Monthly Archives: December 2016

Don’t Look Away

It is hard to read about destruction, it is hard to look at images of suffering. Yet, I keep reading. Looking away and getting pulled into something else is certainly easier. And maybe someone else will actually do something. But this bystander effect means that a bloc of people who could be really effective advocates for change–at any scale–just try to keep their blinders on and continue on their path. Someone told me they just try not to think about the massive assault on biodiversity but they do work on improving their habitat near their house. And that’s vitally important.

I feel the temptation to look away, but by forcing myself to acknowledge that the plastic bag twisting in the air will end up in the waterways, and potentially in the gut of an albatross or seal or whatever marine animal, I build the necessary emotion for action. My actions are not large, and they are not much on their own, but every piece of plastic that gets picked up is one less piece of plastic in our waterways.

Here are volunteers doing vital work, cutting gorgeous gannets in sheer agony loose from plastic and synthetic materials after nesting season is over. I remember seeing gannets in Maine, beautifully large birds that turn instantly into high-speed assassins, knifing into the water with a splash that would make an Olympic diver envious.

They are glorious creatures to watch.

I will continue to look at things that are difficult, because that is fuel for action. I hope to have better ideas for environmental actions that come out of this.

Review of the Sixth Extinction, Part 2

And I’m back with a second part to my thoughts on the Sixth Extinction, because the book has just stuck in my craw. I’m still mulling it over.

Extinctions seem to be quiet. Most go unnoticed. The end might be violent (see:  great auk) or unassuming in the wild (see:  baiji freshwater dolphin) but it is the most grievous sort of death. Humans take some comfort that they have passed something on to future generations of their ilk when they die; no such succor can be had for extinct species.

According to Dr. Anthony Barnosky, about 900 species’ extinction can be directly attributed to human cases over the last century, and around 20,000 species now are known to be at risk. The even more terrible news is that humans have killed off half of all wildlife in the last 40 years. (HHMI, 2015)


Biodiversity in the Age of Humans, HHMI 2015.

We don’t even seem to be aware of the magnitude our actions can have–seven billion is a jumbo number to try to visualize and connect down to my own measly life.

And yet, even at much lower numbers, we have been having an outsize impact for thousands of years.

As Kolbert incisively noted:  “When Alroy [a paleobiologist] ran the [extinction] simulations for North America, he found that even a very small initial population of humans—a hundred or so individuals—could, of the course of a millennium or two, multiply sufficiently to account for pretty much all of the extinctions in the [fossil] record…if every band of ten hunters killed off just one diprotodon a year, within about seven hundred years, every diprotodon [large marsupial] within several hundred miles would have been gone…From an earth history perspective, several hundred years or even several thousand is practically no time at all…For the people involved in it, the decline of the megafauna would have been so slow as to be imperceptible…Alroy described it as ‘geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.’ ” (233-234)

We can perceive what we are currently unleashing, so at least we aren’t in the dark anymore. While there are a lot of players involved in the extinction game, spread all over the world, there are definitely things that can be done in our backyards.

And, for me, that’s the challenge–to not let this be such a hulking, intimidating beast of a task that I don’t even try beyond the shallowest of actions. Those actions matter, but they are not nearly enough. I will be working through different steps I can take locally to shore up all wildlife–because even species that are common are likely struggling.

Review of The Sixth Extinction

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This cliche that came to mind while reading that the Javan rhino, once widespread in Southeast Asia, is down to “less than fifty individuals left, all in a single Javanese reserve” (Kolbert 2014, p. 222). The colossal creatures remaining here are in trouble–bears, big cats, elephants, rhinos. I had the privilege of hearing forest elephants once while trekking in the rainforest, which the book also notes have lost an estimated 60% of their population. Pick a large species, and it is likely doing poorly.


H. Slegel, engraving of Javan rhinoceros, 1872.

This is scary. Species are losing resiliency, hammered by threats on all sides. You can’t save a population that is in a single reserve; one or two random events and they could be wiped out. Or they could just fade away, with no new migrants from other areas coming in. This cascade of extinctions has been going on since humans began pulsing out of Eastern Africa. To put geologic terms in perspective, it’s like blinking and seeing that someone took half of the stuff in your house while also finding that the house is tilting and much of the remaining stuff is crashing down.

The unflinching The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert reminded me of a college lecture. The anthropology professor was delineating what made humans unique among animals:  Language–he said that other animals communicate and can learn new words; Tools–other animals (crows, chimps at least) use them; Fire–use of fire and the ability to cook food was the distinguishing feature.

There is another distinguishing feature of humans–willful destruction. We knowingly destroy habitats, which means that animals starve to death, die from disease, or are forced to perish while migrating across hostile terrain. We knowingly “salt, pluck, and deep fry [the great auks] into oblivion”(62), “cut into and cut off” wild places (172), and create conditions for a “steady degradation in diversity over time” (179).

There might even be enough of a lag that it will take a while to see the true extinction debt, which is difference between the number of species doomed by an environmental change and the number that have actually vanished. How likely are Kirtland’s warbler, the whooping crane, the Devil’s pupfish, the Florida panther, and even the little brown bat to make a self-sustaining comeback?

The truly terrifying extension of this argument is: If the last mass extinction was 65 million years ago, and there have been 5 major ones over the last 500 million years, we are ahead of the average by about 45 million years. What happens if we wipe out all of this intricate, marvelous, irreplaceable and then there’s another shock to the system? Can we really rule out making this planet uninhabitable?

Kolbert pulls no punches:  “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did” (p.235) and “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.” (266)

The next question is what to do about it, which the book doesn’t really address. On the other hand, I prefer that to anodyne statements about recycling and reducing waste. Those things are easy; my guess is that the real change will come with things that are difficult.

Common Birds

Keeping common birds common is a mantra I’ve been hearing lately, as conservation often waits until something is closer to the abyss of extinction to act.  A lot of common birds have been declining–tree swallows and Northern flickers among others.


Red-bellied woodpecker, blurry.

So I’ve been thrilled to see a red-bellied woodpecker hanging out at the local bird feeder. They do have a red belly, but it is the bold red stripe down their head and the black and white back that makes them unmistakable. (I had a professor tell me once that birds were often named after they’d been shot for collection, so the names often don’t reflect what you can actually see about a bird going about its bird business. Case in point.) Ordinary Eastern America birds are worth looking for and they deserve our active support in a world often hostile to birds.

Looking forward to a winter watching noisy chickadees, acrobatic nuthatches, and any other common birds that show up around my neighborhood, and hoping that they will remain common for millennia to come.