Of Beavers and Silver Bullets – Part 1

It’s strange for me to think now that only two years ago, prior to adopting an Environmental Studies major and getting involved in the community, I was no more green-minded than the average 18-year-old kid. Beyond the simple facts I’ve learned and behaviors I’ve picked up in those two years, certain underlying changes have taken place in the very fundamental and immediate way that I relate with the world around me. In aggregate it’s a change I’m happy to have; I’m generally more aware of how the systems of the world connect me to people in distant nations and more in touch with core elements of life like agriculture and water that people have been dealing with for thousands of years. Unfortunately, these positive changes to my psyche have been accompanied by darker elements I’d rather do away with.


Chief among these for me is a little voice that I think of as a sort of “environmental nag”. The downside to proceeding further into an ENST curriculum that I otherwise enjoy is that it strengthens the nag as well; The more one comes to understand the litany of environmental consequences that exist at large, the more one starts to see their own drops in the bucket accumulate through a series of daily decisions. Often times this is almost immediately followed by guilt and a pang of hypocrisy — It’s only a tinge, but over time the build-up of these mental nags is exhausting. “Who are you to tell people what to do when you can’t even get all your paper in the recycling? Who are you to encourage vegetarianism when you don’t have the willpower to do so? Who are you to bother people about climate change when you fly back and forth across the country to go to school?”


By no means do I intend to overly dramatize this struggle and paint environmentalists as some kind of psychological martyrs for Mama Earth, but noticing and understanding this tendency is key to thinking about smarter solutions. Why? Because being motivated by guilt is not only bad for our well-being, but it’s a bad way to promote sustainability in the first place.


In my time studying Conservation Psychology with Dr. Nicole Sintov, one of the most enlightening papers I’ve read is H.B. Truelove’s 2014 review on positive and negative spillover of pro-environmental behavior. Spillover is the scholarly term for how one behavior change affects others, and the paper essentially asks the question “When does performing one pro-environmental behavior lead to future performance of more pro-environmental behaviors, and when does it lead to less?” In terms of guilt-fueled behavior, Truelove concludes that it has amongst the most negative spillover rates of all possible motivators. The strongest theory behind this is simply that when a person feeling guilty about their environmental damages performs a behavior that mitigates them, it alleviates guilt and boosts positive self-image, making them less apt to make the next pro-environmental decision. This is an absolutely critical point to understand when looking to genuinely solve long-term problems:


Guilt-fueled sustainability is, in itself, unsustainable.


Now of course, this is not to say that guilt hasn’t been a key ingredient in mitigating our environmental damages. Historically, quite a bit of good has come as a result of us feeling bad. But if we’re really trying to transform global civilization into a system that can continue indefinitely, we may want to think twice about building it on a foundation of emotional turmoil.


Look at environmentalism through a social lens and it’s easy to see the pitfalls of such an approach. Time and time again, the opponents of green initiatives have bolstered their arguments by characterizing environmentalists as self-righteous and overbearing — To an extent, we are. I could even testify to the fact that my eco-guilt been unhealthy for my closest relationships with my friends, roommates and family. As polite as I try to be in asking them to attenuate our use of the air conditioning or be more environmentally conscious in their food choices, it inevitably comes off as me bothering them to feel more guilty about their respective drops in the bucket. If you want to get trippy with it, you could even say that the voice of the environmental nag literally speaks through me and manifests itself to others.


Expand the scope once more and you can see this same characterization happening with environmental NGOs and political advocates; They’re criticized for being out-of-touch with reality, more concerned about owls than people, and incessantly preachy. Just as guilt fueling is ineffective and unsustainable for an individual’s decisions, the same is true for the collective mission of all environmentalists.


