A 10 Percent World

Our natural world is a fraction of what it was before the mass culls and oil spills of the human era. To imagine how it once was is not to lament, but to picture what it can be again

From the September 2010 magazine
Illustration by Eric Matthew

Iwas in Buenos Aires when I first saw a city disappear. I was visiting an expatriate brother, and when we had grown tired of the seething capital we walked to a park along the neglected River de la Plata. We arrived without expectation, and had just started down the crest of a dike beneath an arcade of trees when two fork-tailed flycatchers scissored the air in front of us. Small and shaded in white, black, and grey, they would be unremarkable creatures if not for their twin tail feathers, long and trailing and endlessly alive to the breeze. The birds can stall in mid-air and dance fearlessly in place, bound by no natural laws, and for that they call to mind paradise. You stop and you stare. They were everywhere along the green relief of the dikes.

I have known people who can’t see a bridge without also seeing in their mind’s eye the blueprint of its structure, or who pass among strangers with the automatic knowledge of what each looks like naked. In that instant in the park, I had this kind of vision for things concealed. What the fork-tailed flycatcher caused me to see was the presence of an absence. The yellow boil of smog subsided, the rooftops shouldering over the canopy faded, and what remained were the flood plains of the silver river, its reedy oxbows and sloughs, its wooded islands, every inch alive with birds and insects and unseen, bustling beasts. Missing from the streets was all of this. This was the understory of Buenos Aires—the place that lived before the living city, before even the first human footfall.

As epiphanies go, it wasn’t a particularly grand one: the presence of absence is an idea dating back at least to Plato. But questions of scale and character lingered. How large an absence were we talking about, exactly? What was its inventory? The meaning of my newfound awareness seemed to depend upon the details. A story of loss is not always and only a lament; it can also be a measure of possibility. What once was may be again.

I began to wonder about the understory of every place I found myself: Manhattan or Malawi, the banks of the Thames in London or the caribou calving grounds of northern British Columbia. The city had lost much that still existed in the country, and the country much that lived on in the wilderness. Might even the wildest backcountry be a ghost of some older nature?

As it turns out, science has quietly begun to consider this question. The field is an emerging one called historical ecology, and two of its key findings are these: first, the harder we look, the more biologically rich the past seems in comparison to today; and second, human impacts on the natural world were more severe and widespread earlier in our history as a species than anyone had guessed.

Last year in this magazine, I wrote about one outcome of these new understandings: an effort to restore a particular tortoise to its former range. Normally, “former” would refer here to habitat lost to the familiar advance of industry, agriculture, and urban sprawl. In this case, the restoration was prehistoric, a return to territory the animal was hunted out of at the dawn of humanity in the Americas, perhaps as many as 10,000 years ago. Seen from that longer perspective, the tortoise, already a certified endangered species, was truly in extremis: a creature reduced to 1 percent or less of its range.

What, then, of the planet as a whole? I speculated in passing that, when seen through the lens of deep time, ours is a 10 Percent World—a blue-green globe that reflects just one-tenth the natural variety and abundance it once did. Within at least my own small universe of crossed paths and conversations, that idea caused something of a stir. Try it yourself: perfect dinner party fodder. There are those, it’s true, who will shrug—too desensitized by the steady stream of bad environmental news to register any shock, even one that metaphorically strips our living earth to a sudden skeleton. Yet the figure is a challenge to every person who has brought home a slide show of a teeming reef from a tropical holiday, everyone who has felt the call of the wild in Banff or Algonquin or on a hunting trip across the northern tundra, all those whose awe for nature has been shaped by Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard or the bbc’s Planet Earth series. In the eyes of the historical ecologist, these are not precious windows into the world unspoiled; even our physical and cultural repositories of the wild reveal only fragments of fragments. A maxim of historical ecology is that the earth is nowhere pristine.

