I have had discussions with people who don’t think that extinction of species is as big a deal as conservationists want to make out.
Mass extinctions are not uncommon in the history of the earth. We just happen to be living at the time a mass extinction. No harm. No foul.
But really it’s no fowl.
I think the most profound question about extinction is one I often hear politicians make about national debt or the strength of social insurance programs: Surely you don’t want to leave behind that much debt for our children? Surely you want social security to be around for future generations?
The concept of “generational theft” can also be brought to bear on the question of extinction.
There are many animals that I’ve never seen alive.
I came to late to see a sea mink slinking along a rocky Maine shore, and I came too late to see the skies blacken with passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. I will never be able to visit the Falklands and see that unique island wolf that once roamed its beaches, and I will never know what it’s like to hear the Carolina parakeets, the great North American conure, flit through the forests of West Virginia.
These animals have all been robbed from me by the previous generations.
But I cannot go back in time and tell them to stop the madness. They were merely operating within the cultural frameworks of their time. Nature’s bounty appeared to be limitless, and then came the fall.
Even the scientists of the day weren’t aware of what they were doing.
A case in point is the great auk, a giant flightless sea bird that was native to the North Atlantic. It swam and dived much like the penguins of the southern oceans, but it was more agile than a penguin in the water.
The great auk was in the family of sea birds that includes the puffins, the murres, and guillemots. All living birds in the family can fly, but the great auk could not. As a result, the great auk was forced to nest on remote islands with sloping approaches to the sea. All the other birds in the family could fly into jagged rocks that protruded from the sea, but the great auk was greatly handicapped in this regard.
To make matters worse, there were only a finite number of such islands in the whole North Atlantic, and each summer, they would become jammed with throngs of giant black-and-white birds.
Sailors on fishing and whaling ships were quick to notice the boon that came from fat birds laying nice, plump eggs on easily accessed islands. Not only could they kill the birds and eat them, they could also collect their eggs. And if a whaling ship needed a bit more oil to top off its stores, it could render down some auks into oil. Fishermen used the meat for bait, and down collectors found its down a good substitute for eider.
In the early nineteenth century, its population crashed, and every naturalist worth his salt demanded eggs and skins of adults for taxidermy. There was a rush to kill as many auks as possible and to collect as many eggs. Every gentleman naturalist wanted specimens and eggs for study, and the fishermen and whalers were happy to provide them.
It was in this madness that the last of the great auks were killed on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland. The extinction of the great auk happened when three Icelandic fishermen came across a pair of the auks tending to their single egg. Two men killed the adults, and the third man, perhaps angry that there were only two birds to be had, smashed their egg with his boot.
This attack happened on July 3, 1844, and that date is rather unique. It is one of the few times we know the very second of an extinction. Those auks were the last two birds of their kind, and they were killed in the name of scientific curiosity.
This story has been dramatized in so many books that it’s almost reached legendary status.
It’s because this is one of the few times we know exactly when the generational theft was complete.
Reading account after account of how numerous great auks were in the North Atlantic, my imagination is piqued.
What would have been like to see the great assemblages of auks on their islands?
It’s something I will never see. It’s something that I can only read about in books and conjure up in the back of my mind.
A piece of me is angry that the great auk was allowed to go extinct in this fashion, but it is that anger that I realize a simply moral truism.
What if someday, future generations look back on us and wonder why we didn’t do enough to stop the tiger or the cheetah from becoming extinct?
Extinction for both of these cats is a very real possibility, and if they do go, we will be as much robbers as the men who took the lives of the last auks.
Knowing what we know now, don’t we at least owe it to future generations to try to preserve a bit.
Is that too much to ask?
Or are we so consumed with ourselves that we can’t try to save a bit?
The answer to that question is the one that will show us who we were to the historians of the future.
Were we able to hold forth on our engines of progress just a bit to allow a few truly remarkable wild things survive?
Or were we took caught up in the desire to subdue it all?
We are never going to return to the mythic age before man. Many anti-conservationists scoff at the strawman that claims that all conservationist want to do is destroy civilization and return it back to the days when all things were wild and untouched.
So long as humans exist on the planet, that goal can never be achieved, and all conservationists know this.
But just because we cannot return to the true ecological Garden of Eden doesn’t mean we can’t try to preserve what we can.
To refuse to do otherwise is to be comfortable with a terrible kind of generational theft.
I certainly am not.