We briskly made our way through the cold evening air towards the bustling crowd funneling into the venue. The Whiteside Theater was full to the brim that night with people eager to listen to the esteemed scientist Bill Ripple, who is something of a celebrity in both this community and the larger scientific community. After having my ticket scanned, I walked toward the rows of seats filled with excited attendants, when a cheery volunteer offered me a piece of paper with the heading: What can you do about climate change?
I recently became familiar with Bill Ripple’s work regarding climate change, but I specifically came to hear him discuss his relationship with wolves. I’ve been obsessed with wolves for decades, and now I have the opportunity to dedicate my thesis to telling their stories and the stories of people who both admire and revile them. Wolves, much like climate change, have been on a lot of people’s minds for the past few decades, and the importance of telling stories about them is perhaps more salient than ever.
Wolves have been running throughout the collective human psyche since time immemorial. Wolves make appearances in countless myths, legends, and folktales throughout time and across oceans. They stir all kinds of emotions for different types of people ranging from reverence to revulsion. The latter feeling has characterized the relationships between wolves and the colonial settlers of the United States for hundreds of years, ultimately leading to the deaths of countless wolves. Only when there were a scant few left in the lower 48 states did select settlers, enamored by the romance of “untouched wilderness”, lean towards a more amiable view of wolf-kind.
Wolves have been icons of a noble pristine wilderness for the past half-century, and this change of heart sparked wolf reintroduction schemes in the United States. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park marked a major shift in the relationships between Americans, wolves and the land. However, the relationship between the returning wolves and the land was far more intricate than previously thought.
Bill Ripple has been one of the pioneering scientists examining the relationships between apex predators, such as wolves, and the rest of the ecosystem they call home. One such phenomenon, called trophic cascades, regards the integral role that predators play throughout the entire ecosystem of an area. In short, studies show that when wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone the elk and deer held free reign over the land and grazed without fear or trepidation. The ungulates grazed down the vast majority of tree saplings and young brush, thus wearing thin the food sources and habitat for other species. The brazen browsers also caused the erosion of river banks. When wolves returned, Bill Ripple documented the flourishing of aspens and willows, while other scientists noted surging numbers of beaver, small rodents, foxes, birds of prey, and other biotic community members. The return of wolves altered the grazing habits of deer and elk, thus changing their behavior and changing the land. This message has resonated highly with wolf advocates, considering that the popular viral video, “How Wolves Change Rivers” has garnered almost 40 million views on YouTube.
As I settled into my seat, I quickly scanned through the extensive checklist on the paper I was given. Aside from his research regarding trophic cascades, Bill Ripple has received international renown for issuing the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”, and the final portion of his talk that night focused on his climate work. While I laud the checklist’s straightforwardness, the majority of goals seemed impossible for me to achieve. As a renter, I have no way to install double pane windows, extra insulation, or a smart thermostat. The suggestion to “divest any investments from fossil fuel companies” definitely made me smirk. Like the vast majority of other students, I don’t have the ability to buy organic food regularly or make plans to buy an electric car. The largest barrier between my actions and these noble (if a tad quixotic) goals was my bank account. Like so many other individuals, I cannot live up to the climate-friendly lifestyle many envision. Unfortunately, many climate change checklists imply a lot of choice where there may be none at all. Granted, the checklist also came with great recommendations for community involvement, but after hearing the neoliberal defense of individual consuming patterns rectifying the climate crisis time and time again it’s hard not to become jaded.
When climate change is understood as a consumer problem, the pressures for corporate or governmental change becomes minimal. This has become quite evident through the fad of “greenwashing” certain products to give consumers the illusion of ethical purchasing. Additionally, when climate solutions become merely a set of economic choices, then it becomes practically impossible for low-income individuals or families to make these changes. This disempowerment leads people towards further inaction. While individual contributions are absolutely important, emphasizing individual change without considering corporate regulation, the elimination of fossil fuels and vast economic and social reform is a dead-end road. Changing the behavior on a wider cultural realm is just as important. To halt our own overgrazing of our Earth’s resources, we must reshape our cultural relationships with all of our human and non-human kin.