We live in a time of mass extinction. Vigorous debates exist regarding the extent of current extinctions, regionally and globally, for a variety of taxa and for biodiversity as a whole. Conservation biologists dispute how many species might be extinguished over various time frames under various different scenarios, but few doubt that current extinction rates are orders of magnitude greater than natural background rates, or that the consequences of this include extensive ongoing losses of natural species.
How should conservationists think about this? What can and should we do about it? What is the meaning of the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth, the first to be caused by a single species: us? Recently I reviewed seven new books that explore these questions: five by conservation scientists, one by a leading science journalist, and one by a philosopher. All of them were well worth reading, but one, Thom Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction struck me as particularly acute and hopeful.
“Why do the last expressions of so many species leave the world unnoticed,” Van Dooren asks, “except perhaps by the few conservationists on whose watch, and sometimes in whose hands, they pass away?” He explains this silence as a function of people’s “inability to really get—to comprehend at any meaningful level—the multiple connections and dependencies between ourselves and these disappearing others: a failure to appreciate all the ways in which we share a world.” We do not know their stories, nor do we see their stories as integral to our own. As humanity encases itself ever more fully within “built environments” and “virtual realities” of its own making, opportunities to appreciate these other stories recede.
Van Dooren believes that the key to better human relationships with other species—and ultimately to creating societies that don’t rampantly extinguish them—is to appreciate their stories. To do that, we need to try to tell them as fully and as honestly as we can. “As I researched each chapter,” he writes: “I got to know these species in new ways. In each case I was surprised by the way in which knowing more draws us into new kinds of relationships and, as a result, new accountabilities to others.”
To take one example, long-billed vultures (Gyps indicus) have long thrived in India by scavenging large animal carcasses, including those of cattle and people, in the process providing important sanitation “ecosystem services” to human communities. Soaring overhead, they are a living embodiment of the important truths that death is a part of life, and that people can coexist in mutually beneficial ways with the nonhuman world. Now the vultures are in drastic decline, primarily due to an overuse of diclofenac and other antibiotics in cattle, which poisons them when they feed on carcasses. Yet the vultures hang on, in places, and as long as they do they preserve an alternative to the life-denying practices that threaten them.
“The extinction of vultures points to the necessity of a concept and a practice of community that draws in the dead, in which what happens to the dead is deeply consequential for the health and continuity” of the living. A flourishing community will take wider and truer views of life. It will not be so greedy to increase agricultural production that it poisons itself, or so heedless of natural beauty and diversity that it destroys such an elegant recycling system. Preserving this story on the landscape would not just be a nod to India’s past traditions, or to a potentially more ecologically just future. It would continue the realization, the incarnation, of a wise approach to death: an approach that long-billed vultures brought to the subcontinent long before the first hominids made our appearance there.
Like Flight Ways, all the books I reviewed seek to tell the stories of threatened or extinct wildlife in ways that capture its beauty and importance. From passenger pigeons (Joel Greenberg, A Feathered River Across the Sky) to baiji dolphins (Samuel Turvey, Witness to Extinction), from black-footed ferrets (David Jachowski, Wild Again) to eastern hemlock trees (David Foster, Hemlock: A Forest Giant on the Edge) to the great apes (Craig Stanford, Planet Without Apes), their authors explain how we are extinguishing the world’s biodiversity, why we should care about those losses, and what we can do to prevent them. They deserve our thanks and our support for their ongoing work to prevent further extinctions.
To read the full review in Biological Conservation click HERE.