No Man Is an Island, Nor Is a Country Any Longer

BBC America aired a new series, Planet Earth II, last Saturday evening, a long awaited follow on to the original Planet Earth series which aired in 2006.  Both series are narrated by Sir David Attenborough, lavishly filmed and edited, and give us a front row seat to some of the most exotic natural places in the world and, through the spectacular nature photography, a look at animal and plant life we hardly knew existed.

The Planet Earth shows make our natural world particularly clear: polar ice is melting at an alarming pace, sea levels are rising from Miami to Sri Lanka, natural habitats of so many animals and plants are being overrun by human encroachment, and species are dying out at a rate that should get our attention.  Even more surprising is that human intervention, intended or accidental, is disrupting ecosystems and acerbating species loss:  lionfish in the Atlantic probably because they were dumped from home aquariums, pigs in the Hawaiian Islands, and crazy ants and crabs on Christmas Island to name a few.

But I had another takeaway from this first episode, aptly titled “islands.”  It is both a metaphor for society in today’s world, and it is likely a significant cause of how things have changed, and why we are not going back.

Sir David highlights how environments on islands large and small have forged the evolution of species found on them.  Australia, Madagascar, and so many other islands have life that does not exist anywhere else.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, many of these islands were part of larger land masses before breaking off, so they came with starter sets of life.  Others like Hawaii and other South Pacific land masses created by volcanoes had plant, animal and human life reach them by the oceans.  Life being what it is, survival and diversity, things just took off.

People, societies and cultures have long been islands whether or not they were surrounded on all sides by water.  There was trade for thousands of years, and food, religion and culture surely did migrate from one place to another and take hold.  More often than not, the migration of culture and intermix of societies was the result of conquest, not open trade or travel.  Countries, tribes and societies were islands, too.  Peoples were isolated from one another, and ideas, goods and services, language and culture stayed contained, island like.

Sea faring nations built the first of the more modern land bridges in the form of sailing vessels.  In search of new lands, often to exploit their riches and labor, intrepid sailors began to roam the Seven Seas.  Far too often they were the invasive species one sees on Planet Earth II: they plundered for gold, silver, agricultural products, slave labor.  Their muskets and canons had no natural predators.  Their diseases – small pox. syphilis, measles and more – decimated native populations.

It has only been in the last hundred years, though, where large numbers of people could easily travel to almost anyplace on the globe.  Passenger steam ships made crossing oceans and carrying large numbers of people was unlike anything that came before.  Soon, aircraft were able to make the same journeys steam ships required days or weeks to make in a day or less.  And even though planes carried fewer passengers than ships, there were many more of them.  They could also reach land locked areas no ship ever could.

Each day, close to 100,000 airline flights take to the sky. In a year, close to 3 billion people flew on over 375,000,000 flights.  That is astonishing.  That is roughly the entire population of the earth in 1960.  Every man, woman and child.  Going to places near and far.  And yet we take it for granted that such daily migrations are not only possible, bur ordinary and probable.

This same exponential growth in people traveling the world has been copied with cargo.: goods of all sorts grown or manufactured in one place and shipped around the globe to many others.  Globalized container shipping has grown from about 45 million TEUs to over 160 million TEUs from 1996 to 2013, and the rate increases.  This is exclusive of air and truck freight.  (Noe a TEU is the approximate volume of a 20 foot long standard shipping container).

Communications is just as much a factor in cross border exchanges as the movement of people and goods. It certainly takes modern day communications to make all of the physical movement possible,; the logistics, navigation, and transport vehicles couldn’t work without the computers and software systems to support and co-ordinate it all.  But communications also moves ideas, language, and culture.  Video streaming to smartphones and social media has made possible the instant sight and sound of world events, and yes, cats.

What’s the point to writing all of this?  All of our islands have been invaded and their ecosystems upended.  The same technology that drives the invasions has altered how and where we work.  Labor has been redistributed to other places, that is for sure, but the vast upheaval in jobs is due to technology, not cheaper labor and shipping costs.  The sameness of our islands, where everyone looked and acted the same, is being augmented by different foods, holidays, traditions, religions and points of view.  This is, I submit, not a bad thing.

It is also not a reversible thing.  No wall is going to keep any island isolated.  Planes can actually fly over walls.  Gads of border police may keep a lot of people out, but they also keep out some of the most desirable: doctors, scientists, small business developers, people who have been the lifeblood for growth and prosperity for this country, and others around the world.  You can’t have it both ways:  keep ’em out but just let in the good ones.  We don’t often know which is which.  We do know people respond irrationally to vague, oft repeated fears.

Beginning in the 1900s and gaining favoritism in the 1950s, largely as a result of the fears about Communism. there was (and I guess is) a push back against internationalism.  Advocates saw a Soviet crowd behind every bush ready to take over (and last year may have proven them right?) but at the same time taking no head of the exploration of labor and resources more powerful nations wanted for their own.  But internationalism as a concept was a powerful, motivating force for many conservative politicians and academics. It was seen as “brainwashing” by what children were taught in schools, what foundations and other groups did for social good.  An internationalist, in Commie disguise, behind every bush.

Today, those thought echo in populist movements and online rhetoric.  Take our country back is not only a mantra here, but is gaining voice in Europe and elsewhere.  Populist politicians see  the fear of the unknown and uncertainty among parts of the voter class and are far too willing to exploit it.  There is no rollback solution to the fears they play to, but to the fearful, the words sound like manna.

Look at island populations where the introduction of new species has caused dramatic shifts.  Evolution supplies a longer term solution, and evolution takes place more rapidly in isolated island ecosystems.  But islands know that most of their ills are due to man and his meddling, intended or not. So here we are again, man trying to alter the ecosystem, ignoring the things that make it richer and more vibrant.  The terrible thing about being smart is that you sort of know what is going to happen; that takes all the fun out of it (a line spoken by Billie Bob Thornton in “Bandits”).

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