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Creek Running North

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September 10, 2004

Profit and loss

Nights lately have been marked by waiting. It has been weeks since that familiar, comforting clicking has cascaded past our open bedroom window. I scan the sky for the telltale outline, the soft white wingbeat. The nesting palm across the street is disturbingly silent. West Nile has come to California, and owls are high on the list of potential victims.

Tonight, I watch until I cannot stand it anymore, then turn to other tasks. Almost immediately a reassuring screech fills the air.

Good news, but for how long? How many more days before the wrong mosquito penetrates that snowy down, inoculates the owl? How many more days before scar tissue forms in those marvelously efficient lungs, before encephalitis dulls - and then extinguishes - that bright aural map behind her eyes?

As an environmental writer, bad news like this pays my mortgage. If no emerging diseases threatened wildlife, if flame retardants and pharmaceuticals did not accumulate in the tissues of sturgeon, and no bark beetles razed western forests, I would be out of a job. In dying, therefore, the owl will simply be doing its part to boost those employment figures. There is reason for optimism everywhere: you need but seek it.

Indeed, I read not long ago an argument that those very owl lungs, far more efficient than mine at extracting oxygen from the air, may owe their efficiency to an episode of breathtakingly bad news. At the end of the Permian, 230 million years ago, goes the story, sea level dropped dramatically. Sediments that had lain beneath the surface were exposed to air and started to oxidize: the new soil sucked the oxygen out of the air. Ninety percent of the species then living on the Earth went extinct. A human at the elevation of Lake Tahoe would have died in a few minutes.

In this new, nearly airless world, a few animals prospered relative to their contemporaries. They may have been alpine species, adapted to low oxygen levels, who migrated to lower elevations in search of air and found a world newly vacated. Or they may have evolved efficient lungs in a spectacular hurry. Either way, they replenished the earth, and their offspring were dinosaurs, whose offspring were owls and other birds.

Peter D. Ward, in whose book Gorgon I read this story a few months ago, is one of maybe a dozen leading scholars of the Permian extinction. Despite being an able popularizer, always anathema to scientists who cannot write, he is a sober-sided and careful researcher, and a meticulous theorist. His colleague Luann Becker hit the papers lately with claims that an asteroid collision was responsible for the Permian extinction, and Ward methodically pointed out the pesky evidence contrary to her impact hypothesis.

And so it hit me rather hard when I read, this morning, an essay in which Ward suggests that the wave of extinctions currently in progress may be the worst one the world has ever known, if you count the number of species being eradicated.

Worse than the one that killed the dinosaurs and the ammonites, worse than the Ordovician, Triassic and Devonian extinctions, worse than the Permian, in which life was almost eradicated from the planet. Worse, perhaps, than all of them put together: Ward conjectures that "the absolute number of species (or other categories) that have already gone extinct in the last million years may be more than the total of the other mass extinctions combined."

That's "species that have already gone extinct." He's not talking about the California condor, hanging on to survival with one talon. Or the pika, whose range recedes upward with a warming climate, to the vanishing point at the summits of its mountain habitat. Or the tiger salamander whose range is disappearing beneath Californian tract homes, or even the ivory-billed woodpecker, whose place in the extinction roster is qualified with an asterisk based on alleged recent sightings. White rhinos and orangutans and polar bears and Hawaiian silver swords and snail darters and tui chub: not counted. Just the ones we've already done in, more species wiped out than in all other mass extinctions in the history of the earth, combined.

That's the kind of hyperbole you couldn't pay most environmentalists to utter. And here a renowned paleontologist soberly, in the pages of an academic journal, makes a suggestion to suck the air from your lungs.

How does that make you feel?

Statistically speaking, it very likely does not make you feel at all.

The environmental literature, after all, is replete with such stories, from Silent Spring and Last of the Curlews to more recent tomes on vanishing amphibians and seabirds and fish stocks and old growth forests and mangroves. You have heard it over and over. You could write such a story now without thinking, I'm betting, picking descriptives off the rack. "Plight," "beleaguered," "devastation," "endangered." Blah, blah, blah.

Surely there's another side to the story. Surely some more moderate voice will pop up to say something reassuring so that you can go on with your life. The Citizens' Council for Responsible Mass Extinction, or somesuch. Besides, the starlings and grackles and fox squirrels and pigeons that constitute your entire experience of wildlife seem to be doing just fine. Why on earth would I bother you with this tinfoil hat handwaving?

But should Ward's hypothesis prick your conscience, against all sober logic and sensible consideration, extreme caution is in order. Should you be the kind of person who has actually met individual pikas and tiger salamanders and pallid manzanitas, or who hasn't but wishes to someday, and who feels her life would be diminished were they to die out, you are well advised to keep it to yourself.

To protest would be shrill, and no one likes shrill.

They will call you an activist, and forget about asking what, logically, that makes everyone else. They will call you an extremist over your reluctance to change the world irrevocably for a moment's idle convenience. They will call you a pessimist, because while whole branches of the planet's evolutionary heritage are being snuffed out so that we might continue to drive our 4Runners, some people are using those 4Runners to carry trees - which they will plant somewhere nice. They will call you "well-intentioned." They will, at best, listen politely and change the subject. If you don't change the subject, they will shoot your dog and burn your house.

To express an opinion in these matters, you see, is to exclude your point of view from serious consideration. A person who prefers a world with tiger salamanders in it sits at one end of the table, and a person who wants to be allowed to gain millions of dollars by bulldozing tiger salamander habitat sits at the other. Clearly, both positions are equally self-interested.

The only really acceptable stance is not to give a shit. Fretting about the yellow-billed cuckoo just isn't edgy. They went so far as to post a cutting comment about Bush on your blog: I just don't see how much more you can reasonably ask them to do. They're only human.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 10, 2004 11:51 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Nevertheless, I'm glad to be sitting at your end of the table, Chris.

Posted by: beth at September 11, 2004 10:04 AM
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Sometimes I think, how can a species this willfully dim possibly be capable of wreaking this much havoc?

Posted by: dale at September 12, 2004 01:44 AM
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An activist isn't the worst thing a person can be called. If you have not read "Rare Earth" by Ward and Brownlee you might want to.
After reading your article "In the Mojave" I thought to myself, wow, reading this is almost as good as going on a field trip to this place. EWOB.

Posted by: David Roycroft at September 12, 2004 08:18 AM
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Please excuse my denseness, but what does EWOB stand for? Is there a glossary of these things somewhere? I must have leapt onto the blogging wagon too late, or else I just missed those Compuserve forums in the early days...

Posted by: beth at September 12, 2004 09:41 AM
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It's either European World of Bluegrass or Empowering Women of Burma, according to Google.

Dave Roycroft, by the way, is the lucky guy who was faced with the prospect of teaching me biology as a child. I owe him lifelong gratitude for that - though my readers may feel differently.

Dale, the glib answer is that we enjoy making babies way too much.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 12, 2004 09:50 AM
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...and so what is to be done? each of us must live our lives with the heavy sadness of this consciousness, and perhaps it will help us to be mindful in making our own choices. each of us can take someone by the hand and show them the tiny things and the large, the precious things, that are still here and teach them to notice, then care, then protect. each of us play a part in how the story ends.

Posted by: Anne at September 21, 2004 09:07 AM
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