“Midway between ourselves and the colossal events in the sky, the great beings become interlocutors, whose lives sift the forces of the wind, and water and fire, seeming to say that all such phenomena ultimately are purposeful and ongoing expressions of a meaningful world.”
—Paul Shepard, “The Others: How Animals Made Us Human,” 1996
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.”
“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Basis of Morality”
Thirty-one species disappeared forever in 2020. Extinction being something we should eternally be ashamed of and which has full bearing on our future.
“Without the animals we will have nothing to return to,” said a Samburu elder whose clan had adopted a baby elephant from the frontier with Ethiopia generations ago. He also added, “Without them we will lose our minds.” Animals, the real treasure of the world, and the plants they depend on, are the foundation of existence. For the Samburu elephants were, in essence, part of their extended family. But as we have cleared forest for cows, there are almost a billion of them, and agriculture all over the planet, the human population has gained and the wild animal population has plummeted. The elephant population is maybe a quarter of what it was when I was a teenager. The legal wildlife trade in which over 30,000 species are traded is worth $300 billion dollars. The animal kingdom simply cannot take it anymore. The 6th extinction has taken over and we are the prime actors in an unfolding tragedy that will take down civilization as we know it, if we don’t alter our ways. We are, quite simply in an emergency as the Secretary General of the UN admonishes. Everything has to be rethought and acted upon to save what is left this decade.
Today would be a good time to examine the Simon-Ehrlich wager made in 1980. Paul Ehrlich, who wrote the “Population Bomb” in 1968 predicted a population catastrophe and worldwide famine. Julian Simon, a business professor, was skeptical of the claim and proposed a wager concerning metals and bet that a given commodity’s price would be lower a year later than it was at the time of the wager. Ehrlich, because of scarcity, thought nickel, copper, chromium, tin and tungsten would increase in price. A year later the prices had decreased. Ehrlich lost the bet, but if they had made a bet about animal populations, which have decreased 70 percent in the last half century, Ehrlich would have easily won.
More than three-quarters of large land predators (31 species) are in trouble, which is having a cascade effect on ecosystems worldwide. Seventeen of these are living on less than half the land they used to occupy. All over the world the story is the same: we are losing our larger mammals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services working for ranchers and agribusiness, kills 100,000 predators every year. So cows can gaze unmolested. And so rangers have something to target as they have for the last several hundred years. But a ban on wildlife killing contests targeting coyotes and swift foxes just passed recently in Colorado and five other Western states. A major step in the right direction, especially considering some of their favorite food, rodents, carry such things as the bubonic plague. Marine ecosystems with sharks that are caught every year by the millions, are being affected. The Chinese market and penchant for jaguar, lion, tiger, leopard, black bear and polar bear parts among many other species borders on the depraved. Their assault on the fish stocks near the fragile Galapagos ecosystem should never have been allowed and cannot be overlooked. As fisheries are collapsing in the seven seas, new mandates have to start being implemented in what is an out of control situation for fish stocks everywhere.
Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, especially concerned with totalitarian regimes, wrote, “No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise.” And yet everywhere we turn animals are being expelled from paradise. While humans suffer, ultimately our place on earth will be dictated by the original caretakers of paradise, the animals.
Scientists say there may be many more animals than we thought on planet Earth. But just as we discover new species, many are on the brink of extinction. The just discovered Popa Langur monkey in central Myanmar may have no more than 250 individuals to its name. How long will they be able to hold on as a species?
Countries such as Norway resumed whaling in 1993 despite the whaling ban and continue to sell whale meat to Japan. One shipment was so contaminated that it was sent back. Before Christmas there was outrage against hunters in Spain who went on a killing spree of 540 deer and boar on a 1,100-hectare enclosed farm. It was a massacre. How can this be allowed in our time? How can it even be contemplated? The newest victim of the global pandemic are the mink of Europe, more particularly in Denmark where 17 million were culled or destroyed for potentially harboring a new virus strain. Does the world really need a fur industry? Do countless millions really need to suffer in cages their whole lives and then be executed. In Finland, Poland, Russia, Canada and even the U.S., the fifth biggest fur producer. It might be time to rethink our twisted fondness for fur once and for all.
England and Austria banned fur farming since 2000, the first countries to do so, but other countries need to follow suit. China has seen an opportunity to increase its business since Denmark’s covid variant was found. But it is not only the fur trade that is heinous, it is humanity’s barbaric relationship to animals that has brought us to this inflection point.
Kundera, who understood a little about oppression and suffering, having witnessed Russian tanks swarming into Prague in 1968, understood that, “mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which is deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.”
