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.
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?