When one visits Hawai’i, minimal attention to the natural environment makes you aware of the distinction between endemic species of plants and animals (living only in Hawai’i), and introduced or invasive species.There is an intermediate category: “indigenous” (living in Hawai’i and elsewhere), but I’ll focus on the endemics.Outside species tend to take over and drive the endemic species to—or over—the brink of extinction.To find the surviving endemics, you must penetrate the remote locations where they have retreated.
If we have an “ecological conscience,” we think we should try to save the endemic species, and restrict the introduction of more outside species.We value the endemics more than the introduced.We are ecological conservatives: we want to preserve as much of the status quo as we can.
Conversely, most of the population of these islands and most of the tourists who visit are largely unaware of this issue, and (to quote Melania Trump’s shirt) they “really don’t care.Do u?”
Humans are the supreme disruptors, beginning with the arrival of the first Hawaiians around 300 CE.It was they who brought pigs, for example, along with useful plant species like sweet potatoes.When Europeans started coming around and settling, the disruption escalated exponentially, with the introduction of thousands of new species, including cattle, horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, mongoose, and rats.Most of the plants now growing on the islands are introduced species.Most of the birds are from elsewhere.
The culmination of human disruption is of course climate change: global warming is opening pathways for new pathogens to threaten the Hawaiian ecology.For example, a deadly new fungus is decimating the tree that is the keystone of the native Hawaiian forest, with cascading effects on birds and other organisms that depend on it.
We imagine an ideal, unspoiled island ecosystem, but how can we determine when that system existed, and what species were part of it?
What strikes the tourist, however (this is undoubtedly a gross oversimplification) is the sheer exuberance of this new ecology, however much it has stressed the endemic species.Immigrant species are thriving—and providing the human population with a very agreeable way of life.
We imagine an ideal, unspoiled island ecosystem, but how can we determine when that system existed, and what species were part of it?What if the island ecology was constantly changing even before humans arrived?
We usually assume that it was unspoiled before the Europeans and Americans arrived, but as I pointed out, the native Hawaiians themselves disrupted and reshaped the ecosystem they found when they arrived.
We rely on science to defend the ecosystem from destabilization, but a key part of relevant scientific theory involves what Darwin called the struggle for existence.If some species prove more able than others to survive in this environment, if the stronger species push the weaker toward extinction, is that not natural selection?Yet we are not consistent Darwinians.We defend the weak.We have an ecological conscience.
Over a century ago, Herbert Spencer and others developed a theory called Social Darwinism (going further than Darwin ever did), which argued that human society is just as subject to the survival of the fittest as the natural world itself.But this theoretical current has remained a minor side channel, while advanced industrial societies have developed elaborate systems to protect and help the weak and less advantaged.We are close to a global consensus that we should choose to help the weak and unfortunate.
Our battles over immigration, both here and in Europe, are illustrative.Opponents of immigration fear a wave of aliens will overwhelm them and their way of life.They evidently fear they cannot compete with the new arrivals.Hence the need for a wall on the border.
But unlike the birds and plants invading Hawai’i, these human immigrants are fleeing oppression and insecurity in their home countries, because they are weak.They want shelter, a chance to survive.
Our ecological conscience moves us to defend the integrity of the Hawaiian ecosystem against invading species, but we have little sympathy for those who try to block immigration.We are much more solicitous of the well-being of the immigrants.Are we inconsistent?
I think not.Our social conscience also tells us to defend the weak.