The loss of the wild

For the last few months, I have avoiding writing about species extinction, the loss of the wild, and how human encroachment is changing all facets of life on earth. I found it difficult to write about because it is so painful. And I knew that if I wrote about it, there could be no sugarcoating or half-heartedness. I would have to face it—squarely. And, most days, the subject seems too much to take on, too much to absorb. 

Of course, I am not alone in my avoidance. Our governmental bodies, mainstream media, and almost all of our brethren not employed by environmental organizations are deep in denial about what is happening and what it will likely mean.

Large issues, including the most important issues we face, even arguably the most important issues that we have ever faced, get pushed aside in favor of the daily dramas of human life. While amazing, I suppose it is not surprising. A vast majority of people struggle with just getting by and making do. And no matter our economic circumstances, each of us struggles with the often overwhelming emotional and psychological demands of our existence: our grasping, clumsy attempts to make some sense of our lives and come to terms with the chaos, uncertainty and cruelty of our world.

Rich or poor most of us spend our lives pursuing the comforts that industrialism and consumer capitalism afford us. And the man-made world that our constant desire for more is creating is transforming everything else on the planet. All forms of life and all planetary and atmospheric ecosystems, including the climate, are being forced to adapt to rapidly expanding human influence and encroachment. Plant and animal species are going extinct at unparalleled rates and, as a result, the diversity of life is rapidly diminishing.  Most species exit quietly but some “systems” strike back; the atmosphere is responding violently—with consequences we can perhaps only begin to imagine - to the man-made emissions that are changing its component parts.

We are changing our world faster and more comprehensively than we had ever thought possible.

We may not have known what we were doing.  As Philip Larkin wrote in “Going, Going,” his beautiful elegiac poem about the loss of rural England, “most things are never meant.” But we now have fair warning about the consequences of our heedless growth. Yet those warnings are getting scant attention; thus far our reaction is stunningly passive.

There is not even much talk no less action. The most powerful engine of our encroachment - human population growth - was discussed more often in the sixties and seventies than it is today. In those decades people were alarmed that the population had doubled, from two to four billion, in only a half century. (Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was published in 1968.)  It is doubling again; we add 200,000 people every day, 70 million people every year, and will reach 8 billion people by 2030.

Much of what is written about these matters, while persuasive, somehow lacks the necessary drama. That is how I felt about Elizabeth Kolbert’s detailed and well documented The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

Yet this should be gripping. Stephen Meyer’s short, depressing account of what is transpiring—The End of the Wild, opens with a heart-stopping, precise summary of where we stand today.

“For the past several billion years evolution on Earth has been driven by small-scale incremental forces, such as sexual selection, punctuated by cosmic- scale disruptions - plate tectonics, planetary geo-chemistry, global climate shifts, and even extraterrestrial asteroids. Sometime in the last century that changed. Today the guiding hand of natural selection is unmistakably human, with potentially Erath-shaking consequences.

The fossil record and contemporary field studies suggest that the average rate of extinction over the past hundred million years has hovered at several species per year.  Today the extinction rate surpasses 3,000 species per year and is accelerating rapidly; it may soon reach the tens of thousands. In contrast, new species are appearing at a rate of less than one per year.

Over the next 100 years or so as many as a half of the Earth’s species, representing a quarter of the planet’s genetic stock, will functionally if not completely disappear. The land and the oceans will continue to teem with life, but it will be a peculiarly homogenized assemblage of organisms unnaturally selected for their compatibility with one fundamental force: us. Nothing – not national or international laws, global bio-reserves, local sustainability schemes, or even “wild lands” fantasies—can change the current course. The broad path for biological evolution is now set for the next several million years. And in this sense the extinction crisis – the race to save the composition, structure, and organization of biodiversity as it exists today—is over, and we have lost.”

What could be more dramatic? Man has spent centuries subduing nature, believing, somehow, that we were a species apart, above it all due to our capacity to reason. Yet our heedless destruction of our own nest prompts comparisons with other species we tend to find humorous or pathetic, ostrich’s with their heads in the sand or perhaps better yet lemmings, who supposedly engage in large scale species suicide.

And our heedless growth and lack of concern for its long-term effects does take on the appearance of suicide. If Meyer and others are right that we have indeed “lost” the battle to maintain biodiversity and control climate change and are now headed towards an uncertain but likely dark future, we have done all of this without even putting up a fight, or applying our capacity to “reason.” There have been no real global alarms or concerted international action. There has certainly been no leadership coming from our own country, the largest consumer of goods of all sorts, including fossil fuels.

