we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Young Buddha’s Dreamscape, Part-1: Relation to the Living World

A short selection from Essay Forty-eight one of the longer essays, and third from the end in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice

Everyone has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of a dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood … Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of a well-seasoned tomb, — heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board, — may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial hand-selled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last! —Henry Thoreau [1]

Thoreau’s powerful intuition of human nature as “a strong and beautiful bug” gnawing its way out of mankind’s “festive board” was written near the end of his well-known prose work, Walden; it stands in semi-mystical counterpoise to his lesser known scientific work on biological nature, and serves as a masterfully drawn object lesson for this explicit warning he gives earlier:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toad-stools grow so. [2]

Some ideas are hard to understand because we’re not ready to hear them, like McLuhan’s message of inherently subversive media that seems to have landed on ears deaf to its implications for the earliest media of all: stone-headed spears, fur-coats and log canoes. [3] But I hope after all my talk, if not of toad-stools then of ‘two trees’, we are now ready for the full message: our relationship to Nature will not change through moral persuasion alone, because non-material change comes about willy-nilly in a changing material world. This means, if we want to bring courage and maturity to our ‘environmental’ choices, we must know what we have become, in substance, to evo-ecology. (https://www.extremophilechoice.com/concept-gallery/)


The most alarming aspect of the human ‘success’ story for me is that, from the human point of view, I don’t really need to be using these qualifying inverted commas. You see, each generation does become comfortable with the alterations of the last. When Europeans first arrived on Easter Island, the poster child for human-caused ecological disaster, it seems they really did not, as a people-depend-on-nature environmentalist might suppose, find a miserable and malnourished human population. The descendants of those early Polynesian tree-destroyers were numerous and happy, thank you, and heartily roasting the rats and chickens they had introduced, with vegetables on the side harvested from rock gardens cleverly designed to deliver nutrients and protect young plants from the harsh weather of a treeless island. [4] A chilling scene, I’m sure, if we could see from that lost forest’s ghostly point of view.

So what would we see, from Nature’s ‘point of view’, back in the time before our innovative forebears escaped from its regulatory grasp? We may never know, because all we have left now are the mineralized bones and stems of this lost world, and a handful of old sailor’s stories about landfall on a “lost island”. And as for these stories, it must be said to begin with that such natural refuges are really quite young in geological time; and since uncharted islands must be distant and small, the startling diversity reported is (as the theory of island biogeography predicts) only found around less isle-ated offshore reefs. History, says J. B. MacKinnon in his 2013 book, The Once and Future World, “is filled with accounts of briny waters that had rarely if ever before seen men. It’s remarkable, then, that these reports describe a world beyond our current understanding.” [5] Indeed, less than two decades ago the ecological situation at Kingman Reef, most isolated of the Line Islands north-west of Easter Island, was described as a ‘reverse pyramid’. According to MacKinnon “an estimated 85 percent of the biomass was accounted for by sharks and other top predators. This defied belief.” [6] It’s not supposed to work this way. There’s supposed to be more biological material at the bottom of a food chain than higher up. At least that’s what we see wherever humans have disrupted the systems of Nature; and this is because when we ‘manage’ Nature it becomes our system. So it’s truly misguided to think we can return to authentic Nature, to think we can still “take our share” in a balanced system to which we no longer conform. . . . Humans are un-Natural; we turn evolving ecosystems into ‘productive’ (i.e. less diverse) farm-systems.

It is very important to understand the reason why those Kingman divers, when they entered the waters of that pre-human reef, described it as “a landscape of fear.” [7] It turns out it was biological turnover that upset the pyramid: large predators reproduce and grow slowly while their smaller prey do things the other way around, and this aggressive cropping strikes a balance in the end where both diversity and biomass are “far richer than on ‘normal’ reefs affected by fishing, pollution and other human influences”. [8]


In his last chapter MacKinnon reveals himself still to be an ‘environmentalist-level’ rewilder, and not, at least from my ‘Buddhist dreamscape’ point of view, radicalized enough (yet?) to call himself an adaptive extremophile when he writes: “But we have been attempting to make an impossible world, in which humans are separable from the rest of life.” [9] He’s right of course, in a metaphysical or even a purely systemic sense, but in a material world of co-evolving species it might be more useful to flip this truism on its head, for then it better fits not only well-established population-ecology principles, but the sociological evidence.

