What Will They Say in 50 Years?

(Originally posted as guest moderator at America's Wild Read)

This morning, I received an email from someone who had attended a talk I gave recently. He asked: “Is there anything going on nowadays that you would consider comparable to the Green River poisoning? Is there anything that we are currently doing that is as stupid or outlandish or that will be considered insane 50 years from now?”

Good question.

First, for those of you who haven’t read that chapter of the book yet: In 1962 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the fish and game agencies of Wyoming and Utah poisoned all the fish in the Green River above Flaming Gorge (a watershed the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined). Their goal was to eliminate anything that might interfere with the fishery they planned to create by stocking (nonnative) rainbow trout.

And let me emphasize that there are still people today who argue (quite convincingly) that the operation was neither stupid or insane, but a logical response to the dams that were being built on the river (see Wiley, 2008).

That said, clearly such an operation would never even make it onto the drawing board today. In fact, we have now spent more than $100 million trying to recover several of the same fishes that were poisoned out 50 years ago.

So is there anything we are currently doing in fisheries or natural resource management that will have people tearing their hair out in a few decades? Of course.

But one of the most striking things to me about the Green River incident is how absolutely noncontroversial it was when it occurred. When I began my research, I was surprised at how hard it was to find newspaper articles about the incident. After a lot of scrolling through the microfiche, I eventually found a few, but they were mostly puff pieces in the sports section. It took a long time for me to realize that most people in that era simply didn’t think in the same native/nonnative dualism that has become so prevalent today. To them, fishes were divided into the game fish and the trash fish. Neither did Americans seem to have the same skepticism about progress and our ability to engineer natural systems. It was commonly believed that scientists were able and duty-bound to accomplish these things.

That’s why it is so difficult to guess what they will be saying about us 50 or 100 years from now. I’m sure we are doing things that future generations will consider stupid, outlandish, or insane. But we’re all too wrapped up in our worldviews and preconceptions to know what those things may be.

I have some ideas of course, at least in terms of concepts that seem ripe for rethinking. For example, the native/nonnative dualism that shapes so much thought in natural resource management today will surely have to be deemphasized if not thrown out. Climate change is about to show us how quickly ecosystems can change and organisms can move.

In addition, I think the incredible emphasis that we currently place on conservation of species will one day seem hopelessly simplistic. (The same thing goes for biodiversity since, despite the best intentions, it is almost always quantified in terms of species.) Though it seemed a relatively well defined concept through most of the twentieth century, the very definition of “species” is once again generating some serious head-scratching in the biological community, just as it did for Darwin.

Finally, at risk of stating the obvious, let me declare that just because we're going to make mistakes is not an excuse for not taking action. Only a call for humility when we do.

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