This morning I read the ever-intriguing Sam Kriss’s piece in The Atlantic regarding Planet Earth II’s episode on animals existing in urban environments. The piece describes a mutual relationship between the natural world and the reified one that humans have created over the past five thousand or so years. As urban centers ripple outward across the natural landscape in a shockwave accelerated exponentially by industrialization, a myriad of species have been forced to adapt at a rate disproportionate with natural evolution. Kriss illustrates this by describing the savvy that urban wildlife possesses over their truly wild counterparts. Cities change species, us most of all.
This is true and a testament to the resilience of a handful of species: the fox, the coyote, the jaguar, the falcon and macaque for example. For millennia, collected in lore and fable, we’ve projected our own identities onto these species, as avatars of ourselves, drawing from shared characteristics and I don’t fault Kriss for continuing that tradition in his piece. Unfortunately, I find the projection of an animal who’s natural habitat is the city, the writer himself, influential to the piece and the human centric scope of the article depicts a world in which modernity, development and industry are natural, interdependent progressions of a global biome.
Cities are not natural and animals who inhabit them, I’d argue, are not willing collaborators in their proliferation. Many species that exist in cities have occupied that land since before the cities existed. Others have been driven out of their habitats by the industrial demands of cities like deforestation and mining. To suggest that animals are “completely at ease with themselves” in cities, that it’s all good in the hood because of all the creature comforts cities afford, it’s false.
Coyotes for instance, by nature avoid humans. We’re their predators. When we see a coyote slinking around Silver Lake it is out of desperation to find resources in an ever shrinking habitat. Kriss notes habitat loss as a driving force for animal habituation but habituation is not a natural evolution of a species, it’s devastating.
The abundance that cities provide habituated animals does not make these creatures cunning super-species primed to adopt capitalism, smarter than their Podunk kin, but the opposite. They’re dumber. Habituated animals are dependent on a human supply chain of resource and waste and the instincts that they’ve developed for millions of years, the instincts that will get them killed in a city, are wiped out, like a New Yorker who can’t build a fire. Yes, urban animals learn lessons their wild counterparts do not but wildlife in the wild are passed generational lessons their urban ilk doesn’t just the same.
In fact, the Jaipur macaques Kriss cites have been the focus of a study regarding this before. Scientists relocated a troop of nuisance macaques to the wild. They floundered and made immediate efforts to make their way back to the city while several perished along the way.
Habituation is the cousin of domestication. Dogs for instance, weren’t trapped, broken and trained into domestication but followed a path many of the animals Kriss notes find themselves on today. Packs of wolves, opportunists, followed nomads’ trails of waste, living on the fringes of camps, slowly acclimating themselves to a human world, eventually unwittingly surrendering their freedoms for the certitude of a meal. This didn’t make these wolves who would eventually be bred down to dogs smarter than wild wolves. It made them vulnerable dependents accustomed only to a transaction with humans.
As cities grow and habitat shrinks to a minuscule proportion, ecosystems will not survive with a cast of habituated predators. Trophic cascade demands a top down competition of life to equitably distribute finite resources to flora and fauna. Humans dumping a bunch of shit for animals to eat doesn’t contribute to their existence but blows up the system by introducing a consolidated nucleus of wealth and dependency.
At the end of his piece, Kriss takes umbrage with a chauvinism that convinces us that we humans created the modern world ourselves, without the input and influence of the natural world. This is partially true. Animals have taught us invaluable lessons on travel, construction, aviation, hunting, food preservation and medicine. Nature gives us mathematics. More plainly, everything we see today originated in the natural world. But wildlife had no part in shaping this world. The chauvinism we possess is a mentality that we ourselves are still living within the bounds of of our biome, that nature is so elastic to support the horrendous innovations we’ve stumbled upon and the way we live, increasingly in urban settings, is some natural progression of the Holocene. Animals who cross over to the program we’ve developed, like dogs, are no longer wild and I’d argue we shouldn’t encourage any other species to go the way of the dog. Urban wildlife is not free, they’re bound to the services of a city as much as humans.
For a socialist, this may seem like a positive. As we rail for entitlements and safety nets for our own species, it can seem attractive to offer the same allowances to wildlife. But wildlife depends, existentially, on what humans would likely paint as libertarianism, self-reliance. Yes, there is community and shared responsibility within species and there is interdependence within whole ecosystems, but human civilization's dependence on these relationships does not offer symbiosis in return. Civilization is a destructive force in the world, a violence the natural world is futilely trying to weather. We have escaped the bounds of ecology and our imprint on the natural world is only ruining it for the rest of Earth’s inhabitants, sentient and non. To suggest that civilization is a net positive for wildlife, that cities are the new nature, is a danger to what little wilderness we have left. Urban wildlife may appear to be amidst a natural renaissance but in reality are struggling toward extinction. When we are extinct ourselves, what will the crows, accustomed to trash and road kill, eat then?