Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Homo economicus - and the Passenger Pigeon

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of an entire species. The Passenger Pigeon officially went extinct on Sept. 1, 1914, when "Martha" died, age 29.
Although this is tragic, for many reasons, and is not - alas - a unique event, even in the past 150 years, the extinction of this bird stands out because it didn't happen to some rarity, such as a species endemic to a single island. The species we wiped out once numbered in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. Whole flocks took days to pass overhead, blackening the skies, even changing the weather with the collective force of their wing beats. That was one species that "should have" withstood any and every assault the human population had the power and stupidity to exact upon it.
Yet it didn't.
There are many theories about the rapid collapse of this once-numerous bird species, and I won't get into them here. What has always interested me is the psychology - a collective mind, if you will - behind the relentless slaughter.
Human beings are incredibly diverse in their thinking, yet we can make some generalizations (albeit carefully). When faced with a huge supply of some "resource" (a word I have learned to use sparingly), something in the average mind opens up the floodgates. It is open season on whatever that abundant item happens to be: fresh water (e.g., huge lake, regular rains); minerals; fruit; easily caught animals; even human capital, e.g., housework performed by wives (that is, unpaid labor as part of a social contract). The abundant good or service ends up being taken for granted, and it is often exploited, abused. Even if it has high utility - it is very useful, for example, for a working man if he can come home to a clean house and a warm meal - it will end up having low value. That's when the trouble begins.
Lacking any grasp of ecology (a word that didn't yet exist, actually), the North Americans of the mid-1800s relentlessly pursued the passenger pigeon, and forced it into oblivion. If some people with the power of persuasion - a big if! - had studied the birds and figured out what role they played in the ecosystem, perhaps they could have curtailed the overkill. In fact, had they taken a look at the almost contemporary overkill of the bison, a species that went to the brink but did not go over (thus exists in small numbers to this day), they may have stopped before it was too late.
I think the numbers doomed the passenger pigeon. A smaller population overall, or many locally modest gatherings, perhaps, could have failed to provoke the frenzy of blood lust, and spared the species. (Habitat loss contributed to the decline, by reducing nesting sites, but the slaughter was responsible for more actual deaths.)
Are we genetically predisposed to act like this? Are we, as author Philip Roscoe suggests in his new book, I Shop Therefore I Am, Homo economicus? Do we always see the world in terms of costs and benefits, calculations of value, and the almighty Bottom Line?
It's an interesting proposal, and I tend to agree. I wish he were wrong. Although people defy "conventions" and buck trends all the time, it's a pretty sad state of affairs if we tend to see the world through money-colored glasses. It is cold and short-sighted, and results in things like disappearing species. In fact, it may have helped usher in the Sixth Great Extinction.
It's time we tweaked that vision, exploded the paradigm.
That other "eco" word - ecology - is, in my opinion, a better alternative.
I will write about that another time.

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