One morning last fall around the time of my birthday, I sat down with my coffee and fired up the laptop. Waiting for me there on the screen was the news that since my birth in that same month in 1970, fully 40% of the world’s species have been decimated. There it was, in the space of my lifetime: the next great extinction. Happy Birthday to me.
To be a lover of wildlife these days is to spend a lot of time thinking about extirpation, and what troubles me lately is the degree to which so many of us fail to understand ourselves as wildlife. This is true not only of those indifferent to wildlife, but sometimes also of advocates of wildlife. The failure to understand human beings as wildlife is not just responsible for the destruction of other species — like that attempted with prairie dogs — but also, the creeping misanthropy we sometimes see in environmentalism and the animal rights movement.
Prairie dogs, given free reign, will spread their numbers radically and plant towns everywhere with abandon. Before human beings killed 98% of them in the last century, their squawking and yipping electrified millions of acres. Female prairie dogs will sometimes even invade other females’ burrows and kill their pups, in order to advance her own interests and those of her offspring. And like the prairie dogs, we humans have built our own enormous cities, and make war on each other regularly.
Human beings, of course, are said to know better than prairie dogs, and indeed we do. Our capacity for rational thought has two faces: it allows us to effectuate our wild impulses far more efficiently than prairie dogs can, and at the same time, it offers us the means to understand that our unchecked wildness threatens our own existence.
Shortly after reading that article warning of the next great extinction, I was fortunate enough to be at the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens, thinking about all this.
I sat on a well-placed bench bathed in the liquid light of approaching evening, watching my son photograph different native desert plant species, and the thought occurred to me: the same species that uses prairie dogs for target practice built these gardens, and carefully nurtured the plants that now feed hummingbirds and butterflies.
I know the frustration of watching the world become sanitized and ever more deadened in the name of human “safety” – a fool’s errand anyway, given that the long-term effect of this sanitizing is mass human peril. But we are capable of a complex form of empathy, and we ought to use it. Antipathy toward humanity, and even human extinction, might seem attractive from a planetary perspective, but that strikes me as the easy way out. It’s much more complicated and difficult to wrestle with the messy and contradictory nature of people. I suppose the question in the end will be no less than the net worth of the capacity for rational thought. I’m not as eager to issue a ruling on that question as some are.
It’s true that children are being killed today. It’s true that the endless march of carbon into the atmosphere continues unabated, and that more species go extinct every week. But every day, every minute, there is a well of human resistance to all of those things. Human beings were not always capable of destroying life on a massive scale; is it possible the ability to resist doing so is also growing at the same rate?