by Whit Gibbons

August 21, 2016

A chance intersection of a 1967 song and a 2016 election-year editorial, neither of which said a word about plants or animals, set me to thinking about ecology. Neither intended to evoke thoughts about the environment, but both did.

I was reading an article by Carolyn O'Hara, managing editor of The Week magazine, when the Buffalo Springfield song "For What It's Worth" popped up. The O'Hara editorial was laser-focused on the presidential race and government conspiracy theorists. The song by the rock group is a classic protest song. The common thread was paranoia, which led me to consider some people's response to the outdoors.

A certain level of environmental and wildlife paranoia has been present throughout history, but in recent years that paranoia has reached epidemic proportions in modern society as humans drift further away from connections with nature and the outdoors.

I am concerned that people now find more to fear in their ideas about the wilderness than they find to enjoy. It appears our rational evaluation of risk-assessment has gone awry. If some of today's attitudes about the outdoors had prevailed with early pioneers and explorers, Lewis and Clark would still be in downtown St. Louis.

For reasons I do not understand, some people have a dread, even terror, of certain animals that could harm or kill us though the odds of that happening are statistically near nonexistent. Yet these same folks appear to have no concern about other activities that eliminate hundreds of people every year.

Someone driving while texting strikes me as an activity much more likely to end badly than a trip to Everglades National Park that is home to pythons and crocodiles or Yellowstone where wolves and grizzly bears roam free. Doesn't the lowest level of common sense tell us we should put an end to texting while driving and spend little time worrying about the hazards that could befall us from wild animals in national parks?

Environmental paranoia extends beyond irrational fears about wild animals, sometimes with a hint of politics. For example, some people and organizations promote the idea that we no longer need the EPA. Why on earth would anyone want to reduce regulations that keep the water we drink and air we breathe from becoming contaminated? Rivers and streams not polluted by industrial, agricultural or domestic wastes should be a given in this country.

Clean air has been a guarantee of Congress since President Nixon was in office. The next time you hear someone espousing the idea that we eliminate programs that regulate and assure healthy environments for everyone to enjoy, take a look at who is profiting personally and commercially. My bet is they live upstream or upwind and that they benefit from instilling paranoia in the public against a well-meaning regulatory agency that is setting regulations for our own good.

Some of the fauna that inhabit our planet can indeed kill us. And an African lion, Australian saltwater crocodile or Great White Shark could not care less that we are human. A person is no more special than any other protein bar to such predators. But that's no cause for paranoia or even alarm. The odds against being eaten remain overwhelmingly in our favor.

Don't let fear and paranoia keep you from a rational assessment of the personal risk (minuscule) versus the impressive benefits (substantial) of experiencing enjoyable, even spectacular, natural habitats. If you tally up human deaths from wild animals, you will find that far and away the most dangerous animal you are ever likely to encounter in the wild is another person.

Being fearful of or paranoid about the natural world is flat-out unreasonable. We need to develop a culture that does not fear wildlife and a worldview that appreciates and respects all of nature. If you want to worry about something, worry about whether the person in the car next to you is texting.

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