January 11, 2010

Rescuing Nature – Part 2: Responding to Crisis

The last decade was an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportion, it would not be an exageration to say that this decade is crucial for environmental issues: our last chance to reverse as many of these trends as we can. ~ JT.

It is a sad and ironic epilogue to my previous post about rescuing wildlife that I met a man on the trail this weekend…who died shortly thereafter of an apparent heart attack.

It is not uncommon to encounter people sitting on the side of trail resting, and when I met this man and his daughter halfway up Horse Tooth Mountain he said he was not used to the elevation. He said he would rest for a bit and head back down. “If you start to feel really bad,” I said, “you can call 911 and the rangers will come up to get you.”

From what I have been able to gather from the newspaper stories this man must have gone into cardiac arrest shortly after I headed back up the trail. I have replayed the events of Saturday morning and wondered what if I had stopped somewhere on the way and arrived (10?) minutes later and found the man unconscious.

Could there have been a different outcome?

As human beings our ability to know what will happen next is limited; our actions depend on the information that we have at hand. Regret is useless unless it is joined with the contemplation of events that occur and a resolve to be of greater benefit next time. For a long time to come I will contemplate this man, who I met only in the last moments of his life. And next time I see a hiker resting I will ask nosey questions like “are you having chest pains?”

I believe that most people would try to help a wounded or distressed animal if the opportunity arose, and would of course help a person who was having a medical emergency.

However, it takes a different kind of awareness to know what to do before a crisis occurs.

We are all on the verge of a monumental crisis, now. Vast areas in our world’s oceans are dead zones, with more plastic than plankton. On our current course a collapse of all ocean life is anticipated by 2048. Polar bears in the wild will almost certainly be extinct within our lifetime unless immediate, decisive action is taken to prevent it and deforestation continues at an alarming global rate of 18 million acres per year.

One can only hear a little bad news before our eyes glaze over, and we divert our attention to something more pleasant. So before I lose you (!), I want you to know that I personally believe that the best is yet to come for we human beings.

I have a lot of optimism because we have to change, change or die— there’s no halfway measure.

But what does change mean? A sustainable world doesn’t mean sitting in the cold and the dark, or eating only raw carrots. It certainly does mean thinking bigger about the consequences of our actions, being a lot smarter and a lot more creative about utilizing resources and reducing waste, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It could mean living in a world where we are intentionally more intimately connected to other people and species. According to E. O. Wilson, a Harvard Biologist, this is something that we inherently want. Wilson coined the term Biophilia, which means that human beings are hard-wired to love nature. We experience pleasure in natural surroundings and recover more quickly from illness and trauma when we have a view of nature or pets nearby.

However, right now we are doing an abysmal job of stewarding the environment, not only globally, but locally as well. In Bringing Nature Home, Douglass W. Tallamy states that 95-97 percent of the lower 48 states has been modified for human use, 69 million acres are covered by urban and suburban development and green space within those areas is not all that “green” either. 32 to 40 million acres are covered by a monoculture of turf grass consuming huge amounts of resources, as our single largest agricultural crop. Another 43,480 square miles are covered by impervious paving. Even “natural” areas often contain more invasive non-native plants than native plants and subsequently provide little to support wildlife.

It’s no wonder that bird populations have plummeted by 60% within the span of 40 years.

The last decade was an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportion, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this decade is crucial for environmental issues: our last chance to reverse as many of these trends as we can.

I have no doubt that the Earth will continue to survive. But will we human beings continue to be a part of it? It is the moral question of our time: whether we have the right to destroy other species and their habitats, or even ourselves.

New species by the thousands continue to be discovered but even more rapidly species are going extinct. On some level we may ask “Why do we need birds and butterflies that no human being has ever even seen before?” It comes down to what has been called the Jenga hypothesis. Anyone who has ever played Jenga, a game where players build a tower out of blocks and pull them out one by one, knows that eventually you get to one block, without which the rest can no longer stand. We don’t know which block that is going to be or how many species can be lost before the whole system collapses.

The Earth and life on Earth has survived climate change, asteroids and other catastrophes in the past and recovered but ecologists say that recovery has taken millions of years. Here in the Western U.S. we are already seeing vast changes in eco-systems. Grasslands are becoming deserts, forest are becoming grasslands. Change is not inherently bad, for example could Colorado’s Front Range (where the majority of the states population lives) become more species rich than it historically was with the recent introduction of more trees and water? Man-made lakes (such as those at the High Plains Environmental Center) have expanded riparian habitat which covers less than 3% of state but is a critical life zone for 95% percent of all vertebrates at some point in their life cycle. The critical issue for wildlife is whether they can adapt to these changes rapidly enough for survival. Some biologist are already actively transplanting wildlife to new locations as climate patterns change.

Even if it were possible for human beings to survive without nature could human beings bear the loss of “nature” as we know it? The regret of not being able to save the life of a fellow human being is hard. The regret of not saving all life is beyond comprehension.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado: “Restoring nature where we live, work and play.” Become a Fan of HPEC on Facebook, or visit our website for more information www.suburbitat.org

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