A science that amounts to a catalogue of death—the urge to turn and walk away feels something close to hard wired. Yet I have become a dedicated wanderer through these catacombs, because there’s something more where the reach of science ends: a project of the imagination. Study after study in the discipline reports the usual doom and gloom: jungles emptied by bush meat hunters in Equatorial Guinea, the slow fade of British tree sparrows, the vanishing from sight and memory of the pink Chinese river dolphin known as the baiji. Yet within these same studies I find references to “a very different perception of nature,” calls to “visualize previous states” of local ecosystems and “change the perspective of what is possible.” One researcher will say we need new “mental pictures”; another demands new “sea stories.” At stake is a “pending revolution.”

The way you see the natural world determines much about the world you are willing to live in. Among the tangled roots of historical ecology, oddly enough, is a 1995 study in child development and psychology. In it, Peter H. Kahn Jr. and Batya Friedman of Colby College in Maine present the results of interviews on environmental views and values with children from an “economically impoverished inner-city Black community” in Houston, one of America’s more polluted cities. The children clearly understood the idea of pollution in general (one describes a bayou as a place that is “big and long and green and it stinks”), but only one-third reported that environmental issues affected them directly. In an attempt to explain this unexpected outcome, the authors write:

One possible answer is that to understand the idea of pollution one needs to compare existing polluted states to those that are less polluted. In other words, if one’s only experience is with a certain amount of pollution, then that amount becomes not pollution, but the norm against which more polluted states are measured… Indeed, what we perceive in the children we interviewed might well be the same sort of psychological phenomenon that affects us all from generation to generation. People may take the natural environment they encounter during childhood as the norm against which to measure pollution later in their life. The crux here is that with each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm—as the nonpolluted condition. Researching such “generational amnesia” may help provide a psychological account of how it is that our world has moved toward an environmentally precarious state.

You already knew this at some level, assuming you, like everyone, everywhere, have had some sacred play space from your childhood erased to make way for a parkade or a freeway or an American military installation. If you doubt that inner-city kids in Houston can reflect a global state of consciousness, however, look no further than the story of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Forgotten amid the images of oil-soaked pelicans and poisoned mangrove forests is the fact that the coast was already in a catastrophic state. How will we measure the restoration of the Gulf shore? On June 15, showing insight lacking in most media reports, President Barack Obama declared that the cleanup would go beyond the “crisis of the moment.” Even before the offshore gusher, he said, the region had suffered “decades of environmental degradation.” He promised a long-term recovery plan that would return the coast and its waters to “normal.”

In ecology, “normal” is a dangerous word. What it means to the Gulf Coast depends on how deeply into generational amnesia you care to probe. Count back through enough decades, let alone centuries, and the potential restoration plan begins to resemble the Labours of Hercules. A number of groundbreaking studies in historical marine ecology have been carried out in the Gulf of Mexico and the adjoining Caribbean Sea. The most visually arresting of them compared big game fishermen’s trophy photos from the 1950s through to ones from the modern day. In the old black and whites, the fish are mainly large groupers and other impressive species, with an average length of nearly a metre; by 2007, the catch is mainly small snappers that measure just a little longer than a grade school ruler. The fishermen look equally pleased with themselves through the years, yet many of the “small” fish of past decades—often literally heaped beneath the hanging trophies—are larger than the “big game” of today.

No surprise, then, that a separate study found that even the healthiest Caribbean reefs are likely home to at least two tonnes less fish per hectare than they once were. To see the reefs in their glory, we’d need to reach back to the seventeenth century, when the waters may have been home to 300,000 Caribbean monk seals (now extinct; the last sighting was in 1952); or centuries earlier still, when as many as 91 million green sea turtles churned the waves (they number fewer than 300,000 today). Yet perhaps the most remarkable research involves two humble varieties of sea sponge, once so significant a part of the aquatic environment that in the first years of the twentieth century some 20,000 tonnes of the living animals were annually hauled ashore in the northern Caribbean alone. In 1939, the wild sponges, decimated for uses ranging from household scrubbing to contraception, succumbed to epidemic disease. Their populations have never recovered. Sponges have a mind-blowing capacity to remove microbes from water; in a single day, a sponge the size of a soccer ball can sieve 90 percent of the bacteria from more water than you will drink in your lifetime. Obviously enough, the loss of the sponges damaged water quality throughout the region, which in turn was linked to a crash in the number of lobsters, and of an economy that sustained thousands of sponge and lobster fishers.

