Nature is the Cruellest Killer

It is often said that humans are the biggest threat to the environment. True. But it is also true that the biggest threat to humans is the environment. The Gujarat earthquake has shown, like hurricanes and droughts before it, that nature is a ruthless mass killer.

Charles Darwin would have told you that you do not need earthquakes or hurricanes to understand that mass killing is the very ethos of the environment. In your back garden, various rival grasses and weeds, rival insects and worms, are battling for space and survival. If the temperature goes up a couple of degrees, that helps some species overcome others. If humidity goes up a bit, that helps some other species. A deadly war to the death is going on under your very eyes, under cover of what looks like a peaceful green lawn. Only the fittest survive.

Nature’s law is: Eat or be eaten. Wild animals know that well. Actually, nature’s law is even more deadly: Eat and be eaten. For even the victorious who eat their rivals today will one day die and then be eaten by others. That’s nature.

Earlier this week, I read of a big oil spill in the Galapagos Islands, which helped Darwin formulate his theory of evolution. Environmentalists bemoan the threat the oil spill poses to many unique species in the Galapagos Islands. Situated far off the coast of South America, the sheer isolation of the islands has helped its species evolve in unique ways. The original animals flew or swam from the mainland to the islands, but mutated over the millenia to produce the world’s only marine iguanas, unique giant tortoises, land iguanas and mocking birds. An ecological paradise, it now attracts thousands of tourists. The Ecuador government wisely limits the number of tourists per year, to reduce the strain on the environment.

Yet, when I visited the islands last year, I learned that nature could wreak far more havoc on the animals than tourists. The cold Humboldt Current wells up and brings a huge amount of plankton and other marine food to the sea around the islands. This supports large colonies of sea lions, pelicans and other fish-eating birds. The coldness of the current reduces evaporation, and hence rainfall. The islands are not green at all, and land-based creatures thrive less than marine ones. Land iguanas, giant tortoises and mocking birds are less profuse than their marine brethren.

But once in a while along comes the phenomenon called El Nino, which produces a change of ocean currents. Around the islands, the cold Humboldt Current is replaced by the warm Panama Current. This has much less plankton and marine food, and so suddenly the sea lions and fish-eating birds find that there is not enough to eat. Our guide told us that 80 per cent of the sea lions in Galapagos died the previous year during El Nino. Their skeletons littered the shores, he said.

Nature’s selection was ruthless. Those who died were the very young or old, the sick, the crippled. There was no mercy for the weak. Only the fittest survived. Nature is elitist and anti-welfare: It favours the strong over the weak and handicapped. How ironic that so many socialists have become nature-lovers.

But the warm current during El Nino also brought more rainfall, and this helped all land species on the islands to boom. Vegetation flourished, there was more water and biomass for all land-based creatures, and their population boomed. Mocking birds suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

But nature is capricious. El Nino typically lasts only one year. Having killed thousands of animals, it sneaks away, and the cold current returns. This is a boon for the sea lions and pelicans, whose population once again begins to soar. But the decline in rainfall means there is suddenly not enough water or biomass on land to support the population explosion caused by El Nino. Land creatures begin to die in droves. That is nature’s way of creating an ecological balance.

I visited the islands the year after El Nino had passed. The waters were cool again and the sea lions were gambolling merrily. But the wretched mocking birds came and perched on our arms and shoulders, begging for water. They were dying of thirst, and had learned from experience that tourists carry bottles of water. Our guide told us that it was against the rules to give the birds any water. That would only lead to an excess population, he said, and upset the ecological balance on the islands. That balance had to be restored by the mass death of birds born in the warm-water cycle.

I watched in dismay as one mocking bird pecked at the thin excreta of an iguana, trying to salvage some moisture from the diarrhoea. Having come so far to see nature’s glories, one also had to witness nature’s cruelty. It used mass starvation for social engineering, systematically killing the weakest and letting only the strongest survive.

I have always been amused by the notion of romantic pastoralists that nature provides enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed. This implies that nature is bountiful while man is a greedy over-consumer. Please try telling that to the creatures on the Galapagos Islands. Try telling it to those killed by the Gujarat earthquake or Orissa cyclone.

While debunking ecological romanticism, one must not debunk ecology wholesale, or condone environmental damage caused by humans. The fact that nature is a mass killer does not mean that humans should add to its destruction. To the ravages of earthquakes and hurricanes, El Ninos and droughts, we should not add the ravages of soil and water degradation. Our aim must be to provide a more secure environment in which humans are less at risk. We can do nothing to stop earthquakes and hurricanes, but we can reduce environmental degradation. Let us not behave as badly as nature does.

What do you think?