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Extinction and Heartbreak

Today a woman came into the nature center and, after perusing for a good while, came over to the desk to speak to me about a recent trip she’d taken to the Field Museum in Chicago, which is both a natural history and cultural history museum. (I now have a reason to go to Chicago – check out that site, the place looks amazing. Not only that, but they have beautiful descriptions of their exhibits and educational info all over the website.)

The visitor spoke to me about a permanent exhibit there called Evolving Planet, which focuses on how the earth has changed in the last 4.5 billion years. One component of the exhibit focuses on the big extinctions, like that of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic Era. The extinction of the dinosaurs was actually the fifth large extinction in earth’s history which is kind of astounding to us, since we think of it as being ‘the big one.’

The woman said to me, “The exhibit talks about how we’re in another big extinction right now. That one species – mankind – is the cause of the extinctions. That’s never happened before.” She went on to describe a ticker that shows in real-time how many extinctions are happening right now. She quoted 30,000 per year (an underestimate according to the UN Environment Programme), and as she stood there at the end of the tunnel of earth’s evolution, she witnessed the extinction of four species as the ticker ticked away.

Her eyes teared up. She turned away slightly and her voice caught in her throat. “It’s awful,” she said. “It’s so heartbreaking. I want to learn more.”

Admittedly, I’m a big softie inside and I had to fight from tearing up too. The truth is, for a lot of us, this kind of information is devastating. It’s overwhelming. It makes you feel powerless, and nothing feels worse than powerlessness. For this exact reason, I admit that I never read or looked at any photos about the BP oil spill other than what I had to hear from other people’s conversations. I just couldn’t bear it.

Extinctions have sped up since the times of colonization because modern societies have an absolute addiction to development. We wipe out forests, wetlands, and meadows for housing, farming, and shopping centers. We’re only now realizing the interconnectedness of all things; there’s still an argument that early hunters caused the extinction of mammoths, but things are never so simple. Changing climates, changing plant communities, competition, and predator pressure all play a factor in the extinction of a species. Unfortunately, mankind’s need for expansion destroys habitats, which destroys food, and also introduces invasive species that increase competition or predation. While it’s true that extinctions are part of the natural cycles of the earth, there has never before been such a mass extinction on a global scale, encouraged by one singular species the way there has been in the last several thousand years. We still battle for animal rights; it’s clear that the Gray Wolf is an endangered species, but the government allows inflated rancher “interests” to pull the species off the list, further threatening its already dwindled existence in the US.

The Po’ouli, a rare Hawaiian bird believed to be extinct as of 2004.

We’re only now learning to take into account the whole picture. When we fill up our gas tanks, we imagine oil fields in the Middle East, out in the middle of barren deserts. Like the mammoths, it’s not always that simple. For example, Shell is a mega-corporation that owns oil wells in South America and a great deal of oil pollution washes into waterways used by indigenous communities. Villages have been ruined and natural resources dramatically reduced. Because they have no money and no voice, they usually cannot fight to save their lands. This is not just a story of Shell, but of dozens of enormous, wealthy corporations who put money over life.

There are many more pieces to the puzzle than we’ve been taught to believe. At least in America, we’re still teaching our children that we have the right to lord over natural resources and use them up. We’re still indirectly teaching manifest destiny. We are literally taught that being parasites is natural, okay, and the way it should be.

My heart went out to this visitor because I empathize with her pain and the pure shock of such information. A quote attributed to Freeman Tilden but actually by an anonymous park ranger came to mind: “Through interpretation, understanding. Through understanding, appreciation. Through appreciation, protection.” We can’t protect something until we care for it, and often – especially in this society – we can’t care for it until we learn about it. We also have a lot of social injustice to overcome before we can really do what’s necessary; after all, when there are communities struggling to feed their children, how can you convince them to care for their environment?

I told this woman that there’s hope yet. There are tons of amazing organizations that get people out in the dirt, rebuilding shorelines, planting new forests, and trying to restore some of what we’ve lost. The best way to fight the destruction is to become a part of the conservation and reconstruction. Even if all you have time for is conversing with people about the issues and spreading accurate information, you can be a part of the solution.

In the end, our efforts may be futile; at some point, our species will go extinct too, and the earth will do what it’s always done: regenerate and produce new life. A lot of people think that’s nihilistic, but those people are still convinced that nothing is more important than I, we, and man. Sometimes it’s the only notion that rests my heart.

How do you deal with environmental degradation? Does it affect you negatively?

Thanks for reading. Happy Wednesday everyone. :)

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