The Tipping Point

Boy Scouts have always been told that whenever we departed from a campsite, we had to leave it in better shape than when we arrived. That ethic, that we are literally responsible for the world around us, that we are stewards of the earth, has always been a hugely important value in my life. This scouting rule nicely dovetails into Jewish tradition’s insistence that we see the Universe in which we live as a gift from God.  

For centuries, Jewish texts have stressed the ironclad obligation to, and responsibility for, nature’s integrity. “Nothing that God created in the world was superfluous or vain; hence, all must be sustained. An aggadah [rabbinic legend], often repeated in the literature, says that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect into a blueprint.”  

The world in which we live is so majestic, so beautiful. Flora, fauna, snow and cold, desert heat… I could go on forever describing the ineffable wonders of the natural world.  Only it seems to be the case that not all of the marvels of the world will be going on forever. 

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services delivered a sobering message that was truly painful to read. I avoided looking at it for as long as I could. I treated it like ominous lab results from my doctor. But eventually I felt compelled to click on the link. I should’ve left it alone. The summary of the research is that, “Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals – the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.”   

 The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Joseph Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”  One million animal and plant species are going to disappear – forever.

I can’t honestly compute the scope of such a loss. But when I do the math, two things become painfully obvious: 1) it won’t affect my life very much, and 2) it will dramatically affect the lives of my children and my grandchildren. And that breaks my heart.  

I’ve heard commentators who say that this extinction is the natural order of things, that it’s the price of freedom and free market capitalism. Of course, the most vociferous voices shrugging their shoulders in an “oh well” gesture are often the same ones who think climate change is a lie. Only climate change is real, and denying it has about as much legitimacy as the arguments of the anti-vaxxers.   This collapse, as Prof. Settele stated above, is primarily authored via the hubris of humans. It’s men and women creating absolute lies that will then be absorbed as fact. It’s a narcissistic rejection of responsibility for the world. It’s unJewish and – it’s unethical at the highest levels. 

I worry for my grandkids; not that they will never see a lemur or an orangutan, though that is horrible.  The worst part for the grandkids, and for all humans, aside from potential bee extinction and crop collapse, isn’t the end of any particular amphibian or reptile or fish or bird. The worst part is to live in a world where no one lifts a finger to save a threatened, small species of plant or animal. Because when we are nonplussed by the extinction of a species, how much do we care about the diminution or even extinction of a particular class or ethic minority group? In the future how will humans without money or power or a voice fare? If the only world I care about is the world according to me, then what are the chances for human survival, for cooperation and compromise?  

The extinction of any species, from snail darters to Indiana bats to polar bears to Mediterranean monk seals, is a disgrace and an ethical violation, because it is not inevitable. We’ve messed this one up. Can we fix it? Can we change this looming collapse? I don’t honestly know what to do next. Only this: we must do something. I’m open to suggestions. In the meantime, I’ll keep cleaning up the campsite.

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