My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share a somewhat longer version of my essay where I ponder the predicament our species finds itself in, having gone extremely territorial in its conquest of the planet’s resources.
A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence?
Territoriality is the bane of human existence. We human beings are an aggressively territorial lot, willing to defend what territory we claim to be ours against all comers using whatever means we can devise. By no means the only species to be strongly territorial, we surely are the most extreme in our territoriality.
Many animal species like to mark out and defend territories to ensure access to crucial resources such as food, water, shelter, nesting sites, and mates. Many will defend their territories aggressively, even risking injury or death to stave off challengers. You can see this every day all around us: in the sweet song of birds in our gardens, which are usually males proclaiming dominion over the garden, and in the way our dogs mark their territories at every fence- and lamp-post we happen to walk them by. Even plants show subtle territoriality, engaging in covert chemical warfare underground to prevent other plants from growing under their canopies and sucking away “their” supply of water and nutrients.
Yet hardly any other species takes territoriality as far as we have done. Most species reserve their hostilities towards members of their own species and maybe a few other direct competitors. Even when they physically or chemically mark the boundaries of their territories, these demarcations are hardly permanent. Scent marking, scratches in tree barks, vocal proclamations: these are what reinforce the shadow lines by which most animals carve out the world’s resources for their exclusive use. And, of course, these boundary lines are just as ephemeral as the lives of the individuals (and sometimes families) marking them.
Each individual may develop a strong sense of place, even an emotional attachment to some piece of land, or coral reef, or tree, or rock, but only rarely do they pass this on to their progeny, who often tend to disperse away into new areas to seek their own fortunes, set up their own new territories. Boundaries may be defended fiercely, but they remain fluid and diffuse and are ever changing, especially as the geographic ranges of species wax and wane and change on our dynamically changing planet.
Human beings have taken territoriality to whole new levels. We have not only sought to make our territories permanent, building fences and walls to keep intruders out, but even enshrined territoriality into elaborate systems of laws regulating ownership and inheritance. Unlike in any other species, we exhibit territoriality across a whole hierarchy of social levels: from individual and family homes to clan and tribal domains to kingdoms and empires to modern nation states and coalitions among them.
We have demarcated the Earth’s entire surface in cartesian lines scaling up and down these territorial hierarchies. We even carve out and defend boundaries in the ocean and the air and the very skies. Uniquely, we also seek to control every element that occurs within our domains, extending our territoriality against every other species on the planet. Whether it is ants or cockroaches in our kitchens, geckos in our living rooms, squirrels and monkeys in our gardens, or invasive species we label as aliens within our national boundaries, our pan-territoriality puts us at constant war against a whole host of species merely trying to eke out a living in the interstices of our rigidly demarcated landscapes.
Unfortunately, our extreme territoriality flies in the face of a dynamic planet on whose surface hardly anything has ever stayed put in one place for ever, not even the very continents over which we continue to wage epic and devastating wars for resources. A key to evolutionary success on such a dynamic planet is a species’ ability to adapt to the changing landscape, and a fluidity of movement to match the ever changing zones of suitable climate and geology. Yet we have painted ourselves into cartesian prisons, investing so much in defending pieces of land and volumes of water that may not remain the same for long. Rising sea levels threaten cities that we thought we were building for eternity. Sandstorms herald the march of the deserts as climate zones shift, and glaciers and polar ice sheets melt, drastically changing the shape of the lands, with no little help from our own industry. And every other species tries to pick up and move along with these changes, extending its range towards the poles—or to the brink of extinction as suitable habitats disappear permanently. Yet we continue to cling to our cities and homes, unable to move, like deer frozen in the headlights of climate change. We are setting ourselves up for inevitable disaster, like a child building elaborate sand castles below the high-tide line on a beach, or an obsessive compulsive painter desperately trying to draw permanent lines on a liquid canvas.
Much of human history can be told as a series of tales about individuals and groups of people fighting each other over pieces of this demarcated landscape. History is also generally written by the victors and the survivors. To be able to write our own future history, we must first figure out, collectively, how to survive past our own ecologically disastrous fossil-fuel-burning industrial age. If we are to ride the tides of climate change and other unpredictable events our planet throws at us, we must find ways to ease our attachment to rigid territories, soften our boundaries, and allow other creatures, and ourselves, more room to share the resources of this pale blue dot.