By Tito Sasaki
I remember when I was a young student in London, the stain I used to get on my shirt was black soot. Up to the 1950s, all buildings in my neighborhood were heated by coal-fired steam. In many industrial areas, soot from factories was so pervasive that the tree bark turned black.
The peppered moth normally comes in light peppered color, indistinguishable from the tree surface they rest on. In 1848, early in the industrial life of Manchester, a dark colored one was found. Within 50 years nearly all of the moths in Manchester were dark, making it difficult again for the predators to find them on now soot-stained trees. After the passage of the UK Clean Air Act of 1956, the air gradually cleared and trees regained their natural color, and the dark moth became rare again.
Should government have protected the dark moth from extinction by restoring its habitat? British government didn’t order landowners to keep staining the trees with soot. It could have if they thought, as many of us seem to think, that critters had inherent right to their habitat.
As Darwin inferred a century and half ago and the peppered moth history corroborated, environment determines what species or sub-species should evolve and thrive, not the other way round. It’s odd that our environmental regulations are all geared to preserving species and their past habitat, rather than modulating the anthropogenic environmental changes to ease the evolutionary process.
Environment is never static. It always changes, and species adapt, evolve, or perish. Biologists estimate there are up to 100-million species. 27,000 species are estimated to go extinct or replaced each year. EPA lists some 2,000 species (0.002% of all species) and protects them “at any cost.” We bear a heavy cost of compliance, but would it make any real difference to the whole ecological dynamics?
Even without regulations, no decent human being today will wantonly destroy habitat or drive species to premature extinction. That being said, it is difficult to tell if human actions cause serious damage in the long run.
Clearing of the forests in the eastern United States for farms and cities had eliminated all but 1~2% of the original forest areas. Yet, only 3 forest birds went extinct in those 200+ years.
Between 1946 and 1958, Bikini Atoll was the site of extensive nuclear tests. The blasts obliterated three islands, annihilated wildlife, and contaminated the atoll. Today, however, the coral reefs flourish and fish abound again, making the area one of the most pristine sport fishing grounds in the world.
Now, let’s see what’s going on around here. A new regulatory policy is emerging to control the stream temperature by a few degrees through strict edict on tree canopies. We are presumably guilty of thermally polluting the streams by letting the sunshine fall to the water. How this policy will help fish or hurt farmers is not the regulators’ main concern.
In Santa Rosa and Schellville, to protect the habitat for the tiger salamander and the salt marsh harvest mouse, new regulations are in place now restricting normal farming activities even though these species have been surviving through such activities for more than a century.
We have no choice but to live under the existing web of environmental regulations. But we must deliberate on what is really needed. Then you should tell your legislators what you reason tomorrow’s environmental laws and regulations should be. They might listen.