June 27, 2015

If a Species Falls in the Forest.

A frame-filling portrait of a male polar bear (Ursus maritimus) jumping in the pack ice. The young male, probably due to a mix of curiosity and hunger, got really close to our ship - less than 20 meters. Svalbard, Norway.

The rate of species extinction is now so great that truly absorbing it requires fantastic leaps of the imagination.

It reminds me of an episode from my childhood, when my older brother used to bet me impossible sums of money. By age seven they had accumulated into the millions, at which point I had a dream of possessing all the money in the world, which was promptly gambled away.

The dream of loss set on a blissfully expansive sensation of the sublime in which my body filled the universe. It was my first taste of devastating loss and my first spiritual experience, which would not return until a decade later, after much spiritual practice attuned me to all humanity might lose.

The pace of destruction unleashed by humanity today is astonishing. Globalization has destroyed about a third of the world’s 6,000 languages, and when a language dies, a culture does with it. But there is perhaps no destruction so great as that of species. E.O. Wilson, the world’s foremost expert on species diversity, estimates up to half the species on the planet could become extinct by 2100.

We want to preserve species because some play key roles in sensitive ecosystems, and when keystone species like polar bears are lost, whole ecosystems can unravel. We want to preserve species because we often do not know when the disappearance of one might result in the unraveling of others. We want to preserve species because we know that forces greater than ourselves contributed to their emergence and to destroy them would be to destroy something wondrous.

It is easy to be stunned by the wonder of creation, more stunning still to dissipate it away. There are millions of species in the world, perhaps no more than a tenth of which have been discovered. Contemplating such numbers stretches the imagination to the breaking point. The species of our planet have emerged over hundreds of millions of years and we bear the imprint of their development in the human genome itself. We want to preserve species because they are often beautiful, because we feel a relationship to all life, because like a love just beginning, we do not know what might be lost.

The Islamic Qur’an and the Jewish Talmud both say that to kill one life is to kill the world. Were humanity ever to destroy the biosphere through thermonuclear war, the impulse of the President punching the button might not differ much from the man shooting his brother—and yet it would end the world. It is similar with the destruction of species, the only difference being the destruction of a species is a crime with no murderer. Most of the species we will lose in the twenty-first century will be lost due to climate change. But while all of us play some part in climate change, no one in particular is to blame.

If a species falls in the forest and there is no one there hear it fall, it does not matter whether it makes a sound. What matters is that something wondrous has been lost. But like the untold dead of the barely remembered Armenian Genocide, we often do not even know who or what has been destroyed. Perhaps we mourn at the grave of the unknown species because we sense it symbolic of some momentous sea change we see only in rippling wavelets.

At least some of the desire to preserve a distinctly Jewish state springs from the same impulse leading us to preserve species. Human systems carry value, the loss of which always causes some harm. Albert Schweitzer, the great scientist and humanitarian, sensing this harm, held that a truly sensitive person would break no leaf or rock crystal. His reverence for life included not only all living beings but every manifestation of the universe. But all things pass, and there is wisdom in letting go. There are many good things, like a relationship consumed by fighting, we had better let die.

Some of the young Yezidis on my trip to the border of Iraq last summer were ready to let their religion die in order to embrace a better life in the West. And yet, targeted for genocide, the death of their religious identity would mean the destruction of their culture, and that culture could protect them as much as hold them back. Karl Marx felt that for Jews to be truly liberated, they needed to let their religion die, making the emancipation of the Jews an emancipation from Judaism. But some people will always find it easier to let go of the identities into which they have been born than others. Better to let our national and religious identities evolve than die.

National identities and languages are continually being renewed, after all. They are quite flexible and adaptable to human needs. Species are also always in flux, but species change over vastly greater stretches of time. The environmental philosopher, Holmes Rolston III, has pointed out that after every great extinction event both the complexity and diversity of species increased. But this took tens of millions of years. There is something cosmically irresponsible about allowing another great extinction event to progress unimpeded.

The Yezidis could recreate their religion in a generation through the appearance of one great spiritual teacher. The Jewish state might transform the Israeli identity into something far more cosmopolitan and open in the same time-frame should the right set of pressures arise. When a language dies a generation or two may experience great alienation, even as future generations gain access to a wider, more dynamic world. But the species that are being lost today will take millions upon millions of years to replace. The destruction of species is a different order of change from anything else we know. Humanity is destroying wonders of creation whose value we all too often lack the mental capacity to appreciate. The twenty-first century will see a falling away of much cultural and religious dross.

It will take the development of a new sort of wisdom to recognize that which is truly worth holding onto.


Relephant Read:

The Sixth Extinction is Upon Us.


Author: Theo Horesh

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikimedia

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