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An appetite larger than Earth

For most of history, humans struggled to survive in the natural world. Today, the very success of the human race has put nature under severe stress. Now it is up to humans to help.

Vincent Yu/AP
Customs officers in Dongguan, China, stand guard in front of confiscated ivory products made from elephant tusks.

The history of the world up to about 100 years ago could be told in the conquest of nature. Predators were subdued, the wilderness was tamed, resources tapped, rivers controlled. Laced with roads, electric grids, pipelines, and information networks, the planet is now under active human management. The long human quest for survival succeeded.

Now success is the problem. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were fewer than 2 billion of us. Population has tripled since then. Affluence has spread. Nature is being stressed.  

Since Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1963, warnings about the human impact on the environment have grown ever more urgent. Carbon emissions, ocean pollution, rain-forest depletion, polar melting – it takes nothing away from the seriousness of the warnings (whether delivered by scientists, environmentalists, or writers, such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, or Elizabeth Kolbert) to note that the scale of the problem has inured many people to the message. 

The fate of Earth is a complex equation. What can be done? The answer seems to be, nothing simple. Many things must be done at many different levels.

Take one part of the equation: China. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that at the start of the 21st century just 4 percent of urban Chinese were in the middle class. In 2012, 68 percent were – and the trend is accelerating. That rapid rise in affluence has caused Chinese companies to travel deep into Africa in search of resources, which is what European colonial powers once did. But as wildlife advocate Jane Goodall recently observed, “China is bigger, and the technology has improved.” Scale makes a big difference.

Where once only the rich in China could afford objects made from ivory, the burgeoning middle class now can. That has made poaching of African wildlife a major problem. Solving the problem requires many different efforts at many levels of the supply-demand equation: public education campaigns in Africa to raise awareness of the importance of animals to the tourist trade; high-tech policing; DNA tracking; public education campaigns in China (martial artist Jackie Chan stars in a series of new public-service ads in China aimed at discouraging the buying of wildlife contraband). Slowly but surely, these and other efforts will change hearts and minds. Whether in Beijing, the African savanna, or New York, humans can learn to manage their appetites. 

There are many different ways of approaching this problem. In a Monitor cover story (read it here), Mike Pflanz shows us one effort, riding along with a former Australian commando and a group of gamekeepers as they patrol Zimbabwe’s Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve. Damien Mander may seem like an old colonial character with his bush jacket and military tactics. But look closer. He’s a strong advocate of education. He’s a vegan. He is just trying to hold the line while Africans and Chinese master the negative aspects of supply and demand. 

They will. Human success has been a good thing. Human excess hasn’t been. But just as we’ve learned to manage nature, the 7 billion of us now on the planet can learn to manage ourselves. Nature needs us to do that.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

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