I mean, who really misses the giant sloth or the wooly rhino? I bet you have trouble even imagining what these creatures looked like… so I’ll ask a simpler question, who misses the dodo bird, the passenger pigeon or the Tasmanian tiger, creatures that lived when our grandparents were children?
Once I lived in Western Montana, and spent my days exploring with camera in hand, looking for signs of man, finding abandoned old cars, rusting nests of beer cans and bean tins, and found many legacies from those who had traced the land before me. And buried there in the past with these iron artifacts and the occasional stone Indian implement was another, more wistful legacy:
A legacy of emptiness.
All across the plains as far as the eye could see, was a canvas of nature with all the large animals extracted… and deep in my mind I felt an emptiness, the unnaturalness of such a fertile environment left to be ruled by insects and the occasional bird. But if I was not educated on this matter, if I hadn’t explored my interests in ecology, would I still have this sense of something missing, something lost? Such is the memory of humanity throughout the ages… that the real, ultimate issue is spiritual, not ecological.
Industry dominates nature.
As long as we can collectively remember, humanity has been running a cultural program of adapting the environment to fit our needs. Our society’s intentions are honorable but wrong, because somehow, we have detached our thinking from nature. Left unchecked this behavior has led to the unleashing of some major holocausts upon this amazingly resilient planet. It would take a catalog of encyclopedias to chronicle these offences against the biolologic order, and a good dose of anti-depressants to read through them all, with every page making you weep for life on Earth.
Many we know well; chemical spills, clear cutting, strip mining and nuclear testing. A few I’ve witnessed myself include the Tijuana River, dumping sewage into the Pacific Ocean, and the tragedy of a unique prehistoric desert forest, transformed into a landfill by the inhabitants of Cata Vina in Baja California, despoiling a little bit of biological history stretching back to the beginning of life itself.
But these tragedies are not confined to the Third World. The commercial deforestation of the Redwood Forests of California is another outrage, with majestic trees older than Jesus having been irrevocably lost under a Federal bill labeling them “old growth timber”.
Every year I traveled up the Pacific Coast Highway, watching the chain saws at work, thinning the once luscious groves not far off the highway, out of sight and mind of those passing by. And this in just one small corner of the world where there are laws protecting nature.
But in terms of sheer impact, none of these actions even comes close to the devastation of the oceans, with huge plastic nets trapping every creature having the misfortune to come into contact with them, leaving whole swatches of the sea barren of animals too large to swim through, with many commercially undesirable organisms needlessly dying so that a few ‘prize’ creatures can be sold in market.
As someone who has encountered abandoned drift nets in the open sea, and seen the careless destruction, I can only conclude that there will be an eventual breach of the limit of nature’s ability to withstand this assault, that there will come a day when some fundamental part of nature collapses under the strain, and we will miss it immediately, because of it’s importance for our very survival. Because our lives depend on biodiversity in ways that are not often appreciated.
Once I had a vivid daydream, in which I was a Mexican peasant farmer. Old and tired, smoking cheap cigarettes, I watched my sons burning a swatch of rainforest so that grasses would grow to feed my multiplying herd of cattle. I felt a sense of satisfaction that my grandchildren would grow up better off than I had, but what I didn’t realize was that this one simple action, multiplied by all the other agricultural fires burning around the world, was producing more greenhouse gasses than all the automobiles in North America.
You don’t have to daydream to empathize with the needs which all the people the world over have for every bit of nature, but you do have to wonder if and when a change of social consciousness will occur, to wake us up to the fact that we are eating and burning our planet up faster than it can replenish itself, like goats dropped off on a lush island, eating up the plants until there is nothing left, and then dying off.
And how to handle the opinions of scholars and students of biospheronics (the study of how life affects the earth and vise versa), who tell us that we have already crossed the breach, that if tomorrow morning we awoke to an 1820’s level of environmental impact, that it’s already too late, that we are well under way into the largest mass extinction of life on Earth as recorded by the fossil record. I really don’t know how to process this information, except to go numb. And this numbness prevents most of us from getting involved in building solutions, leaving us victims of an undeclared war against nature by killing us emotionally.
