Day of the Dead

Mountain Goat. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Of all the insults we inflict on the Earth, extinction of species may be the worst. As we dive deeper into the yawning void of the Sixth Extinction – the only one caused by humans, and the only one we have the power to stop – I have to wonder where it ends. Do we evolve and intentionally become something different, such as a brain in a machine; are we doomed by the Singularity to some Matrix-like future of serving technology; do we leave the planet behind as a smoking ruin and find other planets to despoil; do we manage to hang on in pitiful remnants on a depleted and bleak world; do we completely transform the Earth and turn every living thing in to human fuel; do we go down in flames with all those species we are annihilating?

Eventually everything is doomed. The sun will go Red Giant and devour the Earth. All the stars will eventually flame out and die. Why care? Why not succumb to hedonism and excess, live it up and suck it up. Who gives a flying fuck about some tweety birds, posies and varmints.

Why? Because the Earth, the stars, the Universe, somehow managed to bring forth these marvelous organic inventions that live and breathe and frolic and mate and fight and eat and hunt and fly and run and howl and sing. Because we are all refugees stranded on one blue marble in the vast cold emptiness, possibly (but unlikely) the only life in all the terrifying wilderness of space. Surely we should look after one another.

Why? Because it is the right thing to do – my gut tells me every time I hear of another extinction that we have made another giant mistake. Every time another species winks out, the world goes darker and we insult evolution, history, biology, and perhaps the Creator if there is one. We have cut off another branch from the tree of life and deprived another entire form of life of its right and its destiny to exist and to prosper.

Over the history of life in Earth, 99.9% of all species that have existed are now extinct. That makes the remaining ones all the more valuable and unique – these are the survivors, the ones who figured it out. They are also the species that may evolve into future life forms.

Millions of species exist (the actual number is unknown), but we have supercharged extinction through our exploitation of the Earth, causing extinction rates 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural “background” rate. The biggest problems come from habitat loss and degradation (mainly deforestation), overfishing and overhunting (think poaching), invasive species, climate change, and nitrogen pollution from agricultural runoff causing “dead zones” in oceans and lakes. Other major issues are plastic pollution and wildlife trafficking.

Meanwhile the human swarm approaches 8 billion. Terrestrial wild animals account for only 4% of the mammal biomass on Earth – the remainder is humans (34%) and livestock (62%).  The wild animals that remain do so almost entirely at our sufferance.

Only about 3,900 wild tigers remain, compared to around 100,000 tigers one hundred years ago. Wild tigers remain only in Siberia, Sumatra and India (where they are actually making a comeback). Tigers, like Rhinos, pangolins and other species, are killed to make “traditional” medicines like tiger bone wine. Rhino horn, an alternative medicine used (with no affect) against cancer, and valued as an alleged aphrodisiac, is worth more than gold.

Critically endangered animals, according to the World Wildlife Fund, include African forest elephant, Sumatran elephant, Sumatran Rhino (80 left), Amur leopard, Sunda tiger, Black Rhino, Javan Rhino (70 left), Orangutan (3 species), Cross River Gorilla, Eastern Lowland Gorilla, Western Lowland Gorilla Hawksbill Turtle, Yantzee Finless Porpoise. The Northern White Rhino population is now two animals – both females.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, over 26,500 species are in danger of extinction. This includes 40 percent of amphibians, 34 percent of conifers, 33 percent of reef-building corals, 25 percent of mammals and 14 percent of birds. In the U.S., over 1,600 species are listed as threatened or endangered.

Rare and endangered animals in the US include the Red Wolf, Black-footed ferret (once thought extinct), Canada lynx, Florida Panther, Jaguar, Ocelot, Califonia Condor, Northern and Southern Sea Otter, Polar Bear, Sonoran Pronghorn, Giant Sea Bass and Wood Bison. How many of these have you seen?

All of these are spectacular, irreplaceable species, once in a lifetime sightings for wildlife enthusiasts, essential parts of the ecosystem where they live. Note that many of them are predators, and a number are big cats. Predators tend to take the brunt of abuse from humans, since they tend to come into conflict with us over territory, food, and safety.

Also according to the IUCN, 467 species have gone extinct globally in the last decade – and that is merely the ones we know about. In the US only 1.3% of species listed under the Endangered Species Act have since been delisted. And let’s not forget that includes the gray wolf that is currently being slaughtered by the states of Wisconsin, Idaho Wyoming and Montana. However, less that one half of 1% of listed species have gone extinct.

Extinction in its current accelerated state is not natural. Humans may have come from the Earth but we have gone rogue. We have no overseer, no minder, no lawman telling us when to stop. We don’t seem to be able to control our worst impulses. We squat on the planet like a global army of golems, greedily gobbling up everything within reach. We know what we are doing is wrong, but like the alcoholic or habitual sexual offender we cannot stop. We cannot keep our greedy paws off of the riches of the Earth, wanting only to line our foul nests with more stuff, more wealth, more more more. When is enough enough?

The Anthopocene should be renamed the Anthro-obscene.

In my dreams, Wooly Mammoths stalk the suburbs, reining havoc and terror on the inhabitants as they rampage through backyards, topple fences, stomp on cars and chase children screaming down the streets. Giant ravenous short faced bears, fast as antelope, big as a car, pick off pedestrians and eat them whole. Over the ridge, through the new subdivision, comes a massive pack of Dire wolves, howling in unison as they run down and slaughter dog walkers and stroller moms, sending residents fleeing for their lives and leaving their pooches for the wolves to devour. Like living harvesters, giant ground sloths rage across the fields, gobbling up entire seasons of harvest, trampling crops and leaving the farms a wasteland. Saber-toothed cats rampage through downtowns, slashing at shoppers and chasing panicked humans off bridges into rivers where massive crocodiles finish them off with death spirals.

Instead of Pleistocene megafauna, we have invisible viruses running rampant in the suburbs and cities. Is it any wonder nature is fighting back with ever more potent pandemics, rising seas, violent weather, and heat waves?

As I wrote in 1989, in an essay in the Wild Rockies Review entitled A Great Loneliness, “As many as 30 species of life a day are going extinct. These species are our brothers and sisters in evolution and destiny. The utter horror of it overwhelms me and brings a deep panic…extinction rips holes in the fabric of life, bringing decay and eventual collapse.”

We are the deciders of the fate of millions of other nations of life. How or why this should be so is clearly a matter of chance – humans happened to be the ones to become too successful. Now we gaze in the mirror and see our nasty side, our destructive and wasteful side, but there are too many of us to stop.

We know what to do. We need to stop having so many children. We need to reduce our consumption of resources. We need to redistribute wealth. We need to end deforestation and ramp up reforestation. We need to eat less meat and perhaps NO seafood. We need to leave all remaining fossil fuel in the ground.

We have actually saved a number of species (mostly birds) via fairly simple steps like banning DDT. Other species are much harder to save, such as elephants which are targeted for their ultra-valuable tusks. But we saved most whale species (at least for now) by a global ban on whaling (which some countries still ignore). If we can save whales on a global scale, who not tigers? Rhinos? Great apes?

The visionary biologist EO Wilson urges that 50% of the Earth be set aside as nature reserves. President Biden launched his 30×30 initiative partly in response to Wilson’s idea. Unfortunately 30×30 has devolved into an “infrastructure” program which will include massive deforestation in the name of an ill-advised “fuels reduction” program to combat forest fires on public lands.

Can we do it? Can we pull back from the brink that we ourselves have created? It ain’t looking good. If There I a judgement day some day we will have a lot to answer for. But I for one will not let our fellow creatures go down without a fight. How about you?

Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.