us step away for a moment from the Anglo-Saxon centered world where the deep anomie and weltanschauung are limited to the bourgeoisie. First, British goldsmiths are but a Johnny-come-lately to the exchange of gold for certificates which already existed in a rudimentary form during the Sumerian empire. Secondly though fouling of the earth is all pervasive, it follows the industrialization processes invented by the New World, and therefore the US is guiltier than innocent. Europe in fact existed for a long time without the dire predictions of extinguishing its animal life and exhausting its soil by over- cultivation. As are the large landmasses to the East of Europe which infected by capitalist greed follow the bad example blown over from the West and thereby hastening the overpopulation, once kept sanely in check by the Chinese by allowing families to produce only one child. But leaving that alone, the US is like the Spanish empire in the sixteenth century, where after 1492 the plunder of gold made the country rich but unprotected by income-producing trade and industry. Though the Trump agenda is trying to re-establish an industrial basis for reducing the national debt, it keeps rising and will like Spain go bankrupt and decline. That will induce other countries to abandon the wild overproduction of goods for profit and return to a rational manner of inhabiting the earth. The utter confusion, corruption and despair in the present US will be a thing of the past, destructive and in a sense admirable for it stubborn belief in progress, an absurd bourgeois concept if there ever was one. ‘The most important thing when ill, is to never lose heart’ (Ilyich Ulyanov)

    1. What you say i true, but I think you’re missing the point, not seeing the trees for the forest. Hall’s essay is not trying to pinpoint when, exactly, the transformation of real, tangible gold assets became the source of modern banking, his vision is a lot broader than that, he’s looking at humanity’s trajectory and its terrible effects n the web of life. Get your nose out of the page and see the larger perspectives. That’s what makes this article rich and enriching, not any specific fact but the sum total of the vision. And with that there can be no argument.

    2. ‘Europe in fact existed for a long time without the dire predictions of extinguishing its animal life and exhausting its soil by over- cultivation.’

      This is not true… If you consider Britain to be part of Europe, then all wolves were systematically killed, so that by the end of the 15th century, there were no more wolves left in england. They survived until the late 19th century in Scotland, but were also all culled into oblivion. This type of animal genocide occurs regularly in judeo,christian nations and is a function of dominion….

      The reason for these animal holocausts most often given is that they kill human food animals:

      “The wolves later caused such damage to the cattle herds of Sutherland that in 1577, James VI made it compulsory to hunt wolves three times a year.’

      In India, because dominion is not the mainstream view of animals, wolves and man co-exist to this day… This is documented in a video by Mike Birkenhead:

      http://www.mikebirkhead.com/DesertWolves.html

      “India – a land well known for its tigers and elephants but few people realise that wolves occur here too. The Rabari herdsmen of western India share their land with packs of wolves – they have no love for the animal – they are at war.

      An intimate story of the Indian wolf and how it survives amidst a dense population of desert people and their livestock. It illustrates the importance of an age-old culture which helps preserve the wildlife around it – even the wolves.”

      India is guided by AHIMSA: non-violence to any living being.

      Christian Britain is guided by the brutal doctrine of judeo.christian dominion:
      Genesis 9:1-3 “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”

      Currently, there is a campaign to cleanse britain of all grey squirrels, because they are not as pleasing to the eye as their red cousins… It is dominion that is destroying the natural order.

      1. The neat tidy agricultural lands that you see when you approach Paris by air do not represent co-existence with nature, but instead mark man’s control and destruction of the delicate balance of nature. Special crops, that need special care… that could not survive in the wild, destruction of all wildlife that would threaten these crops, destruction of top of the food chain predators that would keep foraging predators animals in check… all this though it appears so neat and tidy, is no different than the impetus underling the industrial revolution…
        The gaudy, polluting, visually imposing elements of the industrial revolution are derived from the mandate that gives man the right to control conquer and destroy nature and animals.

        I am not suggesting that we go back to a hunting & gathering model, but rather that agriculture can exist, but must do so in the frame work of preserving the wilderness and those who call it home. The impetus to destroy, conquer and control is deeply rooted in the semitic religious tradition… In a wiser, more encompassing ethic, that of AHIMSA, it is understood that nature is part of a living eco-system to be respected & preserved:

        “If thinking to gain praise, honor or respect,…a man who sins against earth or causes or permits others to do so…he will not gain joy or wisdom..tyrany to the earth is like striking , cutting or maiming a blind man…Knowing this a man should not sin against earth or cause or permit others to do so. He who understands the nature of sin against earth is called a Sage.