That MacKinnon’s “ecological human”, who can “love the return of the wild as a formidable presence in our lives”, might actually be “enough … to act as [the world’s] guardian”, [10] is perhaps an even more Quixotic hope than the dreamscape I am proposing. This is because, if, as he also says, the “global majority who live in cities, whose families may have been urban for generations now” are indeed “part of the great forgetting”, then, given the Easter Island scenario, this means they do not in fact, as he further supposes, feel themselves to be “temporary visitors with no place that is truly home and no traditions in the places they find themselves”. [11] Rather, like those very human Polynesians, we (or at least some of us) will probably find a way to thrive happily enough, as ‘adaptive extremophiles’, whether we deliberately plan it that way or not.

The problem is really this: If we want any of Nature’s Intelligence left by then, ( see: ttps://www.extremophilechoice.com/2022/06/01/old-buddha-part-4-the-tree-of-life-conceptualizes-its-own-form/) the “majority who live in cities” will not only have to pay for ambitious rewilding projects, but must observe exceptional consumer restraint as well; and so they too, like “the ecological human”, will need a believable vision of their future. Maybe all Nature needs from us right now is a realization of our responsibility (if it can be scientifically established) to make the Extremophile Choice, however unfinished. (See: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/about-extremophile-choice/) It may turn out the real “impossible world” is one in which a politically capricious (by Nature’s standard) global majority heeds the call for stewardship of a truly forgotten “lost island”. [12]

Thoreau’s toad stool model of discovery suits the needs of my own bug better than the easier practice of re-arranging ideological utensils around an environmentalist table just so we can appear fastidious when consuming the “natural resources” served up in our ecological-slave-master’s kitchen. We don’t solve hopeless problems by reaching out for more hopes, but by recognizing what we don’t need to reach for at all. Deep in human nature we’ve always felt the pull of desert landscapes, whether of rocks and sand, ice and snow, or horizon to horizon asterisms in the night; and, more recently, we find a “take only pictures, leave only footprints” ethic coming to the fore, with a proliferation of hiking trails and national parks. This ‘elfin’ side of human nature is distinctly un-Natural. However, to the extent that our transition is unfinished, it isnatural’ that our understanding is subject to animal need and intellectual timidity, so even though I’m not suggesting our extremophile future can arrive all at once, I’m saying we must look for it on the horizon. There may well be levitating cars and bio-synthetic filet mignon before this vision is fully realized, but until we understand that this is our future, we will continue to hurt ourselves, and hurt the Natural world, with our ideological and territorial passions.


1. Thoreau, Henry David. 1957 & 1960 [1854 & 1849] Sherman Paul, ed., Walden [and] Civil Disobedience. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Riverside Editions, p. 227.

2. Ibid, p. 221.

3. McLuhan, Marshall. 1964 Mentor paperback second edition. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man New York: McGraw-Hill,. The title says it all, but we usually only think of media as ‘soft media’: writing, radio, television, and now the internet. 

4. MacKinnon, J. B. 2013. The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, as it Should be. Toronto: Random House of Canada. (Vintage Canada Edition, 2014), pp. 197-199. The phrase “shifting baseline syndrome” was coined by Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in 1995 to account for the 97 percent decline in the biomass of the North Atlantic since written records were first made there.

5. Ibid, p. 124; _ 6. Ibid, p. 127; _ 7. Ibid, p. 124. _ 8. Ibid, p. 128; _ 9. Ibid, p. 210; _ 10. Ibid, p. 214; _ 11. Ibid, p. 213; _ 12. Ibid, pp. 195-215.

Leave a Reply