HomeBuffalo/BisonThe Humans

‘These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before!”

Ready for Starfleet?

Three of earth’s most successful businessmen are determined to catch the next tech wave into the black hole of space a mere 125 years after Edison invented the electric light bulb that permanently did away with darkness on earth.  We are not close to creating a galaxy starship, so their aspirations are still rather humble:  settle millions of people on the moon; colonize Mars; fly reusable space planes full of tourists sixty miles into space before returning. The philosophy and direction of these new Edisons is clear: if we stay on earth forever, inevitably there will be an extinction event. We must become a spacefaring civilization, a multiplanetary species.

The problem is that we are currently a barbaric child-race and really have very little time to get it together.   We have a lot to do: throw away our toxic industrial culture; vote out bumbling governments full of bad will; establish a utopian economy; and, most importantly, evolve into a race no longer amused by the pain of lesser beings.  Of course, to really prepare for the eventual possibility of galactic intelligence, we really have to subdue our lust to own and dominate other species, including members of our own.

Anyone can see the problem.  Even the great titans of commerce cannot make us worthy or smart enough to explore and captivate the universe when we continue to mindlessly trash the evolution of our home planet with a consumer culture that continues to disrespect and torture other evolving life forms with careless indifference.

The Starfleet Academy of Star Trek, supposedly founded in the year 2161, the same year as the United Federation of Planets, was imagined as a kind of futuristic West Point, MIT, and NASA Officers Training School, combined.  Its mission was to snare young cadets who wanted a career as Starfleet officers, “orient them to deep space exploration, confront them to the probabilities of encountering a cosmos teeming with multi-species communities,  train them to be adept at peacekeeping, defense, research and diplomacy”, and finally give them all the psychological and physical skills necessary to travel throughout the galaxy.

Starfleet’s primary mandate was to peacefully explore and map planets along the way for the presence of sentient life.  We have nothing like it on earth at this time and probably won’t in 100 years when Stephen Hawking lately pronounced we must get off the planet if we are to survive the devastating effects of deadly heat waves and resulting starvation.  (Most billionaires have already made their exit plans.) There is a hint of Starfleet in the latest pronouncements of Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg describing their ideas for an education focusing on “the engineering mind” where software and teamwork, not schoolteachers, will be the ultimate mentor for learning.

Right now we seem to have no idea how or what to teach children in school to prepare them for the future decades down the road. There is already too much data, too many changes to absorb and comprehend, and this is perhaps underscored by the foreboding lassitude and general complaint of huge numbers of our high school students, the first generation to have grown up with cell phones and social media, scrambling to get out of their irrelevant classrooms and back to Snapchat.

Nevertheless, moving right along despite the uncertainty about who we are and what we are becoming, the confident Elon Musk envisions 100 foot tall gleaming space ships sailing in a caravan to Mars loaded with supplies and launched from pad 39A out of Kennedy Space Center.  Something about this idea is suggestive of Mr. Ringling’s loading canvas and poles, horses and dogs, lions, tigers, and elephants onto his 100 railway cars that once rode the rails from one small town to another to set up the “the greatest show on earth”.

Musk, like Ringling, has to provide everything his crews need, not in small American towns, but on an alien planet overlaid with nothing but parched, sterile red soil riddled with percolate, a toxin deadly to the human thyroid.  One must admire his ambition.  He already has his list: 3-D printers, portable habitats, personal computers, tablets, electronic war games, and freeze-dried food.  He also says there will be plenty of zero gravity games to play on the 300 day trip.

Well, for the life of me, I cannot think of one reason to head out there even though Joanie and I are living in one of the ten most at-risk areas for flooding and storm damage.  There will be no trees on Mars, no purple passion flowers, no great white herons, no baby deer or even big alligators.  So, enduring record-breaking Florida heat as best I can, I have decided to continue studying the natural history of the American bison (more often known as the buffalo) for any survival tips it might have to offer.

