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On the Road to Extinction: Maybe it’s Not All About Us

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is crystal clear—unlike the smoky skies where I live–to most of us who are willing to consider the facts: this summer’s ‘natural’ disasters have been seeded anthropogenically.  Wildfires in the northwestern United States and Canada, in Greenland, and in Europe are often referred to in the media as ‘unprecedented’ in size and fury. Hurricanes and monsoons, with their attendant floods and destruction, are routinely described as having a multitude of ‘record-breaking’ attributes. No one reading this is likely to need convincing that humans –our sheer numbers as well as our habits—have contributed significantly to rising planetary temperatures and thus, the plethora of somehow unexpected and catastrophic events in the natural world. I’d like to include earthquakes, particularly those in Turkey (endless) and Mexico (massive), in this discussion, and while intuition tells me that there is a connection between them and climate change, research to support this supposition is just emerging, so for the nonce I will leave the earthquakes out of it.

Our proclivity for advancing our own short-term interests has made a mess of things from the beginnings of this current iteration of civilization. Irrigating the Fertile Crescent, which was not very fertile prior to the ingenious innovation of bringing water from the mountains down into the dusty plains, opened the way for a massive increase in food production and a concomitant population rise. Cities grew and became kingdoms. After a reasonably good run, though, irrigation led to salination of the soil and ultimately left it sterile and useless (for agriculture) once again. Many people and their livestock starved or were forced to migrate in large numbers. Great idea, irrigation.

The internal combustion engine seemed a brilliant response to the need to move more commodities more efficiently as the Industrial Revolution created both increased product and demand. Though not necessarily so intended, the automobile initially offered humans wildly expanded freedom and ease. It also led to pumping the innards out of the Earth, filling the atmosphere with CO2, and oil-grabbing wars that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.  Another great idea with a few minor issues that did not get worked out ahead of time.

Plastic.  Now there is an incredible invention. Tough, pliable, lightweight, eternal…this stuff filled a myriad of needs. And conveniently, it could be produced using the fossil fuels we were already extracting for those internal combustion engines. Sadly, we never imagined it would come to microscopic plastic filaments in our drinking water, our sea salt, and even our beer. Not to mention in the bellies of just about anything that lives in the Earth’s oceans.

The list of creative inventions designed to make our lives better is long and varied, but almost inevitably, given enough time, our interference (or improvements, if you prefer) upon the natural state of things comes back to bite us.  And hard.  Fukushima could easily head up that list; most of us would have no trouble adding to the tally of follies flowing from Homo sapiens’ clever life hacks.

If you delve into the motivation behind these ‘advances’ there is generally a desire on the part of people to make life safer or more comfortable or easier in one way or another.  Maybe for themselves and their tribe, or their class, or their nation, but still—the impetus does not tend to flow from a place of malignity. We simply use our big brains to see what is adversely impacting our species (or sub-group thereof) and devise a fix for it. How could that possibly go so wrong?

Hindsight, they say, is always more acute than foresight. Could this be because we do not understand fully how our world works?  Is it possible that we lack a lot of critical information about the ways in which this planet’s life forms and forces are interwoven and connected?  Maybe our superior intelligence, while it has been billed as a powerhouse in the problem-solving department, does not really have the scope of vision that would ensure that problems—solved–stay solved?  Hmmm…might there be an issue with hubris here?  And how do we solve that?

What appear to be straightforward challenges that should yield to linear corrections are in fact predominantly multifaceted and many layered. We see only what we see—because we do have limits in terms of perception– and we act upon that. No real fault there. But you do something over and over and over and get consistent results, you keep being bitten by your brilliant solutions. Quick gains, long-term disasters: this is a pretty common human story. Are we capable of examining it? Even acknowledging it?  Of recognizing that our anthropocentrism and self-assurance may be doing us more harm than good despite (or possibly because of) our fêted cognitive capacities?

So here we are: the summer of 2017 with the arctic ice melting, the temperatures rising, the oceans rising and acidifying, our non-human companions on the planet going extinct like nobody’s business. We thought about ourselves from the get-go.  From the beginning of known human history, we wanted better lives, longer lives, happier lives. For ourselves. We used our gifts to reach for what we wanted, like toddlers, with no sense of the bigger world around us, no notion of the consequences of our actions. No awareness of the unfathomable complexity and the perfection of balance represented by the environment we inhabit.

Or, no will to act from that awareness. Because in all fairness, someone has always pointed to it. Not everyone thought situating nuclear power plants on earthquake faults was a bright idea. And no doubt there was someone back in Sumer who advised stridently against the moving of mountain waters to the fields in the valley.  But the collective, or the powers that own the collective, were not interested in anything that thwarted short-term gains.

We have careened along, from one improvement to another, many of them requiring their own fix a bit down the road.  Now we look at super-storms and mega-fires and what do we see?

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, we see our own interests and little else.  I have been perusing reports and commentary from a wide variety of sources and there is a lot of factual information: the size of the fire, how many miles per hour the winds are blowing, how many acres are still uncontained, or in thrall to the winds and rain. Then, there are stories about losses. Photos and videos and details about homes destroyed, businesses wiped off the map, human injury and death.

But do we talk about the other life forms affected by these human-accelerated events in nature?  In nature, I repeat.  Do we read or talk or hear about the animals who die?  The trees lost? The sea life and habitat ruined? Yup, there are bits and pieces about the animals that belong to us, which are, like our houses and businesses and automobiles, more possessions.  Pets, livestock, even zoo animals are considered.  How do we shelter the cheetah at the Miami Zoo?  Or what about the Cuban dolphins airlifted out of danger to a safe place on the opposite side of the island? Heartwarming, I suppose, and good for those dolphins, but what happened to the wild ones in the sea?

Here is the thing: we helped make these disasters because we always thought about ourselves and neglected to consider the balance of life.  Because our needs were far and away more important to us than the spotted salamanders’.

And maybe that is true. Maybe our lives are more valuable than all the other lives. Who am I to say?  I too am human and subject to the same hubris and shortsightedness as everyone else.

Still…if something is not working, I ask: why keep doing it?  Even if you have no natural affinity for the pine martens who die in the fires or the sandpipers who are flung to their deaths in the monsoons, pragmatism would suggest a change in practice.

We can’t prevent the suffering and dying of wild life, and the Earth herself, when confronted by the unleashed forces of fire and water, but we can include them in our assessment of the cost. We might even grieve for them. Their losses are indeed ours, and if we do not see them or their importance to our lives, if we continue to either ignore and/or dominate all other life on this planet, it won’t be long till we join them.

This piece of writing is, in a ridiculously small way, an attempt to acknowledge those losses that have gone unseen. It isn’t much, but I invite you to join me in taking a few minutes to honor and mourn those who have died in this summer’s conflagrations and deluges. We won’t know much about most of them, but we do know that they lived and we know that they died.  And that we are all diminished by their deaths.

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Elizabeth West lives, writes and strives to find beauty and joy less than half a mile from the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA. She can be reached at elizabethwest@sonic.net or via her website.  

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