Put in the plainest terms, the Caribbean and the Gulf are seas utterly changed, from the largest to the smallest of their living elements. The woman whose name is attached to each of the aforementioned studies, Loren McClenachan, currently based at Florida State University, says she can no longer see those waters with the same eyes when she goes diving: “It’s like there’s all these ghosts lurking around.” She has become, she tells me, “a big buzz kill for family vacations.”

A big buzz kill, yes. History’s worst oil spill is bad, but it is exponentially more depressing to know that the disaster is taking place—one is tempted to say mercifully—in a region so degraded by human actions that it was already home to one of the world’s largest marine dead zones, an area that sometimes approaches the size of the state of Massachusetts and is so polluted by runoff from the Mississippi River that almost nothing can survive there. Yet as the observations of those inner-city kids in Houston suggest, this kind of knowledge is essential—and in it resides the “pending revolution.” See the world for what it is, and we may set a higher bar for the “normal” state of nature. The idea of a 10 Percent World is not mere diminishment, but rather hope in paradox: a glimpse of a lesser world that expands vision by an order of magnitude.

Imagination is not a game best played between columns of data. What is the taste, smell, and feel of a wilder world? I live where the Fraser River meets the North Pacific, a place that even in recent history has been abundant to a surreal degree. A 1902 sketch shows a fisher spearing rock cod from a boat—a method that demands a sea so jim-jammed with life that it beggars belief. I could scour the temperate regions of the globe for a coastal marine ecosystem in something close to this state, the problem being not a single one remains unscathed.

Once, though, in an estuary a fraction as large, among the most isolated fjords of British Columbia, I witnessed such teeming abundance that it left me unnerved as much as elevated. Salmon were bursting up the river, and the whole vocabulary of venery could be called into play: a sloth of bears, a route of wolves, a convocation of eagles, a pod of seals, a romp of otters, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows, a siege of herons, a richness of martens, a flock of seagulls. All were there. To say that the place had ten times the force of life of less remote rivers I have known strikes me as exaggeration only in the form of understatement.

Even that river, of course, is in no way unshackled from history. Old pioneer diaries and sea captains’ logbooks would seem more accurate places to seek portraits of past nature in high definition, but the documentation is less evocative than you might suppose. In part this can be explained, again, by those Houston kids. On the one hand, a richer natural world struck our forebears as normal and thus unremarkable. (Would today’s urban diarist mention all those pigeons and raccoons?) On the other, the written record in many cases does not reach back far enough; it describes landscapes depleted in still more ancient times.

There are exceptions, though, and the history of Buenos Aires happens to be one of them. When I left that buoyant city, its emptiness wouldn’t leave me, and in the strange way that obsession transforms into coincidence, I later found myself in the rare books section of a library with a title catching my eye: An Account of a Voyage Up the River de la Plata, and Thence Over Land to Peru. The author was the French traveller Acarete du Biscay, who disembarked at Buenos Aires in the late 1650s, more than three centuries ahead of my visit. In his “Description of Buenos Ayres,” du Biscay gives over his second line to the frogsong that follows the rain in sultry weather. The natural world had not yet been cleaved from the town, and the Frenchman spoke of its breadth in tones of astonishment:

The River is full of Fish… there are abundance of those whales call’d Gibars, and Sea-dogs who commonly bring forth their young ashore, and whose Skin is fit for several uses… there are likewise a great many Otters, with whose Skins the Savages Cloath themselves… most of the little Islands that lie all along the River, and the Shore sides are cover’d with Woods full of Wild Boars… there are likewise a great many Stags.