The Buffalo

There are still 500,000 of these hulking heroes living on private land and in the Greater Yellowstone Area, who have survived thousands of generations roaming free and unperturbed through advancing and retreating glaciers.  Indeed, seventy million bison were alive in 1870.  But something happened in the next ten years, something so extraordinary that this great rumbling moving blanket covering an entire prairie from the Rockies to the Mississippi, was reduced to three hundred individuals by 1880: the Great Slaughter.

I suspect it is something a future Starfleet Academy (when it gets off the ground) will have to deal with: this human furor for killing. It is a species-wide problem and shows no sign of decreasing. The awesome decimation of the buffalo was a 19th century story. (Harper’s Weekly advertised “hunting by rail” from the windows of the Kansas Pacific as “a most interesting and exciting scene…the train is slowed to a rate of speed about equal to that of the herd; the passengers get out fire-arms, a young bull will turn for a moment and the whole fire of the train is turned upon him..”)

But, even after the modern conservation movement has brought a little more habitat and consideration to the natural world, as well as re-population of the buffalo, a similar unsympathetic attitude toward wildlife, particularly large mammals on all continents and in the oceans, has persisted into the 20th and 21st centuries.  And of course, killing of each other is and always has been one of our signature accomplishments.

It’s a Small World After All

E.O. Wilson, the great biologist, always helps me when I start wondering who we are and what’s to become of us and what biodiversity really means.  In an age of computer downloads and fancy coding and the rise of artificial intelligence, in an age where the planet’s biomass is dangerously decreasing, what is the eventual meaning of organisms themselves, what is the significance of life, and as the most startling organism here, what is our own significance?

Wilson has suggested that the extinction spasm we are now inflicting upon the planet, the biological impoverishment and outright loss of life, is so extensive that the near future might well be known as the “Age of Loneliness”.  Yet, people, he laments, usually have only three stock responses to species extinction:

1)  Why worry? Extinction is natural.  Species have been dying out through more than three billion years.  Evolution has always replaced extinct species with new ones.

2)  Why do we need so many species anyway, since the vast majorities are bugs, weeds, and fungi?

3)  Why rush to save all species right now? Just keep live specimens in zoos and botanical gardens and return them to the wild later.

To all these questions, this premier naturalist responds in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1999) with a wonderful authority, quite appropriate to his long moral life:

1)  There have been five previous extinction spasms.  The process of evolution took about 10 million years after each one to restore and replenish Earth.  

2)  Each species alive today are thousands to millions of years old. Their genes have been tested by adversity over so many generations to aid their survival and reproduction.  The more species that live in an ecosystem, the greater its ability to withstand drought and other environmental stresses.  Each species is a masterpiece of evolution because it is so perfectly adapted to the environment in which it lives.

3)  “All the zoos in the world today can sustain a maximum of only two thousand species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians out of twenty-four thousand known to exist.  The world’s botanical gardens would be even more overwhelmed by the quarter million plant species.  The only way to save Creation with existing knowledge is to maintain it in natural ecosystems.”

Star Trek’s Prime Directive, (if only we had such a principle) prohibits our future space explorers “from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations”, especially those “below a certain threshold of technological scientific and cultural development”.  It was supposed to prevent starship crews with their superior technology from imposing their own ideals and values on these emergent civilizations.

Is it too improbable to imagine that at least one of the remaining families of dolphins, elephants, whales, primates, and wolves possess attributes that identify them as a “civilization”, even if one without recognizable technology?  Sir Julian Huxley, himself a great evolutionary biologist, once remarked that Joy Adamson’s “passionate patience and understanding love” regarding her bringing up Elsa the orphaned lioness, “had succeeded in creating an organized personality out of an individual animal, and that this achievement only pointed to the wealth of potentialities in higher mammals that were just waiting to be drawn out through an emotional and intelligent involvement with a human being.”  Adamson, he suggested, had discovered that animals respond to an intimate approach with a psychological development of their own that resembles a human personality.

