Part of the Pack

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Edwin Giesbers / Minden Pictures
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“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

Rudyard Kipling

Whether as folkloric villains, wise teachers, or emblems of what’s wild in us, wolves play a prominent part in countless cultural mythologies. Among these associations exists a key contradiction. On the one hand, when we think of wolves, we often imagine them in packs—calling to one another on a full moon, sets of eyes in the dark, encircling a wayward traveler. On the other hand, we have the idea of the lone wolf, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a person who prefers to work, act, or live alone.” Wolves have come to represent a dire dichotomy that’s deeply embedded in our world today: individualism vs. collectivism.

 

Gray wolves typically live in packs of between six and 10. Even within these packs, a prevailing idea in the public imagination is that individual wolves compete for the dominant title of “alpha wolf.” According to the International Wolf Center, many modern wolf experts consider this to be a misleading idea and discourage the use of the phrase. It turns out that these alpha wolves are really no more than parents. Wolves mate for life; together with their offspring, they form packs that get larger with each generation. In other words, what we assumed to be groups driven by inward competition and aggression are actually families.

 

So, what are the advantages of living in a pack? For starters, it allows wolves to hunt in ways they never could alone. A pack can take down prey that’s far larger than any individual wolf’s size, including elk, moose, and deer. They do this with precise coordination and communication; wolves can hear each other’s howls up to ten miles away, allowing them to exchange information about prey, defend their territory, and assemble missing pack members. Living in a pack also helps guarantee each member’s safety, especially that of vulnerable pups which are born without sight or smell. All of the adults within a pack will pitch in to protect and care for the young, watching them while others hunt.

 

Wolves are, at their core, irrefutably social animals. Much like the myth of the dominant alpha, the human conception of the lone wolf is also somewhat false. It’s not that solitary wolves do not exist; rather, it’s that they do not prefer to be alone, as our definition suggests. According to the Wolf Education and Resource Center, “lone wolves don’t leave because they want to stay alone, they leave in order to find a mate, their own territory, and form their own pack.” These wolves, also called “dispersers,” play a critical role in keeping the species alive by creating new, diverse breeding pairs as well as bringing wolf populations into new territories.

 

In the wilds of western capitalism, we are raised to be lone wolves. We have been fed the lie of alpha dominance, the notion that we must vie for our place in the pack. It’s ingrained in us that we are each here to make our individual marks and achieve our individual dreams. Even those of us with shared goals—such as ecological conservation—have been led to believe that individual action is the only way to get there. This is largely thanks to inventions like the conscious consumer (the idea that we can shop our way out of this mess) and the personal carbon footprint (an insidious and effective PR campaign created by BP in the early aughts), which have kept us distracted from focusing on the real culprits and the systematic change required.

 

For nearly two critical decades, climate change has been framed as a moral failing of the individual, rather than a crisis that could be handled by the collective. And while this is certainly true, it’s imperative we not interpret it as an excuse to let ourselves off the hook. It’s not an “either or,” it’s a “yes and.” Our present situation requires action on every level, from the top down and the bottom up. Let the myth of the lone wolf be a reminder that the very dichotomy between individualism and collectivism is a false one; just as the disperser wolf is actually in service of its larger species, we can dedicate our individual skills and actions to the whole.

 

Much like wolves, we are social creatures (“ultra-social,” as we have been called). As the last year and a half has made it all too clear, we need each other—now more than ever before. And our strength is in numbers; as activism has proven time and time again, together we can accomplish what would otherwise be impossible alone. So, instead of tearing each other apart, what would it look like for us to protect and care for one another as a community? To raise, rather than raze, each other at every turn? Maybe our fascination with wolves is a yearning for that feeling of family, a longing for a remembrance lost: that we are all part of the same pack.

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