The landscape du Biscay witnessed could hardly be considered untouched. As he planted his feet in the mud streets of Buenos Aires, some two dozen Dutch tall ships swung at anchor offshore. The town’s population had yet to reach 5,000, but much of its surrounding land had been cleared for corn, sugar cane, tobacco, yerba mate, beans, squash, millet. Oak and pine were piled in shipbuilders’ log sorts, and shops sold beef, mutton, venison, wild fowl, turtle flesh. One-pound eggs were collected on the vast plains known as the pampas from herds of rhea, flightless birds as tall as a man. The European conquest was well under way, yet human hands had already transformed the place. The native Querandí, at that moment withdrawing into the holocaust of imported diseases, had lived in the area in measures of thousands, and were only one of dozens of tribes—tens of thousands of people—living in succession up the river system to headwaters 2,500 kilometres to the north. The earliest Spanish explorers, too, had come and gone, leaving behind livestock that discovered the pampas, radically changing those grasslands even before later visitors could set eyes upon them. What the pampas looked and smelled and sounded like before is not recorded. It will never truly be known.

Still, du Biscay admitted his awe of the natural wealth to the people of Buenos Aires, and in return was told a story. From time to time, they said, the settlement was threatened by buccaneers or foreign armadas, and when these enemy ships made the horizon, the men on land would mount their horses and haze the pampas, driving forward the feral bulls and cows, the wild mules, asses, horses, and deer, the guanacos, the vicuñas with their wondrous wool, and all of these animals would soon be thundering toward the shore. Picture the scene: the air shuddering, dust ballooning, every living thing without a hole to hide in scrambling as if chased by brush fire—tortoises, snakes, lizards, voles and mice, armadillos, foxes, wild cats, ground birds, songbirds, even vultures, even locusts. All of these, too, would crush to the river’s edge, there to seethe and buck and blow, a storm lit from within by the flash of teeth and eye whites, and in that moment the stratagem was complete:

’Tis utterly impossible for any number of Men, even tho’ they should not dread the fury of those Wild Creatures, to make their way through so great a drove of Beasts.

A wild abundance so overwhelming that it could be used as a military defence—this is the living world at something approaching full throttle. Today, the Environmental Atlas of Buenos Aires lists no creature larger than the rhea, found only “in captivity or partial freedom”; the maguary stork, which “appears occasionally” in wildlife refuges; and the capybara, the world’s largest rodent, which is “receding.” In the end, it didn’t prove impossible. We did indeed make our way through so great a drove of beasts.

10 percent world—we want to believe it isn’t so. The temptation to pardon our own is ever fresh. I felt the impulse rise with a recent paper about North Atlantic right whale genetics, which indicated that these animals, currently among the most endangered of the great whales, might not have been all that plentiful along North America’s east coast, even before the arrival of European whalers in the early sixteenth century. The study didn’t exactly reach the level of celebrity gossip, but it travelled farther than you’d expect for news about sea mammal dna. Headlines crowed that early Basque whalers, and by extension our ancestors as a whole, had been “exonerated” for the whales’ near-extinction. “Rare northern right whales were not hunted to the brink,” the bbc declared. The theme was picked up by a member of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board to make the point that “it’s too easy to blame humans for environmental problems.”

The whales’ genetic imprints hint at a decline sometime before the sixteenth century, though the study does not speculate on the cause of the drawdown in numbers. Humans are not yet free from culpability: archaeologists and historians have found evidence of indigenous whaling cultures from the Arctic to Florida, and these hunters would certainly have targeted right whales, so named for being the “right” whales to pursue because they swim slowly, are usually close to land, and float when they’re dead. The earliest recorded commercial whale hunts anywhere on earth pursued right whales; the hunters were the “exonerated” Basques, off their home coasts in Europe, about 1,000 years ago. They, along with other European whaling cultures, eventually wiped out that continent’s right whales.

Asked to explain why only about 350 North Atlantic right whales still survive, the lead dna researcher, Brenna McLeod, now based at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, replied, “The small numbers that we see today are directly a result of whaling activities.” And while her work suggests that the right whale population prior to the year 1500 may have been lower than previously thought, they might still have numbered as many as 10,000. Which would make today’s right whale population, you know, about 3.5 percent of what it was.