This is what guilt looks like. Look into this dog’s eyes and tell me you see the necessary drive to right his wrongs and preserve the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

I honestly think that this is the paramount problem that the global environmental community is facing right now. The social justice movements booming right now are succeeding because they’re fueled by community, solidarity, and an instinctive defiance which all translate immediately into passion. Meanwhile, the climate change legislation stumbling its way through our legislative and judicial systems is fueled by the hope that we all feel kinda bad about screwing over a generation of people who aren’t even born yet. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that nagging a little louder about sea level rise isn’t going to fix it, but no one knows what else to do. This is a textbook definition wicked problem, one that we can’t solve by the brute force of our collective guilt. So what do we do?


It’s time to think about how we can fight our fight smarter rather than harder.


We have to look more deeply and holistically at what’s going on and where we can intervene. I think I have some insights to what such an answer might look like, and I would love to hear others’ thoughts on them. However, the only way I can think of to thoroughly explain these ideas is by giving you the same context that brought me to the conclusions myself. And that means we’re going to have to roll back to grade school science class, and learn a little bit more about one of the most unlikely of candidates.


Beavers – Nature’s Mindless Stewards

For my POSC 436 Environmental Politics class last semester we were assigned to read the first two chapters of Alice Outwater’s Water: A Natural History. The chapters actually involve very little discussion of water politics or water history, instead giving a rundown of the expansion of New World fur trading in Chapter 1 and beaver ecology in Chapter 2. By the time I finished, what little I thought I knew about beavers was blown out of the water and I definitively had a new favorite animal.


Let’s start with the basics. The one fact everyone knows about beavers is that they build dams. I hadn’t stopped to consider why they would do this, and instead absently presumed they must live in said dams. After a second of scrutiny, this of course makes no sense.




Beavers build dams for the same reason that humans often do, to back up the river just upstream of the dam and create a wide body of relatively still water. Having an expansive pond built up behind their dam as opposed to a narrow river is incredibly advantageous for the beaver; they’re adept at moving in the water due to their webbed hind feet and rudder-like tail, plus able to hold their breath much longer than potential predators. After the body of water is established, they dig a series of canals into the surrounding lands to expand their territory of navigable water as far as a few square miles. It’s worth noting (well, at least I think it is) that the engineering behind beaver dams is extremely impressive for a chubby rodent that carries things in its mouth. They’re often bowed upstream for greater structural integrity and involve several layers of stones, mud, reeds, and interwoven branches. Dams are typically several meters wide, though a particularly ambitious family spent several generations making this monstrosity first seen from space over half a mile long (that’s twice the width of the Hoover dam). I also find myself strangely mesmerised by watching videos of the construction process. Manipulating the landscape to suit your purposes has been touted as perhaps the defining human characteristic, yet some soggy rodents been casually doing so for millions of years.


Beavers do indeed build dedicated structures to live in as well, but these are adorably called “lodges” and are constructed a season after the original dam. Looking at an image of a beaver lodge is much more helpful than having the structure explained to you, but notably they often include features such as ventilation shafts, multiple rooms, dedicated food storage, and several entrances/exits that slope downward for direct access underwater. In these lodges beavers live in nuclear families of six to twelve members depending on how many “kits” the mother gives birth to each spring and raises for the next two years.


The diet of the beaver is just about as sustainable as one can get, composed mainly of the layer of wood just under a tree’s bark, along with roots and shooters. They can afford to digest this abundantly available meal that nobody else wants because of a ridiculously robust colony of gut bacteria, which is part of the reason for their pleasant portliness. When food is low in the winter, they’re even happy to eat their own droppings for a second time and digest every bit of nutrients possible out of them, after which some curious biologists report that the double-droppings apparently have a consistency “of fine sawdust.” Paramount to their survival are their extremely impressive teeth, which shine orange with a rich iron content, grow throughout their entire lives, and self-sharpen from use. I’m aware this paragraph is drifting away from relevance and towards a “fun fact” listing, so this will be the last one: A pair of glands on the beaver’s rear secretes an oil called “castoreum” that serves a triple purpose of waterproofing their coat, marking their territory, and providing pain relief to medieval healers bold enough to go after it. Because the wood beavers chew through often includes willow bark (which modern-day aspirin is made from), the pain-killing compound ends up in their oil secretions.


