There are so many ways humans and other beings shape each other’s lives, for bad and for good, often in ways we fail to notice let alone understand. In this episode, we explore the relationship between human beings and other beings—between humans and animals, humans and plants, and humans and the earth itself. We talk to Robin Wall Kimmerer, author, scientist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and Emma Marris, author and journalist, about the interconnections between beings and the role we play in this fluid web of relationships and responsibilities.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which has earned Kimmerer wide acclaim. Her first book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing, and her other work has appeared in Orion, Whole Terrain, and numerous scientific journals. She tours widely and has been featured on NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippett and in 2015 addressed the general assembly of the United Nations on the topic of “Healing Our Relationship with Nature.” Kimmerer lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both Indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability.
- Watch our full conversation with Robin Wall Kimmerer from March 2022.
- Read Robin Wall Kimmerer's essay on language, kinship, and the natural world published in Orion Magazine.
Emma Marris is the author of Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World and Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.
She also writes about the human and nonhuman worlds, and the enduringly complex relationships between them for National Geographic, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Wired, and other publications. She lives in Oregon with her husband—with whom she occasionally co-authors environmental philosophy papers—and their two children.
- An excerpt from Emma Marris's Wild Souls appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Oregon Humanities magazine.
- In May 2022, Emma Marris presented her work as part of our So Much Together workshop series. Watch a recording of the presenation here.
Other writing and programs on environment and ecology from Oregon Humanities:
- "Re-Beavering a Monument" by Juliet Grable
- "Bringing Otters Back to Otter Rock" by Heather Wiedenhoft
- "Wonder, Bread" by Kathleen Dean Moore
- "How to Build a Kite" by Daniela Naomi Molnar
- Conversation Project: "What is the Environment For?" by Ruby McConnell
Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour. I'm Adam Davis.
To this point on The Detour, we've only had human beings as guests. We've only recorded, edited, and published conversations between people. This episode, called “Democracy of Species,” is no different. We talk with two people, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Emma Marris. But what we explore in these conversations with Robin and Emma is the relationship between human beings and other beings, between humans and animals, humans and plants, and humans and the earth itself. We also explore human responsibilities to non-human beings.
I don't know about you, but for me, it would be difficult to imagine a day without plenty of encounters with non-human beings: the sound of little brown birds as I wake up; leaves low overhead as I walk with my eager, willful dog; ornery crews barking at us as we return home. And this is all before the sun is up—and in the pavement-filled city. And these are only the most obvious ways my life affects and is affected by other beings, mostly on an individual level. Then there are the larger systems I'm part of and also shaping, even if I'm hardly aware of it: roads, wires, cars, homes, water in and water out, and on and on.
There's so many ways human beings and other beings shape each other's lives, for bad and for good, in ways we often fail to notice, let alone understand. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Emma Marris pay a lot of careful attention to how our lives are folded in with the lives of other beings and to the interconnections between these beings. Robin and Emma help bring to light all the beings in the world and how those beings, including human beings, relate to one another.
Whether they're looking at mosses or sweet grass, rats or cats, maples or wolves or humans, Robin and Emma are really good at helping us see our world and ourselves more fully. They're also really good at challenging us to reconsider our role in this fluid and dynamic web of relationships and responsibilities.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She's the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Oregon Humanities reached out to Robin and as part of our Consider This series on the theme American Dreams, American Myths, American Hopes because of her efforts to expand how people think about nationhood and the responsibilities of citizenship—and because of the way she herself thinks, both scientifically and metaphorically, both critically and hopefully.
Given the theme, American Dreams, American Myths, American Hopes, I want to note that the titles of your books, and much of the meat of the books, are about plants: sweet grass, mosses, many other kinds of plants—maples. And yet there are words in those books like government and revolution and democracy that show up a good bit.
So as we ease into exploring the theme, I wanted to ask you right here at the start. Do you think of yourself as a political person? Is it sort of, do you think of these books as political books? Maybe that's a way to start.
Robin: That's a good question. I certainly didn't conceive of them as political books.
