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Tuesday
Jun232009

a few uplifting thoughts on extinction 

Since politics is the pursuit of power not truth anyone who believes what a politician says must be foolish, that said, what politicians say reveals something- what they think they can get away with. The Bush administration thought extinction was no big deal. The unfortunately named Craig Manson, assistant secretary of the interior in charge of fish, wildlife and parks said in 2003 that “the interests of developers should prevail over endangered species.” When asked in 2005 what the sunny side of extinction was he managed, “It’s presumptuous to suggest we know for sure [that extinction is bad] is a fact. And [concern about it] sort of flies in the face of Darwinian science.” It’s nice to think that Darwin, who’s taken a bit of a beating recently in US educational circles can still be relied on to support the exploitation and despoliation of the planet. Obama has spoken a lot about global warming but very little about extinction of species.

The first thing about extinction is it makes most folk either angry or depressed- unless of course you have shares in Alaskan oil exploration companies- and that’s most people in the world. You feel powerless. And the extinction is just the final nail, it’s what comes before, the absence, the disappearances of things that make life wonderful and full of diversity. I haven’t heard a cuckoo in years. Global warming or the more effective use of insecticides that target the diet of the cuckoo? Who knows? I just like hearing the sound of the thing. And it’s not just about wildlife. Of the five thousand odd languages spoken in the world it’s likely most will have become extinct in the next hundred years. Some think we could lose 90% of current world languages in that time. But am I learning  Dirari or Djawi, Australian Aboriginal languages with only one speaker still alive? Nope. The thing seems unstoppable, part and parcel of being on the roller coaster we call modern life. Roller coasters are fun- as long as you know they won’t end with a crash. And we don’t know. It’s the not knowing that gnaws at us, diminishes us.

If you look at how extinctions happen there are clues. Take the Great Auk, a big beaked odd looking sea bird about 30 inches high that became extinct in the North Atlantic 150 years ago. It liked to live in huge colonies. On Funk Island, off the Newfoundland coast there were over 10,000 until the population suddenly collapsed. For 300 years fisherman used the place as a convenient source of meat and feathers. The birds were excellent swimmers. When the fisherman began impounding them in little stone enclosures for future extermination you’d have thought they’d have got the picture. They could have escaped. The Atlantic is full of rocky islands and skerries suitable for a Great Auk family. But they stayed put. Auk colonies can and did split up- but only when their numbers were above a certain threshold. When the number dipped below that they lost the will to escape their fate. Biologists have observed this in bacteria- it’s called quorum sensing- and when a film of bacteria dips below a certain size it ceases to be ‘intelligent’ and fails to cooperate to repel attackers. It explains the sudden catastrophic drop in numbers for birds like the passenger pigeon, which went from numbering millions in the mid 19th century (there were competitions to kill them where you didn’t even get a prize unless you killed at least 30,000, flocks of the bird used to darken the sky for several days as they flew by) to the pitiable last specimen that died in 1914. Of course they were hunted but that didn’t wipe them out. Somewhere along the line the passenger pigeon lost the will to go on. Small dispirited groups just flapped around and stopped breeding. No one knew that they were doomed once their total numbers dropped below a seemingly safely large number. Nobody knew.

Pursuit of science can make things worse. The Stephen’s Island wren has the undeniable singularity of being discovered by a lighthouse keeper’s cat called Tibbles. As a new species the dead wrens were dutifully dispatched to scientific institutions eager for them around the world. Eventually the ever eager research assistant Tibbles could find no more. The Stephen’s Island wren had become extinct.

When we try to save species our ignorance is also on display. The Polynesian snail Partula turgida became extinct at 5.30pm on Jan 1 1996. We know that precisely because it was part of a conservation program set up by London zoo in 1987. Nine years, one small snail, and we still couldn’t stop it dying out.

But are we really bothered? Aren’t they still plenty of other snails out there that haven’t even been discovered, yet alone found to be endangered? It’s possible to rationalize away such facts but they do not deal with the central issue: extinction gets us down. It diminishes us to know that living things are dying out, that diversity is being replaced by homogeneity. Perhaps in some grand scheme of things we are all connected, we are quorum sensitive to all of life, that the disappearance of diversity makes us just that bit less intelligent, flexible, human. I don’t just mean on a material level, where lack of diversity means a greater risk from any one disease or disaster, I mean on a subliminal level, the mysterious level where the will to go on living resides.

Extinction is the symptom, the cause is the vast increase in sameness the world over. This year I noticed for the first time that fisherman on the Nile now use outboard motors rather than oars. From my purely selfish point of view I regret this change in a 5000 year old tradition. I don’t watch them fishing anymore. One more thing to wonder at has disappeared. Drive across the States and every town looks the same. The old coffee shops in Midan Tahrir in Cairo have been replaced by KFC and Hardee’s burgers. The global village isn’t one big village- it’s the same village endlessly replicated. One extreme interpretation of Darwin is that the final outcome of natural selection is single species proliferation. That may explain the success of MacDonald’s but does it mean more? Are humans genetically programmed to be the only species around?  Animals can’t alter and control their niche, we can, up to a point. It remains to be seen whether we can also control hurricanes, tidal waves, spiraling summer temperatures, the collapse of the Gulf Stream.

No one is at the controls. That’s the subtext of all our talk about extinction. We need to be rid of the idea that someone out there, some politician or ecowarrior, will somehow solve the problem. We’re on the roller coaster and no one knows if it will crash or not. We can be sure that more development will make things worse, we can be sure that the world will become more dispiritingly the same, with less and less diversity but we also need to openly acknowledge that we haven’t planned this. Neo conservative planners who fondly imagine same-world will be safe-world, that they are somehow controlling development, promoting the good of all, are like Bart Simpson proving his skill as a dog trainer, ordering a dog to sniff its butt as it goes about its everyday business of… sniffing its butt.

To acknowledge that extinction is beyond our control is subtly different from simply giving up. It means refocusing on what we can do rather than what we can’t. The obscure art of making traditional birch bark canoes almost died this century. One man, Edwin Tappen Adney, collected all the information he could on the subject. His book, “Skin boats and bark canoes of North America’ spurred enthusiasts to seek out the last few Indians still making these wonderful boats made from bark stitched together with pine roots. Now you can go on a two week course to learn how to build them. Something rare and valuable has been saved.

Institutions,  governments, pressure groups may want to preserve things of value but they are strangely better at preserving themselves. Both the American bison and the Chinese Pere David’s deer were preserved from extinction by highly motivated individuals, not ponderous institutions. The threat of extinction, be it to animals, languages, ways of life, human skills is a wake up call to cease believing someone else will solve the problem. The solution begins with rejecting the lack of diversity in one’s own life, of refusing to accept the small extinctions forced on us by an addiction to convenient living. The concern about extinction has a real effect if it encourages us to make our own lives less like everybody else’s. If it makes us more willing to seek out our real nutritional need for that sense of delight that comes from things being various.

Jacques Cousteau famously pronounced a few years ago, that “in ten years time the oceans will be dead”. They aren’t but he is. Fear of global extinction is fear for ourselves, fear about where we are going. But it doesn’t have to be a paralyzing fear. 

 

 

 

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