Monday, September 1, 2014

Overriding Considerations

What is human society doing differently today that suggests we learned from our extermination of one of the most abundant bird species on the planet?  On the 100th anniversary of the passing of the last passenger pigeon - a bird once so plentiful that migrating flocks of billions of birds darkened the skies - I would argue that we have developed ever more complex language, thought and institutions to justify similar destruction of the environment.  So many people participated in the extermination of the passenger pigeon, and we were left with no good reasons for the bird's disappearance.  Instead of learning from this chapter and recognizing the intrinsic value of wildlife and our moral imperative to protect biological diversity, we have simply found other ways to explain and excuse our actions.

Yes, we can point to the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other environmental protection efforts that seek to mitigate our impact on ecosystems and wildlife, but even these are failing to hold back the destructive tide.  In a bold attack on conservation, the Obama administration's chief wildlife official Dan Ashe told conservationists that we “must accept a world with fewer wolves, salmon, and spotted owls,” and "a world with less biodiversity.”   We are building a concept of the future that requires the removal of others species to make way for a human society that barely respects its own kind.

A Wild Baseline in Decline

Orion magazine published an essay this summer on the extinction of the once ubiquitous passenger pigeon.  The writer of the piece, Christopher Cokinos, takes a look at why we even bother to remember the passenger pigeon.  Cokinos draws on a book by Joel Greenberg, A Feathered River Across the Sky, that describes the awe inspiring presence of the passenger pigeon, and Cokinos notes that:
"...every generation uses its own experience to create a baseline for what the state of the natural world is. I have seen 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats coming out of a cave in the Texas hill country...And the largest group of birds I have ever seen were maybe 400,000 snow geese in Rainwater Basin in Nebraska, south of the Platte River...Both of these aggregations would have been dwarfed by flocks of [passenger] pigeons...The biological wealth of this continent has been eroded significantly to maintain our wealth."
You could argue that the extinction of the passenger pigeon was remarkable for the scale of extermination that took place.  But what is more concerning to me is society's rate of participation - you could not just blame big industry, an oil spill, or climactic changes.  Society could not have killed billions of birds if there were not hundreds of thousands of volunteers for the cause - people who carried their own reasons or excuses for taking the birds, and who joined an aggregate of ignorance and selfishness in shooting these birds from the sky and clubbing them on the ground.

When flocks of passenger pigeons appeared overhead in the late 1800s, people would fire into the sky to partake in a joyful slaughter.  Greenberg's book is full of historical accounts of people firing from rooftops and balconies, and out of their windows to take their toll on flocks passing overhead.  Commercial interests would follow the pigeons, identify their roosting locations, and kill them wholesale to be shipped back to cities for food, or ship thousands of live birds by rail for pigeon shooting contests.  While it can be said that many of the birds were killed for food, the scale of slaughter that took place surpassed what we could justify for sustenance and veered into the realm of gluttony and greed, and the death of so many birds for "sport" is most illustrative of the fact that human society truly has no good excuse for why we killed off such a magnificent species.

And when Martha - the last surviving passenger pigeon - sat alone in her cage at a Cincinnati Zoo in the early 1900s, visitors would throw sand and rocks at her to get her to move, apparently unhappy with a visit to the zoo to see such a subdued specimen.   We took far more than we needed from this species until its last breath, and human society showed the worst of its ignorance and dispassion upon realizing this bird would never grace the skies again.  Some people believed that the flocks of pigeons must have died in the Pacific Ocean as they "dashed to freedom in Asia," or veered off course in dense fog or windstorms, according to Greenberg's historical research.  For all of the people that ran to grab their rifle at the first sight of passenger pigeons and made it their goal to kill as many of the birds as possible, they still could not believe that they were the cause.

An Indirect Slaughter

As individuals, most of us are not rushing outside with our rifles anymore.  We are rarely participating in the direct slaughter of our wild baseline.  Instead, we have installed layers of insulation between ourselves and our impacts, and we use the economy and our marketplace to justify tragedy.  We are no less culpable for these impacts, but we now have the language and institutions to blame forces and organizations beyond our individual control, even though these institutions are perpetuated by the aggregate of our individual participation.

Our society takes more than it needs; more than is sustainable.  And much of what we think we "need" is as absurd as what the people shooting passenger pigeons thought they needed.  As the Los Angeles Times noted, "the electrical output of more than four nuclear power plants is needed around the clock" to keep set-top cable TV boxes running in millions of homes.  For what? So we can record our favorite TV show when we're not home.   We take water from the Colorado River to irrigate alfalfa fields in one of the driest corners of the southwestern United States so that the crop can be shipped to China to feed dairy livestock.  Subsidies for corn crops have mowed down prairie and woodlands so we can put that ingredient in everything from fuel to snack chips, to soda beverages, at the expense of growing crops that are of actual nutritional benefit.  We have replaced thousands of square miles of rain forest with palm oil plantations so we can consume things like Oreos, microwave popcorn, and crackers.  Elephants are assassinated for ivory tusks that are made into trinkets.  Much of our economy could be characterized as ludicrous in the way it functions, and the desires that it satiates.

Overriding Considerations

One hundred years after we finished off the passenger pigeon (and plenty of other species),  we have now learned how to rationalize the extinction through the excuse of "economic growth."  Federal and State agencies entrusted with protecting natural treasures are granting industry more and more permits to destroy wildlife and landscapes in the name of economic development without applying any filter that preserves our moral imperative to protect biological diversity; if it makes money, it is usually worth the sacrifice.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells us we must accept a world with less biodiversity.  Changes to the Endangered Species Act will make way for more landscape-scale destruction of wildlands and keep rare wildlife on the brink.  The misguided Breakthrough Institute claims such sacrifices are necessary to bring the world up to the United States' middle class standard of consumption, making the assumption that such an exceptional standard is sustainable and that wildlands and wildlife are only on this planet to serve humans.  (The Breakthrough Institute also assumes the global economy will allow a Utopian level of economic equality across borders when upper and middle classes are currently being built on the exploitation of others - through sweatshops, industrial agriculture and resource extraction).

Policymakers may view conservation through a prism of consumption and economic growth, but they cannot undo the fact that we are putting more and more natural treasures at risk.   This is where the language of trade-off has shamed environmental thought into accepting sacrifice.  "Overriding considerations" is a term applied in environmental law, but I think it is also a term that best describes the way we as individuals and as a society rationalize environmental tragedy. The near-term want for material consumption justifies costs we would not otherwise accept, and the costs are easier to accept because they are more distant.

It is not my intention to be cynical or pessimistic.  There is good work going on in communities to protect wild places, community health,  and previous generations of activists have left us with plenty for which we should be grateful.  But, in my view, trends remain negative and we are becoming further entrenched in an unsustainable path.  Although corporations and governments - which are often quicker to respond to each other than their consumers or customers - have the most control and influence over how we treat our environment, we should not lose sight of our individual participation in this paradigm.  Every opportunity we take to reduce our consumption is another vote that encourages a more sustainable direction.  If a couple thousand people rallied to reduce our impact on the passenger pigeon in the year 1880, maybe we'd still have a flock of passenger pigeons criss-crossing the skies over our eastern forests.  It may be too late for the passenger pigeon, but it's not too late for so many other species that are just as deserving as us to live on this planet.

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