Um, but I understand of course that by presenting an alternative to the kind of dominant conventional Western worldview, it, it certainly challenges colonialism, challenges the status quo, and invites us to consider ourselves and how we organize one another in relationship to each other and certainly to the land in different ways.
So while I didn't intend it that way, I'm often really grateful when folks say, oh, this is a dangerous book. I feel like, oh, great.
Adam: And dangerous, politically dangerous in some ways.
Robin: Oh yes. Dangerous in, in, in, in, in challenging. Uh, dominant thought patterns.
Adam: Yeah. Great. Maybe we can stay there a little bit. I'm curious especially about dominant thought patterns. So you just mentioned Maple Nation, and in Braiding Sweetgrass, you talk about citizenship of Maple Nation. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you see citizenship of Maple Nation contrasting with, or aligning with, say, citizenship of the United States. How are those kinds of citizenship similar and how are they different?
Robin: Well, one of the challenges that comes with thinking of yourself as a citizen of Maple Nation is certainly, um, grounded in an Indigenous perspective where we view, you know, American political boundaries as imposed artificial lines that sometimes divide our homelands and often divide our homelands.
But what I really mean by being a citizen is: what are your shared values? And I think oftentimes our values fail to be rooted in the land. They're not often biocentric or life-centered values. They're more anther anthropocentric. Um, so by claiming citizenship and Maple Nation, I want to say I belong to a community bigger than humans. I love my human community, but there are way more maple trees where I live than there are people, and those maple trees are playing really important roles as community members, but to human people, they're often invisible. Well, they're just objects. They're just trees. But by claiming citizenship in Maple Nation, it gives respect to the non-human persons and recognize, you know, our interdependence.
In a way, you know, when we think about sort of American political ideals, this notion of independence, and that a hallmark of our governance system is the Bill of Rights. I think about a wonderful friend and historian, the late Chief Irving Powless, of the Onondaga Nation, who would talk about the fact that when we met with the founding fathers of the American democracy, as they did, he said they got a lot of things right, but they kind of messed up because they wrote the Bill of Rights instead of the Bill of Responsibilities. And to me, that's one of the major contrasts between being a citizen of a political entity and being a citizen of an ecological entity: that we're governed by our responsibilities to each other, not claiming individual rights.
Adam: So those are already two powerful differences. One is, I think, a declaration of independence versus a kind of recognition and declaration of interdependence. And then also a bill of rights as contrasted with a bill of responsibilities or even duties, which is another word you use.
So can I ask you—and, you know, we're maybe not that great at talking about citizen responsibilities and citizen duties here in this country. We emphasize rights. Can you like, what are, what should we be responsible for? What are the duties that we have as you see it?
Robin: Hmm. Well, duties to recognize that that nobody thrives unless everybody thrives. You know, as an ecologist, this is what the land tells you, this is what ecological science is telling you that, that we are all connected, we are all related. That there is scarcely such a thing as an I; It's all a great big we. And, so that's what I really think about is our responsibilities for sharing with each other, for respecting each other, for in a sense nurturing each other's well-being, because an individual's well-being depends on the well-being of the whole.
Adam: So I can nod at that, and then I think about how I spend my day and I wonder where I fall—where I fall very short, where I fall somewhat short, how rare it is that I'm really thinking of the whole or thinking in a fully ecological way, the way you're describing. As you go through your day, do you feel like here's where I'm living into this vision and here are some ways I fall short? I mean, concretely, how do you know?
Robin: Oh, sure. All the time. It's kind of a dance, isn't it, between those things that pull us towards efficiency and productivity and all those things that the world demands of us and to back off from that and remember our responsibilities to each other. On a daily basis, you know what really helps me to be grounded and trying to live that out is always starting the day with gratitude—with you know, naming all of those beings to whom I'm related. And not in a generic way—like, you know, when I'm standing outside and the first cardinal of the spring is singing, my thanks go directly there. And then I think, well, what's my responsibility to that cardinal? And it reminds me to fill the bird feeder, in a very tangible kind of way of reciprocity. You gave me a song this morning, and the least I can do is offer you some sunflower seeds.
