Control Leads to Chaos: As Proven by Sparrows

July 24, 2017 | Posted in: Science

"Days Off: Pen and pencil sketches in Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and elsewhere," William Robert Credland, 1898.

“Days Off: Pen and pencil sketches in Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and elsewhere,” William Robert Credland, 1898.

“What is the nature of a species that knowingly and without good reason exterminates another? How long will man persist in the belief that he is the master of the Earth rather than one of its guests? When will he learn that he is but one form of life among countless thousands, each one of which is in some way related to and dependent on all others? How long can he survive if he does not?” George L. Small, The Blue Whale


Since the very first established cities, humans have been busily terraforming the land en masse for food production. While past civilizations rose and fell with the health of local soil, modern agriculture has been far more expansive in its efforts, and today an estimated 33% of the entire planet’s land has been transformed into fields and pastures. That’s a third of all land cultivated purely for the human stomach!

“If we consider only ice-free land, the percentage we’ve use for food production is 38 percent; of that, about 12 percent is cropland and 26 percent is pastureland. Furthermore, we’ve taken over the best of Earth’s lands for our food production. Most of what remains is pretty marginal as far as growing plants and feeding animals goes—we’re talking desert, rugged mountains, tundra, and so on… It doesn’t take a scientific study to recognize that for most of those formerly abundant and widespread species, the required habitats are simply gone, replaced largely by the low-diversity landscapes we have modified to feed us. And wild species that can survive in agricultural habitats are not species we want there, so they are killed if they wander in.” Anthony D. Barnosky, Dodging Extinction

There’re many people to support with all this agriculture and animal husbandry and big money to be made, so little patience has been given to any species not welcome in our fields. We’ve specially selected the few plants and animals we want to exist in our terraformed world, and outsiders have historically been treated as the enemy. Mono-cropping and domesticating animals makes them more fragile, easier prey for their natural predators, and other species don’t follow human ideas of their place in the grand scheme. Only now, with our human understanding expanding with the lessons gleaned from the field of ecology, do we begin to see that our attempts at complete control will never work, and that other species have a place even if we currently fail to see the direct benefit to us.

Tree sparrows, Bird-Life: A guide to the study of our common birds, Frank M. Chapman, 1900.

Tree sparrows, Bird-Life: A guide to the study of our common birds, Frank M. Chapman, 1900.

Take the sparrow as an example: seen as a stealer of grain this slight little bird has been the outrage of farmers in many places, and the unfortunate victim of all out war on several occasions. One such event occurred in England in the 1930’s, after a report came out claiming that the local sparrows were consuming an ounce of corn each day.

“Overnight, a bird that farming people already perceived as a nuisance was formalized as a pest. Farmers drummed up support for ‘sparrow clubs’, paying around a penny for every twelve sparrows destroyed… The suppression of sparrows persisted for a number of years across England, until a new, unforeseen antagonist appeared: the shambling bodies of millions of caterpillars. ‘They were so dense crossing roads,’ one villager wrote, ‘that horses and cars were slipping and skidding on their bodies, and day and night one could stand and listen to the ominous rustling of the crawling and eating caterpillars.’ The caterpillars were those of the common cabbage-white butterfly, whose numbers soared with the loss of their natural predator, the sparrow. In a turn-about, the 1954 Protection of Birds Act safeguarded the sparrow against direct persecution by farmers.” Melanie Challenger, On Extinction

The same mistake was made in China, where the native tree sparrow was again painted as a gluttonous grain thief, and from 1958 to 1962 it was placed alongside rats, mosquitoes, and flies in the Chinese government’s Four Pest Campaign, all designated for eradication. Every citizen was called to arms against these foes, and they were only lucky that they failed to completely wipe out the sparrows:

“Birds were constantly scared off fields, shot and netted; their nests were pulled down and their eggs destroyed. The population crashed, but rather than increasing grain yield the knock-on effect was that the insects on which the birds also fed now proliferated and locust plagues caused even greater shortage and hardship. It turns out that although perhaps being a bit annoying, the sparrows were already part of an ecological balance that included humans and farming.” Richard Jones, House Guests, House Pests

Sparrow, Birds of Buzzard's Roost, William Watson Woollen, 1907.

Sparrow from Birds of Buzzard’s Roost, William Watson Woollen, 1907.

When we count every grain, every fruit, every lamb, we see any loss by the claws and beaks of another species as unacceptable. We welcome no uninvited guests to our tables. But control without understanding leads to destruction and collapse. Balance requires give and take, and true bounty comes about not only through our own efforts but the combined efforts of nature itself. We need bees for pollination, birds and bats for pest control, predators to help cull the weak and sick, healthy forests for healthy air and soil and rain. The ecological services we gain from the wider ecological community supports our own lives, and the iron fist that demands all be for our own benefit benefits no one. We learned the hard way that even the sparrows deserve their share, and provide an essential service for their fee. Life is too complicated for control.

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.