So as totally neat as all of that is, you’re probably still unclear on how exactly it’s relevant to the discussion at hand. Illuminating that fact requires broadening our view of beavers to their role in an interconnected ecology rather than individual biology. And when we take that step back, we find that it just so happens that the changes brought about to a natural landscape by the building of a beaver dam are miraculously beneficial for the health and biodiversity of the surrounding ecosystem. I honestly cannot emphasize this point enough; Outwater spends a majority of the second chapter of Water: A Natural History giving an account of these benefits and still can’t cover all the species that are better off from the creation of micro-wetlands.


The building of dams by beavers supports the most biodiverse and productive ecological communities in America.


From a broad ecology perspective, such boons can best be understood through the concept of ecotones — transition zones where characteristically different ecosystems meet. Ecotones not only help out species of each distinct ecosystem by providing rare and critical resources, but provide habitat to their own highly adapted species that can only exist in such an overlap. The result is a range of a few acres behind each and every beaver dam in which, as Outwater puts it, “Every level, every nook and cranny, is teeming with life… The food web is dense and niches are varied.”


Much of this can be attributed to an extreme density of microorganisms that flourish in beaver wetlands. The slowed pace of the moving water allows it to warm to more suitable temperatures, settle out nutrient-rich silt that’s otherwise whipped up in rapids, and drop in turbidity so sunlight can reach all depths. Photosynthetic phytoplankton, along with several species of zooplankton and bacteria, feed a litany of primary consumer insects and fish, which in turn feed amphibians, birds and mammals.


Macrofauna benefit in their own way as well; Migratory birds like sandhill cranes or white pelicans are given a still body of water to rest and nest in. Frogs are provided with a circumference of still coast water for an ideal habitat. Moose and deer feed on the nutrient-rich willows and buds that pop up in still water meadows, and even predators get a watering hole to try their luck at. By forcing the water to still out, groundwater uptake increases dramatically and raises the water table in a tremendous radius, supplying water to tree roots for miles around. If all this wasn’t enough, beaver wetlands even perform flood control at a level that rivals human engineering — They take up surges of water during summer storms or spring snow melt and release it slowly down the rest of the river, preserving habitat and preventing erosion. Essentially, in terraforming the surrounding habitat to be more suitable for their own needs, beaver dams also create a bastion of nourishment that supports an entire natural community.


By now, I would hope my fellow ENST students are abuzz with the same biodiversity fervor that I was when I first read all this, but the time has come for this story to take a dark turn. Unfortunately for the beaver, its fur makes for the most sensational clothes. Clothes so sensational, in fact, that the hunt for beaver furs is thought of by some as the major driving force behind European expansion across North America. When Lewis and Clark set out for their great expedition in 1804, they were instructed by President Jefferson to map abundant beaver locations and get a sense of how keen the natives were to hunt and trade their furs. Years before the famed 1849 California Gold Rush, a comparably significant California Fur Rush took place with beaver fur as the cream of the crop.


A few key factors combine to make beavers such a desirable target. Most critically, their extremely fine undercoat is made up of tiny hairs covered in barbs which lock together and provide waterproofing for the animal. For a commercial fur producer, these barbs meant both easy water resistance and the tendency to hold a shape much better than similar furs, making beaver an ideal choice for hats. Other parts of the beaver were desired as well — The castoreum mentioned earlier was popular as a medicine and their flesh and tails are allegedly quite the delicacy.


A piece of headwear so fine it drove the forces of history.

Many are unaware that there exists a Eurasian beaver quite similar to the American species, largely due to the fact that they were hunted to near extinction in the 1300s. Their numbers have since mostly recovered, but in a remarkable case of either natural selection or American Exceptionalism, Outwater reports that they lost their dam building abilities in the great hunt. (Note, I can’t find confirmation on this elsewhere on the web, so leave a comment if you come across a Eurasian beaver building a dam and I’ll edit it out).