That's an easy one, right? But that's, for me, kind of a model of what I hope to be able to do is to say, well, in return for the gift of being a scientist, you know, what am I going to do about that? How do I, how do I pay that back? Um, with my students, with my writing. You know, it's trying, it's trying to hold yourself accountable to the gifts and to the privileges that you have. Do I do that 24 7? Of course not. It is an aspiration at which I often fail. But the small acts—taking out the compost is my act of reciprocity with the soil that feeds me, putting solar panels on my house is an act of reciprocity. So there are big things like solar panels and little things like compost, but I hope that they all add up. When you feel like you have everything you need, you don't necessarily need to go out and buy anything.
Adam: I want to ask, on the one hand, this really feeling and naming and recognizing all that we should be grateful for. And in your example, you referred to the Onondaga for example, and there's also real injustice that's been done. And to try to—how to hold these two together, the sense of injustice on one hand and gratitude on the other.
Robin: Hmm. I'm really interested that you're putting those in tension with one another, because I don't necessarily find them so. The injustices—not only of history, but the continuing injustices associated with colonialism and the tremendous inequities—to me, they're separate things. The gratitude that we feel, for our beingness, for our relatives, for the land, is unchanging and grounds us in a way that allows us both to persevere through injustices and provides a kind of cultural identity and strength that lets you combat injustice. When you have a model of abundance, I think it gives you a platform of more courage and resilience to do the work of healing, injustices. It's a really good question. I'm sure I'm going to think about that some more.
Adam: OK, thanks. I mean, it's interesting because this series theme is on dreams, myths, and hopes that are identified with—and we put the word American in front of each of those words. Hard to hear “American dream” without thinking about nightmarish parts of this country. It's hard to think of myths without thinking of ideology. And it's hard to think of hopes without thinking of those that aren't realized. And at the same time, going back to, for example, the questions that we received from people planning to join tonight, the word hope showed up in a lot of those questions.
And just interesting to note that there—you were going to say something, please.
Robin: I was. We are in a time when we were so hungry for hope, aren't we? And we're looking for it in many, many places. Um, and so I think a lot about hope. And there's one part of me that says that, you know, I'm by nature, a really optimistic person who tends to see the positive—well, of course I'm a botanist, I hang out with plants, so that colors one's worldview—but I also have the great privilege of being a professor, of being a teacher, and I get to hang out and spend my time and energy with amazing young people who are so full of ideas and imagination and energy to, um, participate in the great turning that Joanna Macy talks about, right? Of turning away from this worldview of destruction to one of creativity. Um, so I am buoyed up by my students, for sure. But honestly, when I think about hope, I'm not really sure what that means to separate it from optimism. To me I find it hard to separate hope from love. Because I might hope for a certain kind of future, and it might be wishful thinking, but it doesn't matter because I'm just going to keep on loving the world—and maybe loving it harder in a damaged state, in a wounded state, right? I think it’s love that is going to help us make the transformation that we need. And what’s the connection between love and hope? It’s when we act on the connection between the love that we feel.
Um, it seems to me that our great failing as a people over the last centuries is that we've really failed to love the land. And failed to love the land enough in all of its fullness as a nation of tree citizens, not land as property, and land is natural resources and those kinds of myths. Um, those are good myths for you: land as property, land as commodity. But land as family, as responsibility, as teacher, as identity, as sacred, that's a kind of, love of land that I can get behind.
Adam: And let's stay with plants a bit. Um, you just talked about, you went straight from talking about being a botanist who studies plants to being a professor buoyed up by students. And it felt to me, like you were saying, in a way, the hope that you get from mosses, let's say, is in some ways quite like the hope you get from students.
Robin: It's true.
Adam: I mean, reading Gathering Mosses, I felt like, yes, it was about mosses, but it was also about people, and about the relation between the two. While you were writing Gathering Mosses, like when you go look at moss, do you think about the mosses? Do you think about how the moss functions as a metaphor? Uh, how much is that an explicit part of what you feel like is going on inside of you?
