Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you’d like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen Capra is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the executive director of Bold Visions Conservation, based in New Mexico.
We live in a time where we are heading towards a world without wildlife. We have a voice and a vote, yet we elect people who support the destruction of what makes our planet livable. But perhaps our gravest sin continues to be our treatment of wildlife. How is it that, given an earth so rich in life, humanity has chosen to kill — to destroy — the oasis we have been granted?
We live in a time of great knowledge about animals, and many people have become advocates for all species. Yet prejudice, war and social unrest make even our relationships with our fellow humans complex. Governments are already slow to act to protect the natural world. Now, consider how hard we find it to deal with species that look nothing like us, that live underwater or fly through the sky, that compete with us for food or could even make us their next meal.
Add into the mix poverty, hunger, population pressure and cultural norms, then multiply all that by corporate greed, energy development, rapid deforestation and climate change, and you begin to understand the true cycle of genocide that modern civilization is waging against wildlife — and ultimately itself.
We have a long history of destroying wildlife. The Great Plains remains for many the centerpiece of America’s shame, the site of a wanton waste of wildlife, which left species like the passenger pigeon extinct and the bison all but gone. In order to destroy the Native American cultures and take control of the land, many of us saw the killing of wildlife as almost a patriotic endeavor. The aftermath of decay and dried bones scattered across a vast expanse of America marks, without question, wildlife’s own “Trail of Tears.”
Our growing awareness of the decimation of the West’s native species eventually inspired the enactment of laws and regulations designed to prevent such a killing spree from occurring again. Conservationists began working to make people understand the value of species that do not resemble human beings.
In 2014, the World Wildlife Fund issued a report with the Zoological Society of London, which found that a number of species of wild animals had lost half their populations in 40 years. The culprits were many — humans killing wildlife for food in unsustainable numbers, the pollution and destruction of habitat. The report went on to point out that we are “cutting trees faster than we regrow them, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them, and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than oceans and forests can absorb.” The most rapid decline of wildlife populations has occurred in freshwater ecosystems, where wildlife numbers have plummeted more than 75 percent since 1970.
Yet most of us continue to confront such situations with a shrug of recognition, a new-normal sense of futility, or maybe the vague hope that science will ultimately save us from our madness. Right now, we are witness to the last great extinction of species in our history, one that, if not stopped, will remove the final barrier to our complete isolation as humans. Think of the karma we will inherit for our refusal to share our world and to accept our responsibility to live in harmony with all species.
The shift to harmony may only be realized after the implosion of our material-based society, once we make massive shifts in our diet and break the back of the corporations that feed the sickness in our society. But most of all, it requires leadership — placing in power people who respect all species and understand the value of a shared earth. This change will only come with basic human kindness and love. If we pass laws that end cruelty and protect more lands and more waters, we can truly embrace the concept that all life matters.
Like all politics, this shift must begin locally; like all education, it requires great teachers who will provide the next generation the chance to get it right. What is different for wildlife today is that we are running out of time. We cannot look to make change in 20, 30 or 40 years. The change must happen now.
We are moving towards a world without wildlife, not because we want it, but because we have not accepted a formula that truly allows coexistence. That formula will only exist when society, nations and people understand the limitations of being human — when we accept such limits on ourselves in order to share, not control, the world we live in.
The Zen of that concept is the deeper connection and relationship with species that will enrich our lives. Only then will we have finally matured as the species we call human.