Human-Free Zones: Why we simply need them, and we need them right now.
In the words of David Attenborough, “humans have overrun the planet”. We are the most invasive species this planet has ever known. The study of ecology and ecosystem balance is an embarrassing oxymoron, coming from a species that has broken every possible rule in the ecosystem book. A species which has redefined, expanded and exceeded the definition of what constitutes an invasive species.
Although invasive species earn a bad reputation, they have always existed on Earth. Any “normal” species can become invasive if venturing outside of its natural habitat, or if its own natural habitat becomes disturbed. They assume the “invasive” status only temporarily, before they are eventually brought to justice by the physical and biological forces of the ecosystem. Invasive species begin their spectacular ascent by hijacking an ecosystem’s resources, becoming super-predators that proceed to grow at the expense of others in the food chain. But at some point, the ecosystem eventually finds a way to curb the invasive species’ “enthusiasm”, exploiting its weak spot. Published photographs of an octopus devouring the highly invasive tropical lion fish that has been plaguing the Mediterranean are evidence of the incredible wonder of the ecosystem, who always finds a way to bring itself back into balance. Who would have ever expected a soft, spineless predator such as an octopus to engulf a thorny tropical fish that looks like an impenetrable fortress? Nature is the most imaginative, most powerful predator of all. Whenever a species becomes invasive, nature browses through its endless arsenal of biological weapons. A new predator, in this case the octopus, becomes the possible solution to the urgent worldwide problem of the lion fish. It is most likely that the fish will probably stay in the Mediterranean, but will eventually become a non-invasive resident, integrated into the ecosystem.
There is no habitat on Earth where humans have not completely dominated. Humanity has by far surpassed the definition of an invasive species. The type of damage that humanity is causing goes beyond the extinction of specific species. We are turning the lights down on the entire infrastructure that supports life on the planet: its climate. While an invasive species is the equivalent of an uninvited guest emptying the fridge, a planet-cidal species will unplug the fridge, then smash it to pieces.
Desperate efforts to control invasive species usually include hunting them down and killing them, such as with the case of camels in Australia, and numerous other examples. In the case of humans, since we have become invasive across the planet, it is vital to establish Human-Free Zones. It would be a step up from National Parks, which often become overrun by tourists and other humans that continue to inflict damage. The concept of Human-Free Zones would be a lesson for all humanity: a reminder that we cannot always do what we want on this planet. That there are limits to our habitat as for other species, and that we do not own everything on Earth. I have a dream of humans walking up to the border posts of Human-Free Zones and looking at the “no humans allowed past this point” signs. I would rather humans let their imagination run wild with stories and fables of what the animals and plants get up to behind the “keep out” signs, than think for a minute that they know it all, own it all, and can see it all on their TV: a glamourized, human-shaped, bio-chauvinistic and speciesistic narrative about Earth and its species that our human supremacy bias creates and reinforces. Nature is not there to be filmed. It wants to live, it wants to survive, it wants to be left alone, beyond the reach of digital cameras, color filters and other technologies that objectify it, turn it into “nature porn”. Nature does not need a PR firm, and it certainly doesn’t need our help and “protection”. It knows how to heal itself, and it heals the fastest when left alone. Without the luxury of nature documentaries and David Attenborough narratives, perhaps humans would understand in their hearts and minds that, as many nature documentaries as we may try to shoot, as many stories as we may craft about the wonders of nature, we can never really capture the beauty, the infinity of colors, forms, and everyday lives of the 8 million other species that live on this planet.
Human-Free Zones are the only solution. Any ecological restoration or intervention by humans will always, however helpful and in the right direction, have a human bias: a patronizing approach where we think we understand the complexities of ecosystems to the point where we can “fix” them with a few surgical moves here and there. In reality these are extremely complex systems which tend to shift and re-balance with every “surgical” move, just as you try to re-habilitate them. We are not God. The ecosystem is, however. The lion fish, an escapee from ornamental fish acquariums, only became invasive because of humans. It is the perfect example of how humans’ voyeuristic, patronizing tendencies towards nature and the false stereotypes that accompany it, hide a truly dangerous, planet-cidal enemy. Human-Free Zones already exist in some ultra-protected areas. But they are too small, and not adequately policed, to safeguard the protection of the species that are imprisoned within their small confines. We can do better, and help Nature adapt — by itself — to the massive challenges that climate change is already bringing forth.
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books