“Put your ear to her flank and you will hear the tide of her four stomachs. When she falls sick and lacks the will to chew her four stomachs fall silent as a hive in winter…each year more animals depart; only pets and carcasses remain” (Berger, Why Look at Animals?).
I’ve alluded to the catastrophic loss of life that is the present 6th mass extinction, an unprecedented global ‘thinning’ of abundance and diversity, in many of my previous posts. In this piece, however, I revisit the topic from a keener and more intimate vantage point, precipitated by my own recent experience with loss after the passing of my beloved boxer, Mozart, to whom this is in part dedicated. After a joyous 7 years together, he suddenly developed lymphoma, an ailment that my family and I later learned is frequently associated with his breed. The disease spread with alarming rapidity, and after one day at the vet and an estimated survival chance of less than 10% even with chemotherapy, we decided to put him down in order to spare him any further pain or discomfort. The quickness and ease with which he transitioned from being to non-being was quite surreal, and it prompted me to think of the relative ease with which so many of our wild fellow earthlings are disappearing from existence largely at the hands of man, as though humankind were to nature the lethal injection that the vets had administered to Mozart to bring his time on earth to a close. I began to wonder why the passing of other creatures isn’t mourned as deeply, if at all, as the passing of a family member or a cherished ‘more-than-human’ companion. Surely this has a lot to do with familiarity, which breeds consideration and affection. However, in my view, we should cherish all animal life as dearly and as deeply as we do our animal companions, and the loss of any one of them should be an equally heart wrenching experience.
“All across the land, they tumbled in numbers, the birds, the wildflowers, the butterflies, and it is clear that more than half of all Britain’s wildlife, as it existed at the end of the Second World War, has now gone” (McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm).
The presently ubiquitous phenomenon of loss is one whose disastrous, multidimensional impacts on humankind and all of the biosphere cannot be quantified by the cold calculations of economic cost-benefit analyses. As author Alastair McIntosh would ask, what price a human life? What price the eternal banishment to extinction of the critically endangered Orangutan, our close primate cousins, through our voracious plundering of the earth’s forests? Or how about the last two remaining species of elephants, the African and the Asian, the final remnants Gaia’s megafauna, who are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and poaching? And yet, thousands of species are currently disappearing each year in the wake of modern man’s relentless march along the path towards ‘progress’, fueled by the avarice generated by a global socioeconomic paradigm that instrumentalizes all, inanimate and animate alike, for the sake of ‘economic growth’ and profit. All the while, most of us continue about our days without so much as a moment’s thought as to what it is we’re truly losing. It is difficult to comprehend losses on such a scale, but we’d do well to at least attempt it, for with every fellow member of the tree of life extinguished, a part of our vitality and wholeness vanishes forever along with them. When we lose an entire branch of the tree of life such as the elusive and mighty rhinoceros, a tragedy that is predicted to take place by 2026 if current rates of poaching continue unabated, we lose counterparts with whom we’ve coevolved on our amazing home planet for millions of years. In effect, we lose parts of the self, a gradual diminishment, hollowing, and fragmentation of all that makes us human.
“But even more than the single species, it is the loss of abundance itself that I mourn” (McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm).
Author Michael McCarthy in his illuminating and moving work, ‘The Moth Snowstorm’, alludes to a trend that I myself have noticed but have never confronted head on until now. In one poignant passage, he nostalgically recounts a memory from his youth wherein he and his family would drive down dark countryside roads at night and often come across moths and other insect life in such overwhelmingly prodigious quantities that they would completely cover the windshield of their car ‘like snowflakes in a blizzard’. Today, the appearance of even a single moth seems atypical, a unique occurrence worthy of remark. After reading these passages, I instantly became saddened by a nascent realization that McCarthy’s observations were too accurate, at least in my experiences. I hardly see moths or other members of insect life nearly as often as I used to when I was a kid, and this is true for both the urban and rural settings that I’ve inhabited. Everywhere they are vanishing, and even pets don’t seem to remain for very long. In addition to the pressures generated by our pro-growth socioeconomic systems, we have an ever-burgeoning population, which leads to more development, more resource consumption, and less of each for our animal kin. In place of the vibrant ecosystems populated by innumerable species of plants, animals, and microbes that once were, we have monotonous and carefully manicured lawns that are virtually devoid of life. Loss is undoubtedly a natural and necessary part of life, but in the present magnitude, it has taken on rather sinister dimensions indeed. The loss of a pet is an indescribably harrowing experience, but the loss of entire lineages of beings should be equally, if not more disconcerting.
I had the immense privilege of recently attending an illuminating lecture by renowned author and human-animal relations enthusiast, Carl Safina, on the incredible lives of animals and their indispensability to our own wellbeing. He noted that, when we bring a child into the world, we don’t decorate their nurseries with pictures of cell phones, washing machines, or other images of inanimate objects (except perhaps a car-themed room for a boy); rather, we often decorate the abodes of new generations with vibrant images of animals (mine contained elephants, frogs, and giraffes!), as if to proudly display to them the wonderful profusion of life that we share the planet with, and to show the young from early on that we are not alone. Yet, at the present rates of loss, looming generations may very well come into a world devoid of the rhinoceros, the polar bear, the snow leopard, the gorilla, the elephant, and countless other fascinating expressions of Gaia’s marvelous fecundity and creativity. Nothing fills me with greater dread than to imagine a world resounding only with human voices, a world without the melodious trills of birds or the muffled buzzing of bees. Yet, this is the world that we’re on a headlong course towards bringing about if we don’t alter our ways of thinking and subsisting, and if we fail to widen our circles of compassion and consideration to include the whole of Gaia’s life forms. If familiarity is indeed a prime factor in generating concern, then perhaps we should become more closely acquainted with the ways of our wild counterparts, so that we may see them the way I saw Mozart: as marvelous, kindred spirits who add more to our lives than we’ll ever be able to fully understand, and whose preservation and wellbeing is of the utmost importance.
“We see ourselves as civilised superiors and yet demonstrate no greater restraint as scientists tell us we are causing a sixth great extinction, a wiping out of non-human life on earth. Tragedy beckons for many million less visible forms of life if we can’t save the most visible.”- Adrian Lister, Palaeobiologist, Natural History Museum of London
Content by Heather Alberro.