Now when I point out that the strategy they’re pursuing is making the bears more dangerous, and thus making themselves more likely to be sued, they don’t know what to do because they’re still afraid to change. But I think they may be starting to listen. I hope.
The MOON: As we keep encroaching upon bear habitat, and damming rivers so that resources like salmon have a harder time getting into bear country, aren’t bears and humans increasingly on a collision course? In the town where I live, Ojai, there has been no water in the river this summer. The river is over-committed. So of course that puts a tremendous stress on the wildlife.
Russell: Yes. At one time, California was filled with grizzly bears—ten thousand or more. Humans killed them all. The last grizzly was killed in 1908. What a beautiful place that was for grizzly bears with all the nuts, acorns, grasses, sedges and other vegetation. There’s a lot of protein in vegetation, and that’s mostly what bears eat. They love wildflowers and dandelions, which often grow near roads, which results in them getting hit by cars. They also strip the bark and eat the cambium layer of fir and spruce trees. In Washington state there was almost a bounty on bears because the Forest Service didn’t want them killing trees. So there’s lots for bears to eat, even when it’s not berry or salmon season; it’s just that we don’t always want them to eat it.
It’s true; we humans are on a collision course with most of nature, not just bears. We think we’re so special that we can disregard the laws of nature. We’re playing with fire this very moment. If we don’t pay attention to our limitations, to how much we can take from the world, we’re going to destroy ourselves. Nature will recover; but we won’t; or at least, a lot of us won’t.
We’ve created an economic system that requires continuous growth to survive. We created that system because we all want to be rich. It worked for a while, but it’s not working anymore. The reason is, nothing in nature grows forever. It gets to a certain point and it either creates sustainability, or it dies off. It exhausts its food supply; it destroys its host; it consumes all the oxygen; it pollutes its own ecosystem. We think we’re so clever, we can always invent something to overcome whatever problem or shortage we face. Ironically, we may be brought down by running out of money. Sure we can keep printing it, but no one will trust it; they won’t know what it’s worth—because it’s not worth anything. Once people can’t buy anything, the whole house of cards collapses. Maybe then people will see that we have to base our lives—our economy—on things that have intrinsic value—like food, and shelter, and community. Maybe then we will remember our proper place in nature.
This is something I learned from the bears. When they went into their dens each year, I’d come back to Canada to raise money. It was at a time when there was lots of money around. One friend always asked me how much money I’d made that season. I’d usually say something like, “Oh, I paid myself a fair wage, but I ended up depleting most of it to keep funding one of my programs.” He’d laugh and say, “Well I made four million dollars this summer.” I’ll never forget that. And he’d delight in telling me how he did it—in the stock market.
The MOON: I hope he donated some of it to you.
Russell: No, he never did. But the 2008 recession caught him off-guard and he lost almost everything, including his multimillion-dollar house that he built. A lot of people lost everything—because what they’d built it on didn’t really exist. It was imaginary. A bubble. I’ve thought about that a lot.
I also think back to this time in the summer of 2002. I was in Kamchatka, and I watched as the whole sky turned black. I wondered what the hell was going on. It was the densest, ugliest, blackest cloud—and it darkened the sky for weeks. I didn’t have much access to news out there, but it turned out to be a cloud of smog from China that crossed the Sea of Okhotsk and reached me in this most pristine wilderness, which was just about as close to pure nature as one could get. This cloud was so thick it blocked out the sun for weeks.
This is the type of thing that made me really stop and realize what a foolhardy path we’ve embarked upon. I really don’t believe it’s sustainable. I don’t think any scientist thinks so. But it’s taken the economy to really set us on our ass.
The MOON: I’m sure that many of our readers have heard of Timothy Treadwell—the “Grizzly Man” who lived with Alaskan grizzlies and was eventually killed by one. How has your experience differed from Treadwell’s? What, in your opinion, did Treadwell do wrong that eventually got him killed?
Russell: I probably did more to keep Timothy alive than anyone. I called him every year when I came back from Kamchatka and we’d talk for an hour or more, because I wanted to understand what he had learned from his experiences with grizzlies. He lived thirteen years among them! That’s a lot of knowledge.
I can’t really call him a friend, however, because he wouldn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t carry bear spray, nor would he use electric fencing around his tent, even though he camped right on bear trails and was around bears he didn’t know. I lived with bears I had built relationships with—and still I lived in a hard-sided cabin with electric fence around it, just because I didn’t want to become a Timothy Treadwell statistic. I talked with him about this all the time: the fact that if he was hurt or killed by a bear it would destroy all the work he’d done. Everyone would forget his work and remember only that he was killed.