Robin: It all happens for me at the same time. As a naturalist, as a scientist, I'm incredibly fascinated, of course, by the structure and the function and ecology of mosses—and to say nothing of how beautiful they are, right? But at the same time, the notion of plants as teachers is so much a part of the lens at which I look at the world. When I look at tiny little mosses, I can't help but think about living simply and relying on each other because that's what they're doing. That's how, that's how they're surviving. That's how they're blanketing the world with green is by relying on each other. And by not ask asking much from their environment at all, but by living within their ecological means, that's how they live. And so it's the microcosm of the mosses that you could look at through a microscope, but then there's the telescope of what it means of what would it be like to live like mosses? And what could we learn from that kind of humility?
It's just a truth that, you know, I see the world in those kinds of metaphors of what do plants have to teach us? They are themselves and they are their lessons all in the same beautiful green package.
Adam: So that phrase you just spoke, they are themselves and they are, sort of, what they mean. Uh, you know, a couple of different directions I'm hoping we can go. The first is to just follow what you see in the mosses again. And you say at one point, and I'm going to quote you back to yourself, I hope that's okay.
Robin: Only if it's good.
Adam: Well, you get to decide, but I think I'm quoting it to you because I think it's good.
“I hold tight to the vision that someday soon we will find the courage of self-restraint, the humility to live like mosses.”
And you just talked about the humility. I'm curious about courage. What do you mean by the courage of self-restraint? Why courage?
Robin: I think separating our needs and our wants and saying to oneself, “I have enough,” takes some courage because we're surrounded by messages that are constantly telling us that we're not good enough, we don't have enough, we need to get more. And so it does take courage to practice self-restraint against those messages. Um, there's also a kind of a courage that comes with real humility.
In the Potawatomi way of thinking about humility, we don't mean it in the same way that English does, of kind of being self-effacing or self-deprecating. What our language teachers tell us that it actually means is that we don't think of ourselves as more important than others, which doesn't mean we're not all really important, but none of us are more important than the others. It's almost an invitation to celebrate the importance of others. And so the courage to recognize that you're not the master of the universe is what I mean. It's a kind of courage associated with humility and lifting up others rather than yourself.
Adam: You're listening to The Detour With Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Adam: That brings me back to a phrase that I continue to turn over since I came across it in, I think, first in Braiding Sweetgrass. And that is “democracy of species.” Let's talk about democracy, but democracy of species. I want to ask the very simple question: What is democracy of species? What do you mean?
Robin: Hmm. The way that I like to think about that is maybe with a myth, Adam, given the theme of this conversation. The myth of human exceptionalism, as if human people were at the top of this fictional pyramid, a pyramid of, of intelligence, a pyramid of entitlement, a pyramid of who is inspirited and who is not. We tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of creation and that all the rest of the beings are below us.
That, of course, is not a democracy of species. That's kind of a hierarchical dictator who thinks of all the others as below him or her and lesser than, whereas the democracy of species to me means not a fictional pyramid but like a beautiful spider web of connection or a big circle in which all the beings are relatives.
They're all equal, not the same as each other. They're all gloriously different, but they have the same claim to the wealth of the world. And they have the same rights to be that human people do. By a democracy of species, I mean living in such a way that we recognize the beingness of each other, the personhood of each other, and that we all have a right and a responsibility and a gift to bring to the whole.
And that's what democracy is to me is: doing your part, knowing that you're connected and giving back in return for everything that you've been given. To me, that's democracy of upholding each other. And I want to live in a world where salamanders have rights where, where redwoods have rights. That's what I mean by the democracy of species.
Adam: It's funny, I was going to the salamanders in my head when you mentioned them. I was going to that moment when you described being out there with your students and in a way that challenge of wanting to measure how cars are affecting the salamander population and at the same time wanting to save the salamanders that are crossing the road—and the tension between let's do the science well, which means let's not mess with what's happening, let's measure it. And on the other hand, can't we stop these cars or pick up these salamanders and move them across. And so there, I do want to ask about that felt like a metaphor as well as the tension between measuring and understanding and intervening.