  4. The natural balance is a fiction. Humans had nothing to do with previous calamities such as the extinction of the gargantuan pre-historical fauna. The balance of nature like the noble savage is a Rousseau-esque fantasy. However, the Darwinian dire survival of the fittest can unfortunately be experienced every day in nature and amongst humans. It is what socialist theories like Marxism try to overcome and regulate. Bourgeois idealists can afford to theorize about a decline and fall of the earth and deplore human existence like the declining Hellenic period sophists and it is a luxury reserved for them. It is an old script reflected in the present culture of a declining West and in indulgent Hollywood fantasies of dancing with wolves that omit the reality that people are eaten by them if not protected. Escape is not what most of humanity can afford and the present climate changes are not just human-caused phenomena which could be easily curable by doing away with the internal combustion engine. In this fin-de-siècle fashionable despair (such a cliché), already seen and done by Baudelaire (Spleen) and in the behavior of conventional eccentrics like Thoreau, all efforts towards rational solutions are being deliberately weakened by playing into the hands of the present status-quo holders. The mental bondage of despair is contrary to every hopeful tenet of a Marxist-led change and it was parodied by Brecht in his Mackey Messer song: ‘da hab ich eben leider recht, die Welt ist arm, der Mensch ist schlecht’.

    1. Of course humans had nothing to do with the calamities that destroyed prehistoric fauna… But when man assumes that he can control and manipulate nature to suit his limited perceptions of advantage, problems do occur…. There is a cycle of life…. and yet there are predator animals that consume other animals… this is nor brutal survival of the fittest… deer survive despite being prey animals…. The point is that when man decides to cull deer to suit his own ends…. the eco system is disturbed and becomes unbalanced…. prey animals that would have consumed the deer… are now forced to kill human food animals…. so that carnivorous animals are now slated for destruction by the controllers and destroyers of nature, animals…. the earth…. Those who have been taught they are supreme above all other beings… as the rampage, pillage nature and destroy with their factory farms, chemical plants, toxic sprays to kill pests, that prevent the evolution of plants that can naturally resist pests, harsh conditions… When man, guided by the arrogance of his own importance takes charge of nature…. there are repercussion. They may not appear cataclysmic at first, but of time the harm is felt.

      Protecting the earth and those who call it home is not contingent on an economic system, but on an ethic that is respectful of life & nature. That ethic is not judeo.christian dominion.

      Marxim, any ism without respect for life, all life & the earth…. will yield the same destructive results…. Look at china, with its deadly smogs… polluted land and rivers to better understand why an ethic that understands the delicate balance of nature is essential for the survival of our planet.

      1. Dear Ms Eisenbud,

        Thank you for your explanation which I understand and respect and you are correct that
        -isms so far have done little to protect the earth and its inhabitants. Capitalism in all its forms has speeded up that despoliation. There is no panacea that could immediately reverse the natural decline of the earth due to human animals or not, because cruel nature takes its heavy toll on everything. But I find despair as expressed by many ‘progressives’ unproductive as there is hope. And the hope as you very astutely state is not in religion which may ameliorate people’s suffering but does nothing to alleviate that of animals or for that matter plants. Our hope lies in the social -isms that try to arrange for a more realistic and even distribution of chances for every living human being. To simply decry and condemn humans for their cruelty and ignorance is simply too nineteenth century recidivist for me. Unfortunately, it is a fashionable stance in the politically confused US and it is what I protested against.

        1. We are both looking for hope, which is never found in despair or violence …. To clarify further, you state that the preservation of the earth cannot be found in religion, my position is more specific, Hope cannot be found in the teachings of human-centric religions, such as judaism & christianity that place a premium value on human life, with all the privileges that this implies: the right to control, slaughter destroy non-human animals & to control nature with empty phrases such as stewardship, which is nothing less than ownership of natural resources by man, to be exploited, sometimes carefully, sometimes recklessly, for human benefit.

          The judeo.christian ethic of dominion undermines and denies any potential for social justice. The basis of this tradition is exclusivity… which denies rights to disenfranchised humans as well as animals…. The lives of humans not of the tribe, those who do not accept jesus have de facto less value than the lives of the elite;

          A movement for social justice in a judeo.christian nation, is at its core exclusive, elitist & sanctifies violence to the weak and defenseless will never succeed – no matter the ism, even social-ism. Before working on the structure for change, a strong foundation must be set, or the structure will crumble.

          A more suitable foundation for a peaceful, where all are treated with fairness & respect is that of AHIMSA: non-violence to any living being. There is hope in an ethic that understands the role of man in the natural order, that is respectful of life, that encourages non-violence rather than the righteous violence of the semitic religious tradition. There is hope that comes from humility of man’s place in society & in nature. This hope can be seen today, as ahimsa practiced by the Jain community. They are known throughout India for their ethical choices. Though one percent of the population, they are responsible for 40% of charitable donations. They do on engage in trades that harm animals or the environment & are known for their fairness in business dealings. Jains never engage in violence with their neighbors either for religious or cultural reasons. They co-exist peacefully with man & nature. Whereas, all the wars currently raging on earth now involven two or three of the semitic religions: judaism, christianity & islam. There is hope only with a foundation of reverence for life:

          “All well-being, all progress, all peace exists and stems from the root of reverence for life” Chitrabanuji, Jain Religious Leader

          A movement for social justice without the proper moral and spiritual foundation, no matter how well intentioned is not possible.

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