We must face the ecological realities of the world we’re creating

There is no separating us from the place we live.


We have reached a point in the human experiment where it is impossible to see ourselves apart from what we once called nature. This has been true for a while, but it is becoming more and more obvious. The realization that humans are an inseparable part of the natural world (a powerful, often destructive part) has major implications for how we think about ourselves as members of an ecological community. Some folks call this era the Anthropocene, but this issue calls it the “Plastocene,” in one of two features exploring the human impact on the West.

On the cover: River otters traverse the icy Yellowstone River between Hayden Valley and Canyon, Wyoming, where they swim in unfrozen holes and race from one to the next.
As writer Krista Langlois explains, the Plastocene is a very specific era, one in which humans have put so much plastic into the world that the plastic is now melding with sediment to create a new kind of rock. In some distant future, when humans are long gone, our time on Earth will be represented by this kaleidoscopic layer. Much of it will consist of big chunks of plastic, but some of it will be made of microplastics — those bits of plastic that become tinier and tinier but never go away entirely. Not a lot is known about how these could impact the world, but researchers are studying the problem. We do know that microplastics seem to be everywhere, including in what we like to think of pristine natural environments, such as the alpine forests of Montana. They are in the water we drink, in the plants and animals we eat, and even aloft on the air. We are altering our own bodies through the plastics we produce, here at the height of petrochemical culture.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News
What are we to do with this knowledge? How should we see ourselves in this world we’re creating? I think one answer is found in this issue’s cover story, partly set in Montana, where another kind of human impact holds much better lessons on being ecological. From the Beartooth Plateau, writer Wudan Yan reports on ongoing attempts to find otters — otters that, like microplastics, are not supposed to be there. They are finding their way onto the plateau because a specific kind of human, known as a fisherman, has stocked the lakes and streams with fish. The otters have followed the food, and this might just encourage them to leave lower elevations, where climate change threatens their food sources, for higher, safer altitudes.

Whether we’re furthering the spread of microplastics, or the spread of otters, our actions carry consequences. Just as a beaver dam is a part of the beaver’s being, and just as a hole in the ice is the sign of an otter’s passing, we humans are composed of the world we inhabit. There is no separating us from the place we live. How we deal with this reality is another matter, and entirely within our control. The world, in other words, is yet what we make it.

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