Robin: Yes. Yeah. And it's partly the tension between looking at the world as oftentimes scientific method asks us to do, always ask us to do, is to consider the world as object. And the desire to intervene out of compassion for those salamanders considers the world as subject, and Western science in the form of knowledge generation to kind of asks us for that objectivity.
Um, and in the, in that, the case of those rainy night of trying to save salamanders, I think there's also the sense that there are multiple ways to save salamanders. We, we could—as we did—pick them up and carry them across the road. But I think we also save salamanders by doing good salamander science because when we talk to policy makers, and we want to have, have culverts put in or roads closed so that salamanders can safely migrate, we live in a world where they're not going to say, um, you feel badly for those, your kinfolk, the salamanders, therefore we're going to make this change. They listen to data. They listen to evidence. So there is a way in which doing that science saves salamanders in the long run. And so I respect both of those, but they are, but they're really different impulses.
And I think we have to do both. It's not a matter of either/or, but we have to do both, and we have to do them with as much respect and compassion as we can.
Adam: And thinking about the word reciprocity that you used before. I want to ask the crude question about, sort of, what about salamanders' orientation toward us?
Like, I'm thinking about this idea of the democracy and species and, um, if we want to either save, help, measure—and I think I know where you might go with this, but I'm curious—do you have a sense of how salamanders might regard or should regard humans?
Robin: Hmm, what an interesting question.
Oh, it's just launching this wonderful imagining of what that would be to be a salamander crossing the road and saying, "Who in the world interrupted our soft bed of leaves with asphalt? Where did that come from?" Do they even know us? Do they even know us? Are our worlds so different that they scarcely imagine us?
I don't know. I've honestly not done the exercise of trying to think like a salamander, but I know that they see very clearly the impacts that we have had on their lives. Whether they attribute it to the same beings who were there in a raincoat and a flashlight, trying to carry them across the road, I don't know.
I don't know, but more broadly speaking, I think there's an important philosophical construct of saying that we are nonetheless responsible for each other. And that just as we view them as, as kinfolk, you know, deeply other, you know, uh, salamanders are deeply different than we are, but can we still have compassion for them and respect for them?
I guess I would want them to have compassion and respect for us. And you know, the other thing, I hope that they have for us forgiveness.
Adam: Hmm. Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting. It's I think it's because this phrase democracy of species got in my head and then I was—and then you say at one point “the dictates of the real government, the democracy of species, the laws of nature.”
And then, so I was trying to think about the differences between human laws and the laws of nature, and how it would be easier if they aligned in practice more, but, but like the laws of—human laws in democracy, especially, I think it's a law we try to give to ourselves and the laws of nature feel like they're from a larger place.
And so when you say the dictates of the real government. Can I just push you to elaborate on that a little bit?
Robin: Yeah. And in that phrasing, what I really mean are the laws of nature, right? Um, and absolutely that's a call for an alignment of human constructed governance and economies to align with the natural laws.
And, and you know, maybe one of the easiest examples of natural law, um, that we are so out of balance with in social and economic institutions is this idea of unlimited growth. Right? Every day you hear, oh, well we, in order to be successful, the economy has to grow. Well that's not a law of nature. In natural systems things can't grow indefinitely. They can't. There's finite limits on resources and space and light. Unlimited growth is, uh, is a construct of being human-centric. We want things to grow so we can have more. Why we need more, never always clear. But, but in natural systems, systems fall apart if they try to grow infinitely.
And so why do we model our economy after something which violates the laws of thermodynamics, in a sense? Um, and there are regenerative economies, circular economies that, that are much more aligned with the laws of nature that, that don't demand endless growth and therefore endless extraction and exploitation.
Adam: So I feel like thinking about stories that illustrate larger truth. Now I think we're moving in the direction of the Wendigo, the story of the Wendigo and just as you were talking, I was thinking, where does, where does the Wendigo come from? Where does, where does, uh, being that is so out of step with the laws of nature, come from? what I'm asking is where do we, who build these roads and then need to try to save salamanders from our own cars?
Where do we come from, given that we seem to come from nature in some way? How did that rupture seem to develop?
Robin: There's so many dimensions to your question. Let me start with the last letter, part of your questions are where did we get this exploitive mindset? I think that is a direct response to human exceptionalism, to thinking that human beings are different and superior from all other beings.
