Do you feel that by exploring nature we are also killing it?

I think there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

I’m constantly thinking of my impacts on wild ecosystems and changing my behavior accordingly. I’ve seen a lot of examples of harm caused by casual “amateur naturalist” behavior, such as:

  • Birders who seek out rare birds, crowds of people showing up in wild habitats day after day
  • Seeds of invasive plants hitching rides on people’s clothing, such as garlic mustard or Japanese stiltgrass seeds seeds sticking to the bottom of people’s shoes, or burdock sticking to my shoes or pants.
  • Soil compaction and/or erosion caused by overly-tread areas.

On the other hand, casual behavior can have unintentional beneficial effects:

  • People being in an area that is overbrowsed by deer, rabbits, or other animals can deter deer from being in that area, allowing the plants to regenerate.
  • Native plants can just as easily hitch a ride on people’s clothing.
  • When we scare animals away, we help keep them on their toes and give them practice evading other animals, which they may use to evade more dangerous predators in the future.
  • More awareness of an area can help people later to make personal decisions and/or influence broader-scale organizational or political decisions that lead to conservation. By the mere act of inviting someone to go on a walk in nature with us, we might be unknowingly influencing their future behavior in a way that will promote conservation.

I like to adjust my behavior, as I learn more, to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive ones. I avoid playing bird calls on my phone, listening only in headphones if I want to check something in the field, and never playing a call out loud to elicit a response from another bird. I check what seeds are stuck to my clothes, discard invasive seeds in unsuitable habitat or a trash can, and throw the native ones into good habitat. I often distribute seed casually too, bringing a baggy with me and gathering seeds that would fall on a path or parking lot, and dumping them into better habitat, perhaps a short distance away. I talk to people I know about conservation issues, and share material about them online and engage in discussions. I discourage people from touching frogs or lizards. I offer friends native plants to grow, and I write to politicians to urge them to support policies that I think will protect nature.

I try to prioritize and use common sense. I don’t fret over disturbing common insects and I might actually delight in disturbing overpopulated animals, even if native. If I see something unusual, I am much more likely to want to leave it undisturbed and keep my distance. I avoid digging up anything from a truly wild area, but if I see an unusual native plant coming up in the middle of a lawn or flower bed where it’s gonna get mowed or sprayed with herbicide, I might transplant it to my garden so I can use it for seed stock to redistribute to nature. (I’ve gotten permission from numerous property owners in my area to do this; they get occasional free weeding of their beds and I get free wild native plants!) And when I collect plant seeds during warm weather, inevitably a few beetles, bugs, or spiders end up in the bag. I’ll open it up and let them climb out, but I won’t obsess if a few of them get killed or displaced in the process.

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Too often I see people saying things along the lines of “Well, I can’t criticize governments or corporations or have any opinion on climate change, because I take long showers / don’t always turn my lights off / drive a car etc…” This is an attitude that of course absolutely delights those people who are truly destroying nature, because we’re feeling bad about ourselves instead of getting angry at them. Which is why they do everything they can to encourage this attitude and dismiss us as hypocrites when we call for nature protection.

The reality is that our individual integrity does have an impact on the power of our voice and our calls for systemic change. Even if one believes it is irrational to oppose minor habitat destruction because corporate habitat destruction is on a much larger scale, it’s still important both to our own psyche, the individual plants and animals we encounter, and the power of our personal witness that we do the best job we can. I think the psychology and ethics of this often get missed - if we’re peeling bark off trees or tearing apart logs for nothing more than to punch in another observation, that action doesn’t just impact “a few” organisms that were living there, it also impacts us.

Look at the politicians who have been seen eating out or going on vacations at the same time they were telling their constituents not to. Will their acts cause more Covid deaths? Not directly, most likely, but in terms of undercutting their own message it’s a huge impediment.

Is there a more prominent example of citizen science or amateur naturalists than the iNat community? If we’re the most public example, then let’s get our own house in order.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2019/11/19/greta-is-right-study-shows-individual-climate-action-boosts-systemic-change/amp/

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In untouched forest the bolded might be more or less true. I believe in modern forests where old growth is extremely rare and the vast majority of mature trees are killed via either logging or fire, appropriate bark is likely to be at a critical shortage and is a limiting favor most of the time. Other bark is likely to be being used already, so removing habitat doesn’t just cause organisms to shift, it lowers the total capacity of the habitat. This is especially true for small organisms whose home range and dispersal capacity may encompass a very small area.

In fact, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that in some cases, it would be less destructive to just kill a few salamanders than it is to peel the bark, because the remaining salamanders can reproduce to refill the available habitat much more readily than the trees can age to recreate the appropriate bark.