A Homeland

When millions of buffalo roamed the Great Plains 150 years ago, there were also billions of prairie dogs and hundreds of thousands of black-footed ferrets, pronghorn, badgers, coyotes, and grizzlies.  The main attraction, writes Buffalo expert Dale Lott, “was a sea of grass inhabited by an assemblage of animals mostly unknown elsewhere, and dominated by enormous herds of buffalo”. Called the North American equivalent of the Serengeti, and considered a wonderful killing field, European hunting parties joined American settlers for safaris to see what damage they could do.  What humans didn’t shoot and poison, they burned and buried.  Grizzlies, realizing we were who we were, left almost immediately for the Greater Yellowstone Area where there are, miraculously, still about 600 wild grizzlies left.

Though we could not, of course, shoot the grass which was the basic world for all these animals, a cynic might point out we made sure we later provided the severe drought and extreme heat in the form of climate change to bake it alive permanently.  Today, ranchers and farmers and the thousands of livestock who replaced those original inhabitants are looking at millions of acres of dead grass.  And no rain is coming to revitalize their haunted land.

In 2005, Joanie and I flew over what was left of the Great Plains and visited Yellowstone in winter, where small herds of buffalo also survive with the prescient grizzlies.  We travelled back and forth across the deserted park in a snow-machine along with eight other visitors who mostly worked for Apple and were testing out their newest cameras phones, binoculars, etc.  We stopped often to snowshoe out to abandoned wolf dens, ski the Rendezvous Ski Trail, climb Mt Yellowstone on skis and eat lunches of peanut butter banana sandwiches, apples or potato chips.  Our young guide warned us that the 2000 pound buffalos often blocking the road were the most unpredictable animals in the park and not to get near one.

Once, at the end of an especially cold day, we skied close to a tall stand of lodgepole pines near steaming thermal basins and hot springs. We did not immediately notice that behind the trees a herd of bison were resting, the sun’s rays full on their huge shaggy heads. The steam of their breath floated up with the steaming heat of the ground.  We quietly passed into the sunset without disturbing their comfort.

Another close encounter happened when our snow-machine was forced to stop for a large herd crossing the road to struggle up the deep snow drifts of a steep hill.  All but one, who stood silent and solitary on the side watching his tribe pushing and shoving and helping each other through the snow.  We could not figure out why this last one remained as the herd disappeared over the rise. Finally the young bull turned and limped away, blood trickling down his shaggy pantaloon, his ponderous head bowed, the fire gone from his huge black eyes.  No longer menacing, no longer able to stamp his forefeet with each step, his tail drooping, no longer able to signify pure fury, he was doomed, quietly distraught.

Those raucous tourists of the 19th century, lazily shooting through train windows at the knees of the largest land mammal in North America, had mocked these huge animals as they collapsed like stones, for being so easy to kill, such stupid and unworthy victims.  These are the same animals who always turn to face the blizzards of a freezing prairie, who, determined to live, not starve, swing their heavy heads from side to side for hours shoveling deep drifts of snow away to get at a shriveled wisp of grass, who are born to be powerful, aggressive, dangerous, venerable – creatures the earth has taken great pains with to make sure their indomitable wildness can never be tamed, tampered with or ruined, to make sure they are tough enough to survive even us, their most cruel and vicious enemy.

So

Our restless capitalists are raring to leave orbit.  Money is to be made.  The idea is to clean up the planet by doing heavy industry on the moon or on near-by asteroids. But mostly the idea is to make money.

Meanwhile, improvements in artificial intelligence, robotics, the latest nanotechnologies hurry along, seemingly unstoppable. Money cannot be made on extinction, whether of animals or ourselves.  But loads of money can be made pre-extinction by destroying the planet.  So we kill the living world with very little compunction, whether we dump endless plastic into the rivers and oceans; net trawl the sea bottom for every possible fish; cut down remaining forests and jungles; trap songbirds resting on their migrations.

I desperately miss Star Trek.  The Captain and the Crew, the moral unimpeachableness of their adventures, the rightness of the Federation, the future nobility of our species.  Now we are the most successful predator the world has ever known.  Helped by cybernetics, are we destined to become the most successful predator the universe has ever known?  Starfleet has a word for such a terrifying adversary.

The BORG  –  Resistance is futile….

©Linda Clarke 2017


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