That of course we can build roads through wetlands because those wetlands belong to us. We're in charge here and it's up to us to do as we wish—those are some of the direct ideas from the Abrahamic religions, right? Of dominion over land. And the idea that that humans are at the top of some pyramid, that we alone are sacred beings, as opposed to the notion that we're all sacred beings, salamanders and cattails and, you know, maple trees alike. So where did it come from? I think it comes from that religious tradition quite honestly, of a separation of humans from the rest of our kinfolk.
Adam: I think, as you're talking, I'm thinking about the complexity of reigning in—how hard it is to do something other than the biological imperative. I love your pointing to culture and stories and law as the way we try to do that. And I wonder, do you see that sort of reigning in, in other beings as well? Or is it something we, most of all, we, we strange humans, most of all have to try to do?
Robin: I think that there must be reigning in because all beings subject to evolution by natural selection would be manifesting this, this will to live right? This will to continue and pass on our genes. But how do we explain things like Suzanne Simard’s wonderful discoveries about the sharing networks that trees have—that trees who have plenty are sharing with those who don't have enough, um, they're sharing with their offspring.
It still manifests the evolutionary imperative to pass on your genes to the next generation, but they don't have to be passed on in your own physical self. They could be passed on in the well-being of your relatives as well. So I can think about mycorrhizal networks and forest networks as a kind of self-restraint.
Or maybe it's more a dissolution of the self—that it's not the self that matters; it’s the we that matters. Um, and, and, and that's, that's what a lot of ethics and culture suggest too. That's why we have those Wendigo stories to say, you're not alone here. It's not just you that matters. We all need to survive here.
And if we share and where we're not that greedy cannibal Wendigo, then we have a shot at it.
Adam: Thank you. So, Robin, we are moving towards closing this part of the program. I like the expression you just made. Um, and you know, we invited people who were going to watch this to share questions. And I wanted to ask you actually, if you, lately, these days, whatever these days means. Do you feel like you've had a persistent question or two in your head, some question that has recurred?
Robin: Yes. Yes. And, you know, this is a question that, if I might, I would love to share with your thoughtful audience, and it grows out of the beginning of Braiding Sweetgrass with the story of Sky Woman, where your readers will remember in this creation story, she falls from the Sky World to the new world, what becomes Turtle Island, right? And brings her gifts there. And so the world unfolds, you know, there are a number of different stories about how she came to fall. There are some stories in which she just slipped. There are some stories in which shall we say she was helped along, because she had work to do, but was reluctant to do it. The question that has been on my mind, knowing strong Native women, I don't guess it was an accident. What if she jumped? My question is what if she jumped to a new world—and metaphorically, what do we need to do to jump to a new world?
You know, so much of the environmental movement to my mind has been driven by fear, by looking over our shoulders and saying, “Wow, something really bad is coming toward us.” And they're not wrong. And so you jumped to a new world because you're afraid of what's coming and afraid of what you've created. But the world that I want to live in is a world that is so beautiful and whole that you want to jump to it so that you jump because of love, not because of fear. And the question that I have for readers is what do we need from each other to jump?
Adam: Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
Emma Marris is the author of Wild Souls and Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. She writes about the human and non-human worlds in the enduringly complex relationships between them for National Geographic, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Wired, and other publications.
Emma wrote a piece that we excerpted in the 2022 spring edition of Oregon Humanities magazine, on the theme “Care,” that inspired us to reach out to her.
Adam: Towards the end of Wild Souls, when you talk about the tension between caring for, being responsible to, an individual animal and individual non-human being and the larger flow, the species, or the larger system. I don't know if that analogy holds up for you, but how present as you go through your day is the choice or the tension between this creature right here and ecosystem writ large?
Emma: I do think that American culture is very hung up on individualism. Um, and so I think that there's a needed correction in terms of pushing us towards more collectivist thinking and more cooperative modes of trying to instantiate the world that we want to see. But at the same time, sometimes we can lose sight of the individuality of non-humans. We just think of a wolf as a member, a unit, in a population that we're trying to preserve. And we don't think about the day-to-day experience of that one wolf, you know—what she smelled when she woke up in the morning and what her goals were for the day and whether she was hungry when she went to bed.