But this cannot be the answer, such a dereliction of my duty to life, to nature and yes, dare I say it, to future generations, demands that I at least be aware of the state of our planet, to learn ways I can help to heal it, tend to it, reduce the harm and even help it prosper. And it all begins with education.
Like the Mexican farmer of my little daydream, I find most of us are blissfully unaware of the little things we do which compound to form great problems; such as the plastic disposable lighters which end up floating in the oceans, where they are mistaken for fresh shiny fish by great seabirds. Their populations are dwindling because of these tokens of modern convenience, choking the young hatchlings that are unable to swallow them. I say get a Zippo, you’ll look a lot cooler anyways and less birds will die.
Plastic grocery bags too, find their way to sea, hundreds of miles from land. There they are mistaken for jellyfish, and eaten by sea turtles, which slowly starve to death from intestinal blockage. Wild animals on the African plains, foraging for vegetation, suffer the same problem. What can you do? Refuse a bag for small orders, or better still, carry a bag with you when you go shopping.
Beginning with these two simple choices, we can have an impact upon the world that can mean the difference between mass extinction today and the continuation of life on Earth. Because extinction doesn’t just happen to the dodo, or the sea turtle, or the great sea birds, it can happen to us too, rich or poor, it doesn’t differentiate. Humanity is heading for extinction if it doesn’t mend its wasteful ways.
So I take this moment to challenge everyone to think anew.
We need to ask the question “do we need nature?” to provoke the thoughts of ‘why?’ and to wake us to what we have done to this unique oasis of life in the universe. To remember that every single moment we are supported physically and emotionally by the natural world around us and its wondrous ecosystems, which provides us with fresh food, water to drink, air to breathe, the sunshine which fuels all life and the landscapes that bring us inspiration and the uplifting joy that these things make us feel.
The living earth, Gaia if you will, tells us that all species eventually face extinction, and that the pollution of one species provides the necessary elements for the organisms that follow in time.
Take for example oxygen, critical to thinking, mobility, reproduction, to life itself. But who would have guessed that this simple element is present on earth as a by-product of early life’s polluting of the atmosphere?
That’s right; before the earth had it’s current atmosphere, all life lived underwater, protected from the harsh sun. Organisms in those days, mostly heterotrophs (eaters, as opposed to autotrophs, or producers) subsisted on the abundant amino acids in the sea. But as this fuel source became depleted, certain organisms evolved to take advantage of the abundant carbon dioxide for fuel. Consuming carbon, they released the oxygen into the atmosphere, where it built up over millennia to provide the very element that life today needs to exist.
Of course, ozone took awhile to build up, allowing life to surface, but that’s another story. The point being that the basic essence of nature on planet Earth is its self-organizing intelligence. It cooperatively creates and maintains Earth’s optimums of life and diversity. We can choose to either be a part of this equilibrium, reducing the harm we do, and being more aware of the direct and indirect benefits and future potential that biodiversity offers, and protecting it, or we can go the way of the Dodo, sooner, rather than later. It’s that simple.
We each need a better, more personal awareness of our government’s policies affecting biodiversity, and to speak our voices against what is fundamentally wrong, sharing goals which go beyond protecting endangered species and preserving public parklands. We must become concerned about maintaining the capability of the biological world to adapt, through adjustment and evolution, to changes in the physical environment, both natural and manmade.
Nature is the cradle that holds life afloat. As the mega-species we have become, ours is the hand that rocks the cradle, and we bear ethical obligations to ensure the habitability of the planet, acting as responsible custodians of the biological wealth for the present and future benefit of all species. Because we have not inherited the Earth from our forbearers, we are borrowing it from the life that will follow in our footsteps, we must not let them down, we must work together to preserve the sustainability of life on earth.