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I think reach people close to government or from them hunting endangered species in places were hunting is forbidden or building houses were you can’t cut forest or some “usual” stuff were they kill people in car accidents and never go to prison, is what affects the society the most, those people can’t think of wrong and right, cause what they do is right for them. And that’s the message they create, that if you have power you have to use it to let yourself go loose. Peeling bark is nothing comparing to their actions, it is them who made forests so vulnerable, their actions lead to that. It’s similar to dog problems where they’re forbidden, people don’t care much about rules if nobody else does.

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I agree with this and I think this is one of many reasons it’s important to conduct yourself with integrity, and also respectfully.

Nowadays I see a lot of people engaging in angry, judging rhetoric online when pushing for issues I care about and agree with, and it often makes me feel sad and betrayed because I think it is likely that their conduct is going to actually harm the issue by creating a negative association and/or causing pushback against it.

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I have been thinking about this lately. I can think of many ways in which ordinary people are worse than corporations. Example: in California, there is (or was before COVID), a surcharge for bags at the grocery store. This was meant to encourage people to bring reusable bags. Well, the corporations (i.e. grocery chains) provided the option of more durable bags, and the bags even state right on them how many times the bag could be reused. But I observed that nine times out of ten, the customer would opt to pay the surcharge every time, rather than bring a reusable bag. So at this point, the plastic bag waste is not the corporations’ fault, but individuals’ fault.

Walmart has committed to reach zero-waste by 2025. How many households who shop there have made a similar commitment? How many households would consider going zero-waste on any timeline at all? Blaming corporations for environmental destruction is a means of dodging personal responsibility.

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I’m sorry, but Walmart doesn’t treat its workers as humans and doesn’t pay them what they deserve, so it’s a very bad corporation to have as an example. I’m sure if shops would stop selling bags people will bring them from their homes, but they don’t and they don’t even have paper bags, only plastic ones. Consumers use what they’re provided with, it’s normalised by big companies.

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I am sorry to say this, and it may be cynical, but we as people do not technically deserve anything in life. We think in this way because that is how we are taught in school and by society as a whole.

This is also true. It effectively boils down to human nature. Ideally, businesses would treat people fairly, kindly, and with respect; however, since human beings are flawed, it will be reflected in the institutions created by them. Same thing with governments. This does not mean that we should give up in trying to change our inner nature.

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They do illegal things, so it’s more of not a phylosophical concept, but something we live with and what you can be physically punished for, unless you’re a part of corporation, of coarse. We sure can start a rhetorical discussion unless we happen to be in such situation, then it’ll be unhandy to say it’s what we don’t deserve.

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that - shop at the supermarket - then unpack everything at the checkout - as a protest action?
Doesn’t make any sense to me. You are the consumer, you BUY the product, disposing of the plastic packaging responsibly is YOUR task. Not the the poor cashier with a grumbling queue behind you.

We choose to consume. Corporate producers and packagers couldn’t sell their products, if, we, didn’t buy them.

I’ve been mulling over how I would add to what’s already been said here for a little while now. I have seen resource damage from careless hikers and probably some over enthusiastic botanists, but there really is a startling contrast between these effects and direct effects of development and land clearing.

A nearby conservation property runs a summer camp, and has pretty high visitorship. I know that the trails create disturbance and open up areas to invasion ecology and reduce some habitat. But the property is home to a bunch of rare species. Even before rare communities were identified the protection from development saved these rare plants. Over enthusiastic nature lovers, hikers, and even summer camp groups did not destroy this place. Meanwhile a 100+ year old forest near where I live was cut down to make way for condos. To say the least the ecology of the area will never recover in my lifetime. The amount of soil movement, soil compaction, biomass removal, and entrenchment of the new land use will take hundreds if not thousands of years to recover. I try to be careful with how I interact with sensitive spaces to keep my footprint as light as possible, and I encourage (sometimes scold) others to do the same. However I really believe that the conflict is not between groups of recreational users, but between those who see an intrinsic value in nature and those who don’t.

This is a really interesting study, but I don’t necessarily think that its findings are as straight forward as presented. I think it may actually be an example of Survivorship bias. To explain one of the most famous examples (which is better explained in the Wikipedia link!) the places where WW2 bombers were shot and still returned to base were the most resilient areas of the plane, because planes that got shot in vulnerable areas never returned to base and thus were excluded from the analysis.

It seems to me that real, active, existential treats to populations or species likely wipe them out and are not included in present threats. Meanwhile plants on permanent conservation land (protected from development or major land use changes) are only significantly threatened by more minor threats like recreation and invasive species. It may be that the threats outlined in the study represent rather new threats to the plant, or threats that the population can handle. A more interesting study might be to look at reasons organisms have become extinct, as the group there is more representative of what actually causes extinction in an area. I would be extremely surprised if that study found non-consumptive recreation to be any major driver of extinction.

 

With all that said I found an observation of a fairly rare orchid pulled out of habitat today so obviously irresponsible and malicious people can have a very major and destructive impact on populations and species.