I’ve been using the 10 Percent World as narrative shorthand, a wormhole to a reimagined living earth, but it is also a statistic and must be defensible as such. I might have chosen a 5 percent world, after all, or 25 percent, but each would conjure a very different planet, and neither, I think, would be fair. My figure is a close fit with the 12 percent of lands now in protected areas worldwide, especially when you consider that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the ocean is fully protected. Or we might turn to the flagship species of wildness, the heavyweight land mammals: polar bears, elephants, kangaroos, wolves, and more than 250 others weighing in at twenty kilograms or more per beast. A surprising 21 percent of the planet’s landscape still houses all of the large mammal species that it did in 1500, and while that figure doubles my 10 percent call, it fails to capture the depth of the depletion. Consider the wolf. The great canine has been reduced to 5 percent of its range in the contiguous United States, though packs still roam fully 90 percent of their original territory in Canada and Alaska. The latter figure sounds impressive, yet recent genetic research suggests that the population of wolves North America–wide may be less than 5 percent of historical numbers. Once the planet’s most widespread carnivore, the wolf still holds on in 65 percent of its primeval habitat worldwide, but is categorized as “fully viable” in just five of sixty-three surveyed countries where packs once prowled. It is extinct in nine.

More resilient life forms appear at first glance to challenge my argument. Behold the birds, a critic might say, with their tremendous adaptability and mobility, and their armies of admirers. The global population of wild birds has dropped by an estimated one-fifth to one-third in the past 500 years; from an avian perspective, ours is at worst a 66 percent world. And yet: What weight do we give to the 154 recorded bird extinctions over that same period, from the dodo to the recently vanished po‘ouli? How do we account for the 190 additional bird species that are critically endangered, i.e., at extremely high risk of extinction in the near future, which alone add up to 2 percent of all our feathered friends? Where in the miserable calculus do we count the steady replacement of this diversity by so-called weedy species such as crows and starlings?

Reach at random into the ecological grab bag, and one loss invariably leads you to others. The humble prairie dog endures on just 2 percent of its historical range. It is considered an indicator species of the health of North America’s plains, and, sure enough, just 10 percent of the native grasslands still reflect natural cycles in any real way. Most have been converted for agriculture, with the very soil exhausted: 30 percent of the planet’s arable land is now unproductive; on the remaining agricultural hectares, the extraction of nutrients worldwide outpaces their replenishment. You may choose to go big: the current global rate of species extinction is thought to be as much as 1,000 times higher than the background rate through evolutionary time. You may choose to go small: in the United Kingdom, a world leader in—believe it—insect conservation, scientists report that “the sheer number of species of conservation concern precludes individual attention.” Across a span of just four decades, researchers on the California coast recorded an 80 percent decrease in plankton.

We’ve already dipped into the grim legacy of the Gulf of Mexico, but even where there is good news from the world’s oceans it supports the depth of impoverishment I am proposing. Taken together, the cardinal species of the deeps—from coastal seabirds to whales to salmon to sea turtles to sharks to cod—have in recent times recovered to about 16 percent of their historical numbers, up from a low of 11. Even this pale revival is led by only a few species, such as the great whales, which with significant protection have bounced back to perhaps one-third of their ancient bounty. We should take every opportunity to see the magic hidden in the darkness, and this is one of them: imagine a world with three times as many whales and dolphins as today’s.

Meanwhile, the older pattern continues. Technology has made it newly possible to catch such fish species as the onion-eye and roundnose grenadiers, which are usually found in the nightmare blackness between 90 metres and an incredible 2.5 kilometres beneath the ocean’s surface. Though they weren’t commercially fished until the 1970s, these two species have collapsed so severely that the decline is statistically stated as 99.7 percent for the onion-eye and 100 percent for the roundnose. The fact that it does not represent true extinction doesn’t make the number any less shocking: a 100 percent crash in the wealth of a species. There is an actual theory to predict these sorts of outcomes: the “factor of ten hypothesis” of marine biologist Ransom A. Myers, who noted that human exploitation of a wild species tends to result in a rapid decline to a fraction of the population, at which point the animal in question is presumably scarce enough that it no longer makes economic sense to pursue it intensively. That tipping point? About 10 percent.