Now in our hour of need, we know that our relationship to animals has been woefully misaligned. Over time viruses we never knew existed will find new hosts in us. All over the world the felling of forests has caused innumerable species populations to crash and even to disappear forever.
Bats who form a quarter of the world’s mammalian species, about 1,400 species, have been uprooted from their homes all over the world. The rat family also contains over 1,100 species and can carry a platoon of possible microbes. One reason the Bamboo rat consumed in southeast Asia has been banned in China. Rats can carry coronaviruses and with forests being burned in the Amazon, Indonesia and the Congo Basin, the potential for rodents and bats to spread new diseases is very real. The dreaded Ebola virus has even been known to have been spread by bush pigs, rodents, and even porcupines, not just bats.
David Quammen wrote “the killer pathogen” will spillover into humans almost a decade ago in 2012 as he wrote in “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.” White footed mice which harbor lyme disease is an example of the impact of rodents, which are the main culprits in spreading disease. If other rodents like chipmunks, squirrels and even predator birds vanish, mice proliferate. Basic biology. Diversity matters and everywhere the venues for diseases are expanding. Human numbers are an “outbreak” population. They are staggering and rarely on any politician’s agenda. Other species cannot compete or survive because of us. Emerging diseases are not going to go away as species vanish.
Between 1999 and 2015 about 2,000 new species were discovered in the Amazon. Among them 20 mammal species, 19 reptiles, 32 amphibians and 216 previously unknown plants. Then the giant fires came. Where are those species today? How can we be persuaded that animals and plants are living gifts and the only true treasures we have besides each other? This is the task of this decade as the Convention on Biological Diversity seeks to salvage what is left of the biosphere.
Paul Shepard, the environmentalist, saw our utter disconnect with nature as few ever have. In his book “Nature and Madness” (1982) he exclaimed, “In the captivity and enslavement of plants and animals and the humanization of the landscape itself is the diminishment of the Other, against which men must define themselves.” Shepard clearly saw our schizoid confusion from the beginnings of the Judeo-Christian emergence as an “abiding hostility to the natural world, characteristically fearful and paranoid. The 16th century fixation on the impurity of the body and the comparative tidiness of the machine are strongly obsessive compulsive. These all persist and interact in a tapestry of chronic madness in the industrial present, countered by dreams of absolute control and infinite possession.”
And today we inherit an emergency. Amputated from the animals and the forests and grasses, even the "lowly" fungi whose magic we are just beginning to grasp, the world asks, no actually screams for us to right our wrongs. In our backyard in New Mexico where thousands of birds fell victim to an early cold spell and starvation, the wings of Creation are being clipped. Will our species in turn, follow the trajectory of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, as we reach for the stars, but fail the Earth at every turn, with every flayed forest, every shipwrecked oil tanker.
Our relationship to domesticated animals and the meat industry is an atrocity. The forests felled on five continents for cows and sheep and goats and meat production have lost an area the size of Mexico for meat in the last generation. As Paul McCartney rightly said, if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. The horror of the industry is that absolute. Is there any relation between the coronavirus infection rate in the U.S. and the amount of meat we eat? And as climate change exacerbates, those industrial farms will not be able to pursue their killing ways. Inefficient and deadly, wasting almost 2,000 gallons of water to get 1 pound of grain. Clearly something has to give.
The virus is forcing us to look through the glass darkly. The childhood of the West can be said to be officially over. It did not last long. Considering that civilization is barely 5,000 years old, we have to overturn our regressive childhood and adulthood of failed fanciful notions of omnipotence and control over nature into a compassionate collaboration.
The new administration will have to take over the reins to forge a mature relation to the planet. It will necessitate a new respect for animals and plants and in so doing maybe avoid the worst. The next four years may be our last chance to start redressing the ills and injustices we have imposed on the other species of the world. With so many countries entrenched in abuse, subjugation and exploitation of the life force, it will be a tall order. But it is a challenge we need to meet head on, especially if we want to avoid much more deadly pandemics than the one we just inherited. Protecting and strengthening the Endangered Species Act would be welcomed by all especially the four legged, winged and finned creatures that need maximum protection before they vanish.
Now that the European Commission has accepted the new Green Deal as the focus of Europe’s economic recovery plan, the stage is set for revitalizing the environment in ways not conceivable four years ago. The cost of preserving 30 percent of each eco region on Earth could amount to over $30 to 40 billion a year but it could yield three times that each year. It will be money very well spent.
The push to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and 30 percent of its oceans by 2030 is urgent, vital and could be America’s last chance. If we can’t save this planet, there won’t be any need to go to Mars.
“One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them.”
—Martin Luther King
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.