Facing the great good-bye: How will mass extinctions affect us?

Even if you squint away from some of the worst news and some predictions are exaggerated, extinction is happening. Right now, while you read these words, entirely unknown as well as familiar species of animals and plants are becoming extinct. Over the next few years, extinction events will continue. Some of them will involve well-known animals—tigers, orangutans, lemurs, rhinoceros. Many zoos and some sanctuaries are trying to keep these species around, but they’re already having a hard time maintaining enough genetic diversity to maintain viability. It won’t get any easier—animals don’t breed on command, and captivity is generally not a good inducement to procreation. The poachers and traders won’t quit, however—body parts and substances from the bodies of elephants, chimpanzees, tigers, bears, rhinoceros, leopards, and other animals will continue to be much sought after. Habitats will become ever smaller. The human population may eventually stabilize, but probably not soon enough for most of the animals already at risk. Cloning might maintain the hope of reviving certain species, but if habitats are overly compromised or no longer existent, it’s a frivolous waste of time and resources.

What will happen to us when animals disappear that have been with us since we became sentient? People living now will remember and some of them will grieve. Eventually, the memories and stories will fade along with the anguish associated with extinctions. Tigers, for example, will be known much like dinosaurs—fascinating and worth studying, but not real. The mythological tigers one finds in works of Borges and other writers will have more emotional impact than the faint recollection of the animal that once lived. Except for some areas of science and art, we will be oblivious to the vanished animals. We will never know them any better than we do today.

Gone forever, soon.

Don’t doubt that the extinctions will affect our minds. The presence of powerful, dangerous, smart animals has enriched our lives with love, fear, respect, loathing, danger, and a host of other emotions and qualities that we may never have access to again. Without them around and in us, we will become different. Some of us might notice and most of us won’t be able to tell, but our quality of living, feeling, and thinking will change. In a way, the world will be more homogenous, and the meanings of such notions as “other” and “self” will be unlike what they were so far in our history.

If you don’t like thinking about this, you’re not alone—I don’t think anybody does. Even people who work in sustainability and conservation efforts are having a hard time facing mass extinction. The scale of the coming events is simply overwhelming. And everybody’s quality of existence is at stake. But what can you do?

I think our best hope is with the low-overhead, close-to-the-ground, savvy organizations and initiatives that strive for social, environmental, and economic sustainability in practical ways. The Ugandan Village Project comes to mind, but there are many others similar to it, in all regions of the world. These kinds of efforts closely involve the people who stand to benefit from keeping species alive in a sustainable environment. Without them, nothing worthwhile will happen—instead, conservation will be a distant, useless cousin to colonization. Even if it’s possible to slow down and delay some of the extinctions already underway, that is probably preferable to their rapid process, if only for selfish reasons. We should support and participate in these initiatives as much as we can, and visit the locales where history is unfolding. The deeper we understand the people there, the closer we see the last few representatives of disappearing species, the better we will be able to render assistance.

I’m not looking forward to what’s coming, but I will probably be gone when the worst mass extinctions become part of the daily news.

But what about you? And your kids?

4 Comments

Filed under extinction, mind, personal, story telling, sustainability, travel

4 responses to “Facing the great good-bye: How will mass extinctions affect us?

  1. Chris, I have no doubt that low-level, close to the ground orgs are our best hope re this slow-motion tragedy. I know so little about the science and scope of this; but I wonder what’s your take on the best single source of information about this complex story?

    During the Cold War, the “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, was always a powerful, visual summary of the dangers of nuclear holocaust, moving closer to “midnight” (I think?) or back a few minutes, depending on events regarding arms control, bomb testing etc.

    Is there an equally powerful visual metaphor for climate change and species extinction?

    • Bart, that is a really good point. I haven’t seen anything that helps tell the story and is graphically creative, but it sure would be good to have it. A quick search turns up the likes of http://gsilentvoices.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/mass-extinction-6/. Part of the story is there, indeed. My problem with this kind of presentation is that people like me (I’m probably not alone in this) will find that this is such horrible news that we don’t want to look at it. So… how do you make today’s mass extinction palatable? I’ll keep looking.

      • I agree with you, Chris, about the human impulse to turn away from bad news of horrendous magnitude.

        Indeed, it may be worse than that: some of my recent reading on communication & information suggests that people with strong opinions react to information that contradicts their beliefs by rejecting the facts and *increasing* their existing beliefs.

        That is, offering more information about climate change / species extinction just backfires, making more people turn away from the facts more emphatically. (“Information Diet,” Clay Johnson, p. 46)

        This may be the most discouraging idea about communication & writing that I can remember bumping into. The only ray of hope I can imagine is Jon Stewart and I’m not sure even about him!

  2. Yeah… I think the inclination to avoid unwelcome facts is very powerful. I know from first-hand experience. It’s much easier to focus on your daily tasks and immediate environment, as long as those things are tolerable or better. And hope the “saints”, people like Jane Goodall or Bill McKibben or whoever, will somehow bring about change or stop all the bad things going on. I really like the small, low-overhead, locally connected organizations that work on these environmental issues, because they don’t usually come with built-in leadership one can project too much on, but they offer room for engagement and the occasional bit of good news.

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