Ihave been making the case that ours is a 10 Percent World, and now I want to unmake it a little. The purpose of all this—my purpose, anyway—is not to demand some romantic return to a pre-human Eden, but rather to expand our options. Our sense of what is possible sets limits on our dreams.

Should grizzly bears roam free in Saskatchewan? I say they should; you may disagree. We would surely both accept, though, that it matters to know that the bears were once there—that the first undisputed grizzly sighting by a European explorer, Henry Kelsey, occurred in 1691 near the location of the modern-day town of Preeceville, some 300 kilometres dead east of Saskatoon. There is no monument. I doubt a poll has ever been taken, but I suspect it is fair to say that a near-consensus of Saskatchewanians are unaware that the grizzly bear option is even on the table.

Out of the threads of historical ecology, then, comes that most modern of ideals: choice. If the twentieth century was the golden age of conservation, in which people around the globe fought to save the last and the best of the natural world from total conversion to human purposes, then the twenty-first will mark something new. Conservationism will still have a place, but the goal of simply protecting parcels of land and sea in a world otherwise ever more degraded has never been enough. There is the other 90 percent of the planet’s potential to consider. I am talking about an Age of Restoration or, even better, an Age of Integration—an era in which human beings learn to live not only alongside but also among more species, in more abundance, than we ever have before.

Perhaps it is too much, too soon, but the oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico could be seen as a first test of this dawning age. Within hours of President Obama’s call for an environmental recovery plan that reaches back farther than April 20, 2010, the day the drilling rig exploded with the loss of eleven men, citizens’ groups were floating proposals for the restoration of oyster reefs that had been mined for road building; for actions to reverse the loss of 6,000 square kilometres of wetlands over the past century; for freshwater diversion to support the shrunken seagrass beds once grazed by millions of sea turtles. Even the Gulf’s dead zone finally crept into news reports—the horror that came before the horror. All of this is only the beginning for a recovery plan that is expected to be the costliest in American history and will take years to develop and decades to implement. There is ample time to delve into our collective amnesia, if only we keep reminding ourselves how much we have forgotten.

Wherever people draw the line of normality for the Gulf Coast, it will be the result of difficult decisions and hands-on intervention. There is no option to stand by and let nature take its course; there is not enough of the natural left in the equation. The Mississippi River alone, if unchained from the engineering wonders of its dikes and channels, would destroy whole communities, in some cases economically and in others with the devouring force of its waters. Even in natural systems, many ecologists now argue, “normal” is an intricate balance of stasis and change. Yet if nature’s complexity has been described as “noisy clockwork,” then the singular tone of the human era has been that of a pendulum slowly winding down. The Gulf today is the result of an accumulation of choices that touch on everything from the type of fertilizer being spread on suburban lawns in Minnesota, to the thirst for irrigation in Texas, to the global response to climate change. The error of the past has been to make those choices without the benefit of memory. The Gulf Coast of tomorrow will again be the end point of thousands of decisions; every one of them is better informed by a vision of the world as it can be.

It is a difficult vision to hang on to, as appalling in what it says about the present as it is inspiring about the possible future. I remember how quickly the apparition faded from my eyes that afternoon in Buenos Aires. One moment, the fork-tailed flycatcher had erased time and space in the beat of its wings, and in the next it was only a bird, and the forest by the ancient river was nothing more than a park. My brother and I passed some time in its respite, then made our way back into the hot and crowded streets. We were young men, and we had plans to sit at a certain café at a certain hour, because we had been sitting there and then the previous day when a dizzyingly beautiful woman walked by. We had the idea that the past is somehow carried effortlessly into the future, the same sense of history as that of a dog that goes back to a place where meat once dropped off a counter. The young woman wasn’t there, of course—only flies circling empty plates on abandoned tables.

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