So I think getting the balance right, in any given situation, between an individual framework and a collective framework, it's just one of the trickiest things. And one of the most interesting things, it's just a tension I just keep coming back to over and over again. And I think that's natural when your focus is the environment, right? Because the environment is—it's really just a kind of a boring way of saying this web of relationships that we're all in all the time. And navigating that web and trying to sort of do right by the whole web while at the same time, trying to sort of love and care for specific nodes in that web.
Adam: I wanted to give you back a sentence from right by the end of your book, where you say, “This template for decision-making should ideally be undertaken collectively by all the interested parties, perhaps including non-humans in the form of appointed representatives.” And there's so much in that sentence. So when you hear that sentence a years back, what do you must go to?
Emma: Perhaps naively, I wanted to leave the reader with some precepts to guide their actions if they wanted to do right by non-humans in a changing world, how ought they proceed. Um, but I found that some of these ethical conundrums were just—I couldn't give them a simple answer. There were, there are no simple answers. You know, should you kill a fox that is eating endangered species? I can't give you an ethical answer. You know, I can't tell you the answer to that, cause it's not a math problem. It depends on whether you think the individual life of the fox is more important or the lives of the endangered species are more important. And whether, you know, what kind of value you place on the endangerment as, as a modifier of all of that.
But the process is really framed somewhat individualistically uh, ironically enough. That you, Adam, would go through as you were trying to figure out what you thought about one of these issues. But in the real world, we don't make these kinds of decisions individually—unless you are, you know—it's rare the situation where a single individual gets to make these kinds of decisions usually.
And ideally these would be collective decisions. You know, should we institute—should we kill the feral cats in our ecosystem here in Australia, because they're eating endangered animals. We'd, we'd have to make that decision with a huge number of participants: the Aboriginal people, the local people, the scientists, the people who love cats, the people love endangered species. They all would have to have a seat at the table to try to come up with some answer. Or as I say, the cats and the endangered species should ideally have a seat at that table as well, somehow.
And there are already kind of, you know, there are, are moves in, in some legal systems towards this idea of having of non-humans having rights, and if they have rights and they're going to need lawyers. So what we're talking about here, when you read that sentence back to me, what I think about is a world—a just world is a world with a lot of meetings in it. And I have never yet figured out a way to get around that fact.
Adam: Interesting. And also maybe a lot of lawyers. I mean, it's interesting—
Emma: Or advocates anyway.
Adam: Okay, advocates. That seems like a somewhat gentler word. In a way, you're making me think. I used to work seasonally for the forest service and the parks service doing trail work. And one summer I worked in Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii, and I was just doing trail work, but I lived with a couple people who were doing, who were working on native species stuff, and they were studying the Argentine ant and invasive species, but then they got pulled into working with feral cats. And when I say working with feral cats, I mean, eradicating feral cats. And what that ended up being—so I asked them, how do you do this? And what they had done, they had realized that what they thought was the least cruel, most effective and efficient way to do this. Once they had trapped the cats was that they had created a little mini guillotine, and they would behead the feral cats in order to preserve, especially, native birds.
And I think for me, that was a real awakening to what some of this, what conservation work can look like.
Emma: Yeah. Yeah. And for listeners who are more familiar with sort of continental conservation work, anytime you get on an island, even an island as large as Australia, a lot of your conservation work suddenly becomes around this, about this kind of thing, which is dealing with these non-native predators, who are often the most immediate threat, along with habitat loss, to to native animals.
And so you very suddenly have this incredibly difficult decision to make between, you know, signing up to kill animals as part of your environmental practice or watching those introduced animals kill the animals that you love and care about as well.
Adam: And then while you were describing the beings that are the non-native threats, it's hard not to think. Huh? That's us.
