Because now giant sequoias are starting to die where they stand. And it’s been my job to document it. Last summer, our park botanist requested a photo log of declining sequoia health. So each week when I was out in the field, I took pictures of several groups of dying sequoias, snapping photos from the same GPS point each time. Then I carefully labeled each photo with the date and location and dropped it into a folder on the park’s internal network. These photos won’t do anything to save the trees. But it seems important, somehow, to provide our grandchildren with some kind of record of the time we realized we might be losing the largest trees on Earth.
If it does, will we finally care about biodiversity and conservation? We should:
Three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species and this leaves supplies very vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monocultures, as happened in the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death. Reliance on only a few strains also means the world’s fast changing climate will cut yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.
There are tens of thousands of wild or rarely cultivated species that could provide a richly varied range of nutritious foods, resistant to disease and tolerant of the changing environment. But the destruction of wild areas, pollution and overhunting has started a mass extinction of species on Earth. The focus to date has been on wild animals – half of which have been lost in the last 40 years – but the new report reveals that the same pressures are endangering humanity’s food supply, with at least 1,000 cultivated species already endangered.
Okay, one of my pledges this new year (both for my own mental well-being and so as not to depress everyone around me) is to not endlessly disseminate devastating news about how the planet is dying. I assume if you are reading this blog you are already well aware of this, so I intend to focus more on positive actions I am trying to take to bring my life into balance with the planet. Figuring out how to live, how to eat and how to leave as small a footprint as feasible is worth doing. If I share what I learn and do, and others share, maybe we will be able to transform our modern, consumerist, materialist, carbon-spewing lifestyles into lives that give due consideration to the planet and all the other species trying to survive on it despite human-induced climate change and destruction of habitat.
But I am taking note of this story about how the human species is relentlessly endangering other primate species because it illustrates something important (beyond the fact that humans are the primary existential threat to the rest of the planet): the choices that you and I make in our own lives ripple all the way out to remote forests and impact remote primate species.
Primates are also threatened by the wholesale destruction of forests to make way for agriculture. In the Amazon, the jungle is being converted to cattle ranches and soybean fields, while in Madagascar, rice paddies are taking the place of lemur forests.
Western countries are also helping push primates toward extinction. Palm oil can be found in everything from doughnuts to lipstick to biodiesel fuel. New palm oil plantations are completely replacing forests in Southeast Asia — one of the most primate-diverse parts of the world.
Even cellphones can add to the risks. In central Africa, miners go into rain forests to dig for an ore called coltan that ends up in phone circuits. Those miners hunt for their meals. “They live on primates,” said Dr. Rylands.
So whether we eat beef and other meat (much of the world’s soy is grown to feed livestock), and how often we feel the need to upgrade our smartphones, are two choices we face that have a traceable impact on the survival and future of other primate (as well as many other) species.
Figuring out how to make planet-friendlier choices, and how and why they make a difference, is something I have been doing a lot more of in recent years. And it is something I am interested in continuing to do in a serious way going forward. In fact my aim is to design a modern, happy, meaningful life that celebrates and helps sustain the planet rather than destroy it. And if I do, maybe others will join me in trying to lead that life.
I tend to think of this approach to living as Earthism, because it emphasizes the idea that we humans, for moral and existential reasons, should abandon the idea that our well-being, our comfort, our interests are paramount. Instead, we should seek lives that nurture and sustain all the beauty and diversity we have been endowed with, and elevate the interests and well-being of all the extraordinary and complex ecosystems, and nonhuman species, which define our unique planet.
It’s going to be an interesting, and hopefully uplifting, journey.
Or, “How To Ruin Thanksgiving But Save The Planet.”
There is no human activity which affects the planet more than what we eat and how we produce it. I’ve long argued that the single biggest thing any individual can do to reduce his or her impact on climate change, land use, water quality, soil loss, and biodiversity is to change what’s on the plate. Fewer calories, less protein, much less or (even better) no meat and animal products, and organic. That’s the simple formula for radically reducing the human footprint and giving the natural world a chance.
This is the most shocking, infuriating, and meaningful conclusion I have maybe ever seen:
The new Living Planet Index report from the World Wildlife Fund opens with a jaw-dropping statistic: we’ve killed roughly half of the world’s non-human vertebrate animal population since 1970.
The WWF data show that the species declines vary by habitat and geographic area. Tropical areas saw greater declines, while temperate regions – like North America – saw lesser drops. Habitat-wise, land and saltwater species saw declines of roughly 39 percent. But freshwater animals – frogs, fish, salamanders and the like – saw a considerably sharper 76 percent drop. Habitat fragmentation and pollution (think algae blooms) were the main killers of freshwater species.
The declines are almost exclusively caused by humans’ ever-increasing footprint on planet earth. “Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological goods and services we use each year,” according to the report. The only reason we’re able to run above max capacity – for now – is that we’re stripping away resources faster than we can replenish them.
This is a model, so I don’t know how much faith to have in the specific percentage. But it is the clear and obvious trend, and its implications for life on the planet, that should slap us in the face, wake us up, and get us thinking about how to entirely re-invent human culture, human lifestyles, and the global economy.
The way in which the ever-expanding human presence on the planet is devastating the natural world and the biodiversity that we should be nurturing (instead of destroying) should be the number one preoccupation of humanity. It should be treated with greater alarm than Ebola, Al Qaeda, ISIL, and the Kardashians.
Put the arcane and petty religious disputes aside. Put the shortsighted and endless warring aside. Put intolerance, self-interest, and callous disregard aside. Put rampant self-gratification aside. And focus on the fact that we can’t think the way we think, and live the way we live. Everything must be questioned. Everything must be changed.
Seeing the truth, and communicating the truth, are antidotes to ignorance and apathy. So the idea of bearing witness is a powerful strategy for change, and for mobilizing action. That makes sense for any crime, especially epic crimes like genocide. It also makes sense when it comes to trying to turn the tide against the ongoing global extinction of cultures and species due to the way in which humans live. And that is the idea behind this very interesting, art-based project, Extinction Witness:
As artists, we translate the truth of feeling this world in all its frustrations of contrast and contradiction. Our creations speak the unspeakable. They move the dialogue beyond politics to the seeds of belief.