Background image of Snakes in brown leaves


Why is it so hard to care — about snakes or the climate?

Part of it, I suspect, is our isolation.

Originally posted at the E3 Network blog.

by Skip Laitner

This time the snake was real. Right there on the side of the road. Some evenings ago, however, in the waning hours of twilight, it turned out to be just a short length of black rubber hose that was also laying along the path I was taking. But this particular snake was just as dead. I’m no expert but it was non-venomous, perhaps a narrowhead garter snake.

It looked as though it wanted to live, but it also looked as though the wound had slowly bled it to death. The snake seemed as if it had been just barely clipped or pinched by the wheel of a passing car. The injury itself didn’t really appear to be all that serious. I was thinking that had it been given immediate care, it would likely be alive today. Unfortunately, the cars seem to be more forthcoming than any immediate animal care.

I confess that while not especially fond of them, I am intrigued by snakes. And of this particular critter? Somehow I think of this as “my snake” and I wondered why I cared about it, or why I was saddened by its demise? That single snake was neither socially nor economically important.

Nature is content to love snakes in her own way — as a species. Yet she seems wholly unconcerned with any particular snake. As Joseph Wood Krutch suggested many years back, Mother Nature seems to hold the view that it’s the “greatest good of the greatest number.” In fact, it seems to be a principle so absolute that she is not “tempered with regret over those who happen not to be included within the greatest number.” And yet, I cared.

There are perhaps 3000 separate species of snakes, and maybe hundreds of millions of individual snakes. These may be a sufficient number so that, like Mother Nature, I don’t need to think about them all that much. And I certainly don’t need to fret over their individual livelihood. And yet I cared about this snake. Probably because I was right there with it. In some way, then, I was connected to it.

Why is it so hard to care about snakes? Or the desert? The climate? And especially the environment more generally? Part of it, I suspect, is our isolation. We spend 6 percent of our time in our cars and 89 percent of our time in our buildings. That insulates and isolates. But the research of psychologist Susan Mineka at Northwestern University’s suggests that our instinctive fear of snakes may be learned. Her studies of rhesus monkeys provide empirical evidence that we may be genetically programmed with the fear of snakes. But here’s the kicker… The genetic program needs to be turned on, or socially-triggered, by some vicarious experience. That may be good news for snakes. And that may be good news for us; and the climate as well. What is learned can be unlearned. What if we encourage and allow that unlearning or relearning to happen? Perhaps then we may find unexpected value in snakes. And the environment.

Snakes are important models for adaptation, evolutionary ecology, and high-performance muscle physiology. And they also provide a sense of wonder. Somehow the desert wouldn’t quite be the desert if we didn’t wonder whether there might be a snake resting under a rock, that very same rock that you might also decide would be a good resting place. Still, I recall the advice of WC Fields who once said, always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite; and furthermore, always carry a small snake.

John A. “Skip” Laitner is Director of Economic and Social Analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), based in Washington, DC. Tucson is his family’s hometown, and he likely will be there through August of 2012. While these columns do not reflect the official opinion or views of ACEEE, its board or its staff, he can be reached at