Living in lodges over dammed wetlands provides protection from typical animal predators, but it made beavers an easy target for human hunters who could clear out entire colonies with only a club or a few traps. The pervasive use of this strategy, so obviously unsustainable to us now, is evident in the purchasing records of the great kings of the 14th century. In the course of only three years, King Philippe of France’s purchases of beaver hats dropped from 450 to 144 then down to 62, despite no evidence for a drop in fashionability at the time. Instead, hunters had cleared out most of Europe’s forests and were being forced to push further and further into Scandinavia and Siberia for diminishing returns.


It’s no wonder then, that upon discovering an entire continent dense in a long-lost luxury product, beaver hunts drove the exploration of the Lower 48. Complete with a Native American work force who figured a few skins were a low price to pay for a technological leapfrog into the iron age, American colonies grew rich funneling hundreds of thousands of furs a year back to Europe. There even are reports of Natives being contracted to paddle canoes full of furs down the Missouri River, up the Mississippi, and across four of the five great lakes for shipment out of Montreal.


Perhaps the best way to perceive the magnitude of this beaver purge is to take a look at the alarming numbers. After considerable protection in the last two centuries, populations have rebounded to something like ten million beavers across the modern US and Canada. However, estimates for the pre-Columbian population range from an astounding 100 to 200 million.


If you take a minute to do the math, it becomes clear that the implications of that magnitude of population are tremendous. The lower 48 United States have a land area of roughly 1.9 billion acres. That means that even at the lower bound estimate of 100 million Pre-Columbian beavers…


If each beaver had created just a single acre of wetlands, they would have added up to cover over 5% of the contiguous United States.


That’s 100 million acres of intensively productive natural communities. Over 150,000 square miles dense in biodiversity. An entirely different picture of the wild American landscape… wiped away for a few decades of nice hats.


After taking a second to lamentingly imagine what that would’ve looked like, I’ve come away with two different lenses through which to try and make sense of this story.

Lens 1 – The Environmental Tragedian

This lens is all too familiar. It’s the same story we’ve heard time and time again, only with a new face for the resource/victim. Nature was trouncing along, cooperating with an almost divine coordination, wasting nothing and churning out life and beauty. Suddenly humans (specifically white males looking for money, no less) had to come along and ruin the scene for everybody. Motivated by greed and self-interest, they couldn’t get their act together and consider the consequences soon enough, and the tragedy of the commons unfolded in its typical fashion.


From this lens, what we need to avoid the problem in the future is to simply be better. We have to make ourselves morally stocky enough to prioritize the wellness of the next generation before our own short-term gain. Those who fail to realize this are small-minded, short-sighted, and selfish. If human nature as a whole can’t make this shift, then our only hope lies in better technology and higher organization. We must take advantage of long-distance communication, dedicate our best people to positions of coordination and diplomacy, and hope to solve a never-ending train of prisoner’s dilemmas. Individuals will of course continue to pursue their own self-interests, and those who can’t play by our regulations must be ridiculed, fined or arrested. Those of us chosen few who understand the situation must compete with every other ideology and cause. We must stomp our feet harder, grow our protests louder, and make our moral accusations harsher.


This is the game environmentalists have been playing for centuries. Though progress has been made here and there, we’re more than overdue for a new approach. All too often we believe that we only have to fight the fight harder, without realizing that we’re engaged in an uphill battle in the first place. Every bit of environmental legislation that’s been passed has been passed in spite of individuals’ self-interest. Every decision that’s been made has been opposed by people with something to lose. It’s ridiculous and even borderline irresponsible to think that if we only chip away, regulation by regulation, we can overcome the force of human self interest.


Are these pitfalls starting to sound familiar? This lens of the Environmental Tragedian is no different from the guilt-fueled efforts discussed earlier in the introduction. The guilt we feel tells us that we don’t care enough, that we need to put our own happiness in the back seat for the sake of solving these crises, and that people who don’t feel as guilty as we do are simply the enemy. Perhaps our saving grace may be that the bulk of the modern world’s population simply isn’t aware of the ramifications of their actions, but if we just inform them we can be sure to turn the tide. But time and time again we see that simple information isn’t enough to motivate behavior change, and we become more and more jaded about the situation as a whole. Once again, the inherent unsustainability of guilt rears its head.


