Pitch perfect comic parable about sustainability

stmatthew.jpg Just wanted to showcase this marvelous comic by Stuart McMillen (the cover of which you see above and is a nice nod to Hergé). It's called "St. Matthew Island" and asks: "What happens when you introduce 29 reindeer to an isolated island of untouched natural resources?" As a parable (humans being humans, and reindeer being reindeer), it does a great job of gently and effectively illustrating the issue of over consumption . St Matthew Island by Stuart McMillen


  1. I’m not sure who Hergé is, but I assume it’s the man behind TinTin? It’s definitely what I thought of when I saw the drawing above.

    The comic is really great! I love both the art and the information.

  2. The drawings are lovely and the story clearly told. The only problem I have with moral tales (even if based on fact) such as this is there’s usually an i priori assumption that humans are outside of Nature. We’re not. Taking herds of reindeer to an island is the act humans did IN Nature.

    I hear and read the same complaints about how we as humans have ruined Nature by building vast, dirty cities. Well, such cities have been built within Nature. There’s nothing on planet Earth that exists outside Nature, even us. I’d like to see Mr McMillan expand on this true life tale. Well done!

    1. Yes, of course, humans evolved and are therefore “natrual,” point taken.

      Nevertheless, there is a difference in kind between what human civilizations do and what other natural systems do. Natural/unnatural may be an unfortunate word choice, with some inaccurate connotations, but I’m not sure what a better terminology might be.

      1. It’s an excellent word choice. We already have another word for everything natural plus everything humans make – “existing”.

    2. “There’s nothing on planet Earth that exists outside Nature, even us.”

      Sophistry. Ideological puffery.

      “A containment dome just adds to the cost of this reactor. Why are you afraid? Radiation is perfectly natural!

      “Hey, we consume chlorine every day. What do you think salt is made of? When I gave the baby a cup of bleach I was feeding her a perfectly natural substance.”

      “Sure, we’ve killed off everything but rats, cockroaches, and this toxic weed, but species go extinct all the time. It’s a perfectly natural process! Sure, we all have to live in these sealed habitats and eat mucous-like protein shakes and we’re all going bugfuck insane from the crowding and stress and claustrophobia, but it’s all natural!

  3. Clearly this is a story about the finacial econoclypse, yeah?

    The reindeer are obviously a parable for the democrats, who rely on government intervention (represented by “the USCG”) to get a leg up, but then can’t fend for themselves in The Real World(tm).

    If the reindeer had bee Tea Partiers, none of this would have happened, because the island would have been rented to the Kochdeer for a nominal $1/yr, and the Kochdeer would have exploited the natural resources of the island ina sustainable manner, as predicted by pure free market theory.

  4. In other news, nice comic. It reminds me a lot of Easter Island. I wonder what the reindeer was thinking as it ate the last bit of lichen.

  5. I think this is a brilliantly told story.

    This parable has been used in some environment opinion pieces and critics have been disputing that the reindeer died because of an unusually harsh winter which they had no means of escaping.

    Either way, animal populations have collapsed due to external factors that made them overexploit their resources.

    As we are finding out with oil, we’re no exception.

  6. it’s missing the next few panels. after the humans, er reindeer, died out the island was fine. changed but fine.

    how big is our island: once we get down to 7 million females and one infertile male, we’ll be fine.

  7. If there had been even a small area where the lichen could have bred undisturbed by reindeer depredations, on a tower perhaps, the reindeer population would have had a slim chance of reaching a stable equilibrium within the island ecosystem.

    But when the predator is able to completely annihilate its own resource base, it will do so.

    Thus, we will drill, baby, drill, until the deepwater well disasters remove our ability as a species to do so. When the oceans die, humanity dies.

    We can always hope for a big plague, though.

  8. I thought the point of this was that EVERY kind of life will expand past the point of sustainability, then experience a forced contraction. Over and over again, unless they die off entirely. And that humans are the only ones with the requisite amount of awareness to overcome this cycle.

    Anyhoo, now I know how to make a fortune in the reindeer industry.

    1. As a thought experiment maybe, but on a practical level there’s hundreds or thousands of different factors to achieve something that looks more like an equilibrium state, and least in the short reference frame of human history.

  9. We are part of nature, but are the only part we know of so far that has a choice of how to act. This gives us a responsibility for our action that the other animals do not have.

