I am often bemused by claims that people are harming the environment, when often we do not know exactly what we mean by harm. Often what humans are doing is changing the environment, and this is called harm. But is it reasonable to call mere change as harm? What of changes that are more insults to our idea of beauty?
Some examples to feed ideas.
1. Elephants have been damaging the environment in Africa for long enough that this damage fuels evolution. Acacia trees dominate much of Africa, and elephants have the charming habit of pushing over any Acacia tree they encounter, in order to eat the top leaves. This prevents forest forming, and stabilises the immense grasslands. The result has been the evolution of an amazing ecosystem depending on African grasses. Without the elephant pushing over trees we would not have giraffes, antelopes etc. Is the elephant an environmental vandal or an environmental saviour?
2. Damage may increase biodiversity and biological productivity. Alpine lakes are very beautiful, with crystal clear blue waters, but in terms of life are essentially the equivalent of deserts. If we pollute those waters with nutrients, such as farm run-off, we end up with a lake that is green and diverse, and a biomass that is enormous. Is this increase in biodiversity and biological productivity an example of environmental damage, or just aesthetic damage?
3. Pollution may have interesting effects. Australian naturalist, Tim Lowe, in his book "The New Nature" tells an interesting example. In the build up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, many sites were investigated to build Olympic venues. One site was a polluted pond. It was considered that this site would be great for development, since it could only improve the environment by removing a polluted eyesore. In fact, they discovered in that pond, the largest ever population of an endangered bell frog. It seems that this frog species was dying out due to infection by the chytrid fungus, and the pollution in this pond selectively killed off the fungus, allowing the frog to thrive. So is pollution always an environmental detrement?
The question of how we define environmental damage is clearly not simple. Any ideas?