Emma: So, okay. People will say the real invasive species is humans. And I can see where they're coming from, because what they're trying to point out here is the hypocrisy of us vilifying introduced animals and sort of saying, “Hey, it's all your fault. You bad cat, or you bad fox, or you bad rat,” when really was humans who moved them there in the first place. And I get that and I totally understand wanting to expose that hypocrisy. But I don't think that the solution is to then just vilify people. I think the solution is to really look at this assumption that every species has one place alone that it should stay in and never leave—and that all non-native species are problematic and need to go home.
And I don't think that's how ecology actually works in the long run. The species move around over long periods of time. Now, obviously the rate of species movement over the last thousand years is massively increased because of humans, because of our incredible busy, busy ways—because of the way like dogs, we're over here, we're over there, we're kind of moving around. We're very restless and we move other species. So the rates are vastly different.
But long-distance species movement, we’re not—you know, that's how Hawaii got all its species in the first place. You know, Hawaii was just rocks when it first was born out of the ocean. All of the species that are native species that we love and care about so much, that your roommates were trying to save from extinction, they all got there somehow, too. So species movements are not bad. They are part of the engine of that creates biodiversity.
Um, so saying that, you know, all species movements are bad doesn't work for me. Saying that all species that humans moved are is bad doesn't work for me either because humans are also animals. We are also natural. We're not aliens from another planet.
To me, it becomes a question of, okay, we've got these species here now, how are we gonna, how are we gonna live together? How can we structure these relationships so that, you know, that we get the results we want, that we reach our goals, that we protect the species we need to protect?That's my starting place; I really just don't like the “invasive species” frame.
Adam: Yeah, no, I that's really clear and powerfully put, and I think the challenge—and maybe this is where we can move towards a close—the challenge is that, in a way, it feels like us thinking about our role, us thinking about our relationship—whether we're coming from somewhere else or not, here we are. And so that's one of the things in that sentence of yours that I read where you say, perhaps, including non-humans in the form of appointed representatives, that it feels like this is the burden of the responsibility that comes with our power. We're sorta making all these decisions. It sort of feels like, and we're the ones that are trying to repair decisions we've been making for many, many, many years, and that's, that's challenging and it's hard to be too hopeful about. Anything you want to push back on in that somewhat bleak characterization?
Emma: Yeah, actually.
Adam: Good. That's what I was hoping.
Emma: Yeah. I mean, I do think that that human activity has been massively disruptive—not in the sense of, you know, maybe that's not the best word— human activity has radically changed the planet in the last thousand years and in the last 10,000 years. And even beyond that. Humans have just turned out to be an incredibly influential species, making big waves for, for good and for ill.
We do have a very strong responsibility as creatures who can have these kind of abstract conversations, who can work together and form goals, goals that might not even be achievable in our own lifetimes, that can have that kind of long-range thinking. We have an absolute responsibility to try to use our influence, our power, our technologies, all of this stuff, for the betterment of not just ourselves, but for the species that we share the planet with.
Having said that, we are not by any means smart enough or clever enough or powerful enough to actually dictate what goes on on every corner of the planet. All the other species are very busy, busy, too, living their lives, making their choices, pursuing their own goals. And often we are completely helpless to control them.
So I did a story for National Geographic a couple of years ago about rats. I got really interested in rats because of the conservation concerns around rats on islands. But my story follows them also in New York City and other places where, where humans have been desperately trying to get rid of them for generations with total failure. Like there's more rats than ever in New York. And there's probably more rats in Portland than there used to be too.
We are not in charge in any kind of way. We are massively influential on planet Earth, and our blundering around has changed a lot for all the other species, but we are by no means masterminds who can sort of dictate what's going to go on. All these other species are having their say too.
The real move, the power move here, is to figure out how to live with them, all of us mutually. The epigraph from the book comes from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work and it says “All flourishing is mutual.” And I take that so, so literally. We cannot flourish without the other species, and I don't think they can flourish without us. We're in this together.
Adam: Emma Marris is the author of Wild Souls and Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. The Detour is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'm Adam Davis. Our producer is Keiren Bond. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. Our assistant producers are Alexandra Powell Bugden, Karina Briski, and Ben Waterhouse. Thank you for being with us. See you next time.