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That is a philosophical question of whether a human being has intrinsic worth. To say we do not technically deserve anything is to say we have no intrinsic worth. Much like the way nature is treated by those who do not consider it to have intrinsic worth.

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I’m not exactly sure how we got on this tangent, but there are numerous ways in which corporations do everything they can to force us to consume more, from purposely producing products that will break down early or become obsolete to refusing to support “out of date” products to making repair of their products difficult or impossible. They will buy out and discontinue legitimate alternatives to their products so you run out of choices. And they even use actual psychological manipulation to interfere with our basic decision-making processes. Most of the major ad companies employ psychologists in order to understand how to manipulate human behavior, and employees who work for those organization have described the addictive properties they build into smartphones and apps as “closer in effect on the brain to crack than to candy”.

And this isn’t new of course - look at how the tobacco companies used addiction in order to manipulate consumers to their own detriment. Look at how food producers did the same with sugars and other simple carbohydrates. And so on.

So speaking like the companies are just innocent bystanders providing what the consumer wants doesn’t match the history of how we got here. They have repeatedly used government, financial, and psychological power to force their products onto the consumer.

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I agree with everything you say here, and it’s one reason that I heavily promote use of natural environments (it’s the explicit goal of my http://wildcolumbia.org/ blog) and support conservation groups that help wilderness and communities to grow hand-in-hand. I’m in favor of sustainable hunting, sustainable harvesting of forest products, the heavy promotion of outdoor recreation, etc.

If a critical mass of people don’t have a buy-in to those natural places existing, then they will all be converted to developments, because there’s a lot of money in developments and so long as we commit to a capitalist society, money will always have the final say.

That being said, all of us can practice and promote responsible, respectful use. None of us are going to stop caring about the woods because we can’t rip bark off of trees anymore. In fact, if we really want as many people as possible to get engaged with nature, then doing things like ripping the bark off of trees is going to be disastrous because the activity simply doesn’t scale up. We can find ways to help as many people as possible enjoy the woods while personally working to minimize our own impact and teaching others to do the same. A child who learns that enjoying the wonders of nature also means respecting nature, who is taught the skills of carefully putting each rock and log back, never going too close to a nest, never taking apart anything you can’t put back together, is likely to appreciate nature more, not less, for those practices.

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(p.s. - disposing of plastic packaging ‘responsibly’ is almost impossible for the individual consumer in most cases. A large proportion of plastic waste is simply not recyclable. China has refused to continue accepting America’s plastic waste, and other countries aren’t filling in the gap. American cities have found it too cost-inefficient to recycle plastic waste on our own. So the vast majority of plastics you place in a recycling bin are now either incinerated or thrown into a landfill in the end. Something like 91% of all plastic that has been manufactured was not recycled, and there’s no indication that % is going to get any better.)

https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china-has-stopped-accepting-our-trash/584131/

https://www.nrpa.org/parks-recreation-magazine/2019/april/recycling-is-dead-now-what/

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-4-july-august/feature/us-recycling-system-garbage

https://oceana.org/blog/recycling-myth-month-those-numbered-symbols-single-use-plastics-do-not-mean-you-can-recycle-me

https://thedieline.com/blog/2020/4/22/the-history-of-plastic-the-theft-of-the-recycling-symbol

People are missing the overall point of what I meant. People tend to think they are entitled to certain things because of how they act. We think that because we do good deeds, we also deserve good things. Similarly, due to certain ways of thinking, people who do bad deeds deserve to have bad things to happen onto them. But is this always true in either case? No. This is why I said “it may be cynical”, since some people may interpret what I said as “what people deserves” equals to their “innate worth”. It entirely my own fault for not adding good or bad to my initial reply to @marina_gorbunova.

I didn’t say manufacturers are innocent, but consumers also need to accept their half of the responsibility.
Finding alternatives to single use packaging - refill options - is a better option than greenwashed recycling.

During lockdown, so much online purchase. More packaging. More pollution by delivery vehicles, More damage.

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If anyone is interested in further discussion of a code of ethics for iNaturalist and hasn’t already seen it, I started a discussion post here which is still active.

This cannot be stressed enough.
I know this is a bit of a tangent to the OP’s question, but I believe it has relevance to the ‘larger picture’. Much environmental damage is the result of consumer demand for less expensive stuff to buy. As an example, shade grown coffee is environmentally better than plantation coffee, but it costs the consumer more. Given the choice, people tend to buy the cheaper product, so there is more environmental degradation. People have been trying to get me to upgrade my mobile phone (I have an old Blackberry), but I don’t need, or want, a new phone. Yet many folks want the latest model of phone when the one they have works. Consumer preference for ‘New’ - more needless manufacturing, mining, transportation etc.
This is mainly a rich world problem - as nations get richer the overall consumption goes up. I could go on for days about this, but I’ll stop now.

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Still using my first ever cellphone. It works.

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