“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” Aldo Leopold wrote long before the first Earth Day. He was thinking about land abuse in the Southwest, but his words have a much broader resonance.
Maybe we’re not quite so alone anymore. The bad news is better known: more of us are aware that we’re losing chinook salmon and delta smelt, whitebark pines and coast live oaks, polar bears and Tasmanian devils, bats, frogs, shorebirds, reef-builders, pollinators. It would be simpler to take stock of what we’re not losing.
Last fall, while volunteering at the International Bird Rescue Research Center after the Cosco Busan spill, we met a veterinarian named Greg Massey who had previously worked in an endangered-bird program in Hawai’i, trying to save native songbirds from the effects of habitat destruction and exotic diseases. Massey told us he had watched the po’o-uli, a small brown bird endemic to Maui, go extinct. The population kept dwindling and was finally reduced to a male and a female, in separate territories. Efforts were made to get them together, but they didn’t hit it off. Then they were gone.
The recent wave of bird extinctions in Hawaii is the second act of an old drama. When the Polynesians spread out across the South Pacific, on island after island-not just the Hawaiian chain, but New Zealand and others-they found unique communities of large flightless birds. And ate them.
Mind you, these were people whose creation chant, the Kumulipo, shows a profound understanding of the connectedness of human and non-human life, and who had an enviable ethic of watershed management. What they didn’t have was a sense of limits. Why reject the gifts of the gods? Who knew that the next island wouldn’t have its own big slow tasty birds?
The myth of the inexhaustible resource runs deep. Some of the Plains Indians believed the missing bison had taken refuge underground. Other Americans refused to credit the extinction of the passenger pigeon: maybe they had flown to Cuba, or to the moon. The cornucopia would never be empty.
Now we know better. Or should. But collectively, we still act as if the bounty of the oceans will never be depleted; as if there will always be enough tropical forest to supply disposable chopsticks; as if there’s no conflict between runaway population growth and the survival of whole ecosystems.
That’s why Earth Day, for all its compromises (I’m old enough to remember when it was attacked as a distraction from the Revolutionary Struggle), serves a purpose. We need to be reminded that we can push natural systems only so far before they collapse. If, as some have opined, environmentalism is dead, then we’re all in trouble.
Of all our offenses against the earth, the conscious obliteration of other species may be the worst. Those of a religious bent may see it as annulling an act of creation; the rest of us, as destroying a product of eons of natural selection. Either way, it brings us closer to the future another naturalist, Archie Carr, invoked, contemplating the loss of the great beasts of Africa: “The rest of non-human nature will surely follow. And we shall head out into the rest of our time, masters of creation at last, and alone forever.”