By Jim Miller
Last summer about this time, I did a couple of pieces about the clear prospect that we are in the midst of the sixth extinction. Since then, the news has continued to get worse, with a recent study showing that the current rate of extinction is ample cause for alarm. In “Vertebrate Biodiversity Losses Point to a Sixth Mass Extinction” published in Biodiversity and Conservation Malcolm McCallum summarizes recent findings succinctly when he writes that “the great speed with which vertebrate biodiversity is being decimated are comparable to the devastation of previous extinction events.”
More concretely, that means we have bid adieu to the Golden Toad, the Baoji Dolphin, the Hawaiian Crow, the Pyrenean Ibex, the Spix’s Macaw, the Liverpool Pigeon, the West African Black Rhino, the Black Faced Honeycreeper, the Alaotra Grebe, Holdridge’s Toad, the Formosan Clouded Leopard, the Pinta Island Tortoise, the Vietnamese Rhino, the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, the Yangtze River Dolphin, the Po’o-uli, the Zanibar Leopard, the Marianas Mallard, the Javan Tiger, the Magagascan Dwarf Hippopotamus, the Bush Wren, the Caspian Tiger, the Great Short-Tailed Bat, the Mexican Grizzly Bear, the Central Hare-Wallaby, the Caribbean Monk Seal, and on and on and on.
Since 1980 the losses have been 71-297 times larger than during the last mass extinction. Our ecosystem’s warning signs are pointing toward collapse.
A whole world of beauty and wonder is passing from our lives.
While none of these facts are in dispute, the polls show us that even here, in California, for most of us, this reality has yet to hit.
We are still in a “civilized” bubble that separates us from the natural world. Consequently, we are numb and blind–amusing ourselves to death as we keep changing the channel and compulsively checking our various devices until the power goes out. That’s the way consumer capitalism rolls.
As the Sacramento Bee reported recently in “California Keeps Talking Climate Change, But Who’s Listening?,” even with all the press that climate change–one of the central drivers of the loss of biodiversity–has gotten, the most current polling shows that though majorities now see climate change as a problem, many have conveniently deferred it to the future as a problem for our grandchildren.
Interestingly, perhaps the best quote in the Sac Bee piece came from the Republican mayor of Lancaster, R. Rex Parris, who blamed his own party but also the Democrats for being too timid in the face of the problem, “Climate disruption is factual, it’s not open to debate. If we don’t act quickly and act like everything we can muster . . . the best we can hope to offer our grandchildren is some dystopian future that none of us want to live in. It’s knocking on our door now.”
I’m with the mayor. The issue is not just with the knuckle dragging anti-science crowd, it’s the folks who talk about addressing the crisis but fail to grok the fundamental changes needed to get the job done.
But of course, it is not just a problem for our children’s children. We are killing life on earth at a disturbing rate as you read this.
The stark truth is this: we can’t save the world as we know it; far too many species and other natural wonders are past the point of redemption. Instead, the desperate challenge before us is to salvage a greatly diminished but still livable earth for the future.
For many this kind of statement sounds too “extreme” to believe–it is outside the boundaries of mainstream discourse. That’s the biggest problem. When our public discourse is framed not by scientific truth, but by what is palatable in a society with a large segment in total denial and others in partial denial, the truth becomes unacceptable.
But of course, as Bill McKibben recently put it in his open letter to President Obama, “The sad part of this battle, for all of us, is that physics doesn’t really care about political realities — about how tough Congress has been, or for that matter how burned out and tired some of the rest us can get. Physics just cares about carbon. Reality reality trumps political reality.”
What about the folks on the front lines, the ones actually doing the work of documenting the decimation of the natural world? How are they reacting?
In one of the most compelling stories of the year thus far, “Mourning Our Planet: Climate Scientists Share Their Grieving Process,” Dahr Jamail reports on a remarkable blog “Is This How You Feel?” where scientists share their frustration, anger, and despair over the implications of their work and the public’s response to it.
As one climate researcher that Jamail interviewed puts it:
“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan said . . . “It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again,” she said in reference to an ocean reef she had studied since 2002, “because I just know I’m going to see more and more of the coral dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae.”
Others were more pointed, like this entry from “Is This How You Feel?”:
My overwhelming emotion is anger; anger that is fueled not so much by ignorance, but by greed and profiteering at the expense of future generations . . . My frustration with these greedy, lying bastards is personal. Human-caused climate disruption is not a belief – it is one of the best-studied phenomena on Earth. Even a half-wit can understand this.
As any father would, anyone threatening my family will be on the receiving end of my ire and vengeance. This anger is the manifestation of my deep love for my daughter, and the sadness I feel in my core about how others are treating her future.
Mark my words, you plutocrats, denialists, fossil-fuel hacks and science charlatans – your time will come when you will be backed against the wall by the full wrath of billions who have suffered from your greed and stupidity, and I’ll be first in line to put you there.
Jamail also speaks to scholar and activist Joanna Macy who has proposed that, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”
For Macy, the key to getting beyond denial is stopping, going outside of the bubble, and allowing ourselves to feel the pain and anguish that come with recognizing that we are witnessing the wholesale destruction of the planet. Only then can we recover from our profound alienation and reconnect with the world.
Maybe this radical uncertainty will give us a new perspective on reality and what is truly important. As Jamail writes:
We don’t know how long we have left on earth. Five years? 15 years? 30? Beyond the year 2100? But when we allow our hearts to be shattered – broken completely open – by these stark, cold realities, we allow our perspectives to be opened up to vistas we’ve never known. When we allow ourselves to fully experience the crisis in this way, we are then able to truly see it through new eyes.
Like reaching new heights on a mountain, we can see things we’ve never seen before. Our thinking, attitudes, and outlook on life changes dramatically. It is a new consciousness, one in which we realize the pivotal stage in history we find ourselves in.
Perhaps, within this new consciousness, we can live in this time with grace, dignity, and caring. Perhaps, here, we can find ways to save habitat for a few more species, while we share our precious lives and this precious time with loved ones, in the wild places we love so much, on this rare and precious world.
Perhaps this is the hope after hope.
This column is part of Jim Miller’s “summer chronicles” series based on the Brazilian model. In that literary tradition, a chronicle allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.