Just one day’s newspaper provides evidence of the odd dichotomy between the mounting evidence of dramatic changes in our ecosystem caused by human activity and our inability to make even small changes in our behavior. Take Tuesday, May 13, 2014, for example. That day the front page of The New York Times featured a story on scientists warning about polar melt, predicting that melting will ultimately result in a 10 foot rise in sea levels. The article quotes Thomas Wager from NASA saying that this “is really happening. There’s no stopping it now.” Within that paper’s front section is another story reporting that the hyper-partisan U.S. Senate was unable to take action on a modest energy efficiency bill with many small-step provisions to cut energy use and create new incentives for more energy efficient heating and cooling systems.

Within the environmental movement there is a debate about the appropriate level of despair versus a perceived political need to offer hope. On April 19, 2014, The New York Times Magazine profiled the British environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which is dedicated to helping people come to terms with the “the age of ecocide.” Having spent years in the environmental movement trying to catalyze change, Kingsnorth has given up. He believes it is dishonest to offer hope when there is none. In 2012 he told an interviewer—“whenever I hear the word “hope” these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle.” He even wonders whether he wants civilization as it exists today to prevail. 

Kingsnorth’s new position has drawn a great deal of criticism from activists still “in the game.”  They argue that although some negative events are now beyond our control, the extent of the damage is still to be determined.  As Elizabeth Kolbert stated in the April 14, 2014 New Yorker, “The fact that so much time has been wasted standing around means that the problem of climate change is now much more difficult to deal with than it was when it was first identified. But this only makes the imperative to act that much greater, because, as one set of grim predictions is being borne out, another, even worse set remains to be written.“

But if there is serious large-scale thinking about what must be done to change direction, it is almost completely isolated from mainstream culture and politics.  Many productive changes are happening at the local level, in places such as Yellow Springs and Antioch, but large scale actions that might have a chance to turn the tide are glaringly absent.

That may be because the changes that are necessary are so disruptive of our way of living that we are unwilling to contemplate them. We are addicted to our consumer goods and creature comforts, and we are addicted to growth. Our economy depends on it. Our measurements reward it. Liberals and conservatives compete over who can bring more of it.  

To envision a world which turns its back on growth, to imagine an alternative measurement is currently beyond our capacity, even though, it is readily apparent that this is what the new realities call for.  For now at least, it is easier to go on about our business hoping that these myriad warnings are overstated or that somehow technology will provide an easy way out. 

Is it any wonder that college students exhibit an odd combination of idealism and lack of hope? It is why few people still look to politics for answers. And why an increasing number of observers and activists such as Kingsnorth conclude that it is time to “come to terms” that we are living in the “age of ecocide.”

Alan Weisman’s 2007 non-fiction The World Without Us goes further - starting to envision what the world might be like after human kind destroys itself. But Weisman’s book skips a step - the drama and trauma of what it might be like for human kind in the years of our demise. Perhaps that is where we should focus. As the contemplation of such times might, just possibly, be jarring enough to force us into action.

If so, a good place to start is Cormac McCarthy’s gruesome post-apocalyptic novel The Road.  The Road begins after the calamity and never explains what it might have been.  It follows a father and his son as they attempt to survive in a broken and barren world in which anything that was good—man-made or of the earth – is gone. It is gripping, terrifying, unsentimental, and urgent. The world it depicts is savage, someplace beyond hopeless. People eat people and are thankful that they can. As one reviewer pointed out, the reader “remains unsure whether it is more humane to hope for their survival or hope for their gentle death.”   

As Janet Maslin concluded in her New York Times review:

“This is an exquisitely bleak incantation – pure poetic brimstone. Mr. McCarthy has summoned his fiercest visions to invoke the devastation. He gives voice to the unspeakable in a terse cautionary tale that is too potent to be numbing, despite the stupefying ravages it describes. Mr. McCarthy brings an almost biblical fury as he bears witness to sights man was never meant to see…The Road offers nothing in the way of escape or comfort. But its fearless wisdom is more indelible than reassurance could ever be.”

All the evidence we have is that warnings are not enough. The atmospheric rumblings portending a coming calamity may escalate but by then it will be too late. Reassurance is not what we need. We need words and visions that are “too potent to be numbing.” If other creatures on their way out had voice and we had ears to listen, the savage cries of despair of what we have already wrought might indeed be more than we could bear. But what is to come might be much worse.