Lens 2 – A Tale of Self Interest

For the second lens, we must move forward not by placing ourselves in opposition to the hunters, but instead — and bear with me here — in the perspective of the beavers. As ridiculous as this sounds, there’s one beautiful fact I’ve so far left out of the discussion that gives me hope.


Beavers are absolute morons.


An “encephalization quotient” is a more nuanced version of the often touted “brain to body size ratio,” and is used by biologists to quantify a species’ general intelligence. While humans boast the highest around 7.5 and are trailed by dolphins at 4.14 and chimps and bonobos at 2.3, beavers are in the company of similar rodents all the way down at 0.9 despite the frequency with which they’re referred to as “nature’s engineers”. Even much of that existing brainpower is taken up by the need to physically coordinate the lips and hands for their building efforts.


Their apparent mammalian genius can actually be explained almost entirely through just one brilliantly evolved instinctual cue: Wherever a beaver hears the sound of running water, he builds. This phenomenon was discovered by Swedish biologist Lars Wilsson all the way back in the 1960s who was amazed to find that when he put a speaker playing the sound of running water on dry concrete in a beaver enclosure, his test subjects couldn’t help but pile mud and sticks over it. Conversely, when he threatened the integrity of their dam with a clear pipe that visibly but silently released water, it went completely ignored.


Suddenly, all of the cleverness, wit, and stewardship discussed a few paragraphs back seems a hell of a lot less impressive. These almost human-like talents that beavers have to make themselves the masters of their own domain have nothing to do with actual cognitive ability, and everything to do with a few creatively wired basic instincts.


What’s more, the incredible effect they have in transforming unremarkable woodland wilderness into acres of biodiverse community has nothing to do with higher abilities or morals. The changes they bring about to the landscape are utterly for the sake of their own self-interest, to make life easier and survival more likely for themselves and their kin. Beavers are not racked by any guilt for not performing their ecological duties, and they certainly aren’t capable of establishing communicative technologies or institutions to guide their stewardship of the forests. They are running on automatic in the most fundamental way. So what lead to at least 5% of the American landmass once being plastered in productive wetlands?


The environment collectively prospers when its improvement is in alignment with the self interests of an agent.


This is the magic key to figuring out how we might fight this fight smarter rather than harder. Any transition fueled by guilt is doomed from the start to stumble and sputter… But what fuel is more reliable, more renewable, or more resilient than the force of human self-interest? This is the force that builds skyscrapers, that puts people on the moon, and that shatters atoms. Modern economics itself — essentially the study of the coordination of human activity to achieve goals — is founded on the idea of homo economicus, the “economic man” forever seeking to maximize personal utility.


So if beavers, by running on automatic and determining their behavior with basic instincts in pursuit of their own survival, can so outwardly benefit the world around them, why must it be so different with us? How come when we pursue personal profit we mangle the forests, punch holes in the ozone, pull too many fish out of the ocean, radically alter the earth’s climate and cause a sixth mass extinction? In order to truly and permanently solve the environmental crisis, here is the question we must answer:


How can we bring our own immediate self interests in alignment with the interests of the natural environment, global population, and future generations? How can we change the rules of the game so that the pursuit of a better life for ourselves is also the pursuit of a better life for everyone else?


For now, I’ll leave you to contemplate that question.


You may have noticed that the title of this article included a daunting “Part 1,” and a Part 2 is indeed on its way. There are two main routes that I’m familiar with that may be able to address this very big question, and hopefully within the next month I can learn enough about each to explain without coming off as a fool. Until then, I would love to hear your ideas on how we might go about answering this question, as well as any thoughts on how I can go about explaining the question itself to people without a ten minute exposé on beavers.

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