As many of my friends can attest, I’ve been forwarding a lot of “Save the Wolves” and “Save the Polar Bears” emails lately. I wasn’t totally sure why — I’m more than a little skeptical about their effectiveness, and I don’t really like filling friends’ inboxes with pleas for signatures and money. But I’ve been heavily wolf-identified since I was a kid, and the Bush Administration’s attempts to take wolves off the endangered species list so that residents of Idaho and Wyoming can gun them down in and around Yellowstone are really pissing me off. (Go to NRDC.org to donate, if you can.) And polar bears are just polar bears — I can’t imagine a world without them, even though they are almost certainly doomed to extinction. Many people don’t give a damn, and until today, I couldn’t really explain why I do (give a damn, that is). But now I have a great excuse for every sentimental email-forwarding moment of my life, thanks to an article I just read in Mother Jones
We are living through a rapidly accelerating period of mass extinction, and we have only ourselves to blame. “Fully 40 percent of the examined species of planet Earth are in danger, including up to 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants” (from “Gone” by Julia Whitty, Mother Earth
, May 2007). Sure, we’re not on the endangered species list ourselves, but we might as well be. Our environment is much more complicated than we can imagine, and millions and millions of species are tied into relationships of complete interdependence with other creatures. The wolves, the polar bears, and humans are all just tiny parts of a system so complex we have “discovered” only a tiny portion of the organisms that inhabit it. And every member of the system is dependent on other species for its survival, and is in turn depended on by others. Honeybees, much in the news lately (and the subject, in part, of my last column) for their rapidly declining numbers and diversity, are a great example: literally thousands of species, from the plants that are pollinated by them to the birds and animals that eat those plants, would be doomed if the bees became extinct. Imagine similar scenarios in every part of the world, and you might begin to grasp the enormity of the problem.
Last week I watched From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning
, a film that had been recommended to me by some pretty smart folks. It’s a documentary about the Kogi Indians, the last functioning pre-Columbian civilization, living in isolation in the mountains of Colombia in a highly complex, human-modified but sustainable ecosystem. The film was made in 1991 at the request of the Kogi, who wanted to tell us that they had noticed, from the state of their mountaintop (melting snows and reduced precipitation), that we were destroying the planet. I found the concept astonishing — the idea that a small group of “primitive” people could read the state of the global environment from the condition of their own ecosystem. Their grasp of the causes of environmental degradation is equally impressive — before widespread talk of global warming
We are living through a rapidly accelerating
period of mass extinction, and we have only
ourselves to blame.
Kogi elders were decrying excessive digging and burning by non-Kogi people.
It may well be too late, for us, for the Kogi, and for more than half of the world’s species. Recycling and solar panels aren’t going to cut it. We’ve colonized most of the planet, with our bodies and our industries, and in so doing have pushed the very things that supported us to the edge of extinction. From the Heart of the World
is a testament to a kind of interconnectedness that most of us can hardly imagine. But “Gone”, filled as it is with the latest news from the frontiers of biology merely confirms what the Kogi were talking about 16 years ago. Now we just have to do something about it.