    1. *This gives us a responsibility for our action that the other animals do not have*

      Animals and insects and fish do not make choices? Of course they do!

      1. Do you hold people accountable for their actions – say, punishing someone who murders another? Do you think fish that kill other fish should be disciplined for it? Because if the answers are different, you obviously think they make different types of choices.

        1. “Do you hold people accountable for their actions – say, punishing someone who murders another? Do you think fish that kill other fish should be disciplined for it? Because if the answers are different, you obviously think they make different types of choices”

          I’ve never been directly responsible for punishing a murderer, but of course people need to be held responsible for certain bad things they might do. As far as I know, it’s possible that fish (or certain fishes) have their own ways of dealing with crimes and misdemeanors in the fish world. Who’s to say? Sharks, dolphins and some whales are known for their intelligence and they’ve been around longer than we people

          1. Dolphins and whales are known for their intelligence, but sharks and fish are not. Their behavior is sophisticated and subtle; it definitely works well for them, and in some cases makes judgments better than us. But the word intelligence means a particular class of behavior that we have to a much larger extent. It is advanced in the most basic sense: it has undergone more change from the ancestral type than instinct. Every group has its own advanced features; that’s one of ours. And it just so happens it involves foresight and self-modification of behavior to a much greater extent than fish, which make choices from a more circumscribed set of responses based on well-selected heuristics.

            Fish can learn and even have different characters, but will only radically change their behavior through genetics, while for nearly every aspect of human behavior there has been someone who has learned to change it, even if most do not. In practice, this is often an important distinction, and so we use different words for the two. “Natural” and “artificial” are what we came up with; it doesn’t imply humans exist apart from the rest of existence, or aren’t ultimately subject to the same rules. but simply refers to how much is mutable through instruction and culture rather than mutation and die-off. That may not interest you, but if you’re trying to change something it really impacts what techniques you can use.

  10. I think the REAL lesson is that we are desperately in need of a really big war to thin the herd.

  11. I do not believe that humanity has the capacity to go beyond our default programming…we are programmed to ignore the obvious when it conflicts with our beliefs, consider anyone with different beliefs or ideas to be bad, to look out only for ourselves at the expense of others, even if in the long run it means damaging ourselves.

    The number of people who can see past the default programming is vanishingly small when compared to the dim, uneducated masses that make up most of humanity. Even if they read cool websites full of “drop-dead gorgeous, stunningly beautiful, pitch-perfect” things made or found by other members of the tiny progressive tribe, they never have a real effect outside their own self-selected circle. The masses do not listen unless forced to, and not many of them are surfing around BoingBoing or Recombinant Records…they are too busy watching Charlie Sheen.

    In short, we are doomed already, and utterly obvious and predictable comics like this will not make a difference. However well-drawn, it’s only preaching to the choir.

  12. Nature is a system. It works under a number of factors to perform at its optimum level. We humans seem to be the only species on the planet capable of understanding this optimum peak of performance as well as being able to upset this system’s ability to perform at its optimum.

    So, as a system, Nature adjusts to these negative factors in order to achieve optimum performance, regardless of who is affected positively or negatively by this adjustment.

    Interestingly, this process takes much time and many don’t and/or choose not to notice this occurrence of adjustment as it occurs as they are too busy caught up in semantics or coming off as cute.

  13. “Animals and insects and fish do not make choices? Of course they do!”

    Sorry, assumed you could process that point hand-holding. The other animals cannot make informed choices, with clear understanding of the long term consequences. I was not referring to whether to eat the red berry or the purple one.

    Reindeer do not have the capacity to set aside a lichen preserve or choose not to mate in order to save the herd down the road.

    1. It’s seems as if you’re assuming that human intelligence is somehow more advanced than
      the intelligence of other species. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but I’ve known some pretty smart non-human critters in my day

  14. But the right keeps telling us there is no limit. Conservatives don’t neeed to conserve. There will always be a technological crutch to bail us out, right?

  15. Great parable for all the obvious reasons. Yes, we are part of nature and in the grand scheme of things, our death would not stop the universe from moving, but so what- we also have intelligence that can change the old ways the game has been played. That’s the point here.

    For those who like this kind of a thing, allow me to plug another set of informative, environmentally-themed and hopefully thought-provoking comics:


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