(This is the first in a series of observations on our pandemic times.)
Several months ago, on the near side of the pandemic that’s reminded us of our place in nature, I did an essay on Martha ("Martha's Anniversary") — the last passenger pigeon, who left this earth over a hundred years ago. I then embarked on two long thought exercises. One had to do with the nature and value of information, its protection, and how to develop policy statements that are strong, direct, and easy to understand and follow. The other had to do with the American Pledge of Allegiance, its history, changes — and my assertion that not one of us is doing a particularly good job at following it.
That brings me to this day, somewhere in the midst of these first painful and shocking days of the pandemic of many names — SARS-CoV-2, COVID19, coronavirus. As I write this, about a third of the world is in some form of lockdown, roughly two and a half billion souls. Within those numbers are countless brave and scared people — healthcare workers, delivery folks, grocery store workers, first responders, and so on — who continue to work to deliver essential services to the rest of us.
The numbers are confusing, often contradictory. We alternate between stories of strength and those of despair. Of struggles, small and large, enacted in different places around the world. A woman weeping, her tears flowing from eyes to underneath protective mask - but tears of relief, perhaps, as she watches Wuhan slowly come back to life after ten weeks of lockdown. Another, a black man, weeping at the loss of his brother, who died — as nearly all do — alone.
Stories of hope. Stories of song. Scientists, sharing information that races around the world as fast as the virus seems to move. The best, the worst of us, on display.
In short, we are united.
This is what it means to be united. It’s messy, noisy, crowded, anxious, uncertain, uplifting, despairing, grinding and in sum, unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.
We, at home, the protected, cheer on the successes wherever they occur, celebrate the wins, however small, grieve over the losses, however distant or close to home.
We can argue over cause. We can be angry that the inevitable was ignored. In my essay on Martha, I described our human world thus — and while long, I think it bears repeating here:
We — now seven or eight billion of us, a quadrupling over the previous century’s growth — are influential in the world in disproportionate ways, the same way the US is influential in geopolitical and economic affairs in disproportionate ways.
We think things will go on forever, and that it’s necessary and beneficial to exploit, and drill, and dig, and burn, and pollute, and consume, piling up things and trash. When scientists express concerns about the impacts of climate change or pollution, we declare fake news or non-science, calling these folks chicken little, or worse.
And when it dawns on us that burning down large parts of the Amazon rain forest might cause it to go through a passenger-pigeon crossover point, beyond which it becomes a savannah and shifts the oxygen-carbon balance of the planet — when it dawns on us that this might happen, there are those who would double down, and double down again. There are those who would burn more, buy Greenland, leave climate accords because they’re some kind of “bad deal,” and double down again on fossil fuels. Fuels we’ve been using in large quantities for less than one Superior retention cycle.*
Changes, I would argue, that overwhelm nature’s resilience because they far outrun nature’s rate of adaptation.
Do we have to wait for a tipping point before we act, knowing then that it’s too late? If we can’t know the passenger pigeon’s tipping point, how can we assert that we know the last Amazon tree we can afford to burn? Why do we resist, when both our logic and our instinct point to hedging our bets, doing all we can to preserve rain forests and ice and species and climate bands that support human habitability? Why not take a variation of Pascal’s Wager, and assume climate change is real and therefore take protective action, instead of presuming it’s not real and doing nothing? What’s the cost of being wrong in either case?
Perhaps our instinct favors our own extinction.
Is it today’s problem? Maybe. Tomorrow’s? Our children’s children’s problem? I don’t know. But a problem nonetheless. And possibly — possibly soon — possibly already — a fatal and unsolvable problem.
I could fill a landfill with all the cans we’ve kicked down the road in the name of today’s fame, today’s wealthy lifestyle, tomorrow’s election results.
Nature won’t care about our election results. It won’t care if we remove scenic mountain tops and all their flora and fauna by declaring them overburden, by burning rainforests and protecting oil with military engines that themselves consume far more than the populations whose consumptive lifestyle they’re pledged to protect.
At some point, we pass through these tipping points, of oxygenation and ice and temperature and world diversity, and as we do so, like passenger pigeons stripped of their acorns we may well find ourselves short of food, short of water, short of breath, and short of life.
And nature won’t care if we die.
It will adjust.
Perhaps, evoking Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth, the world will become a republic of insects and grass. And be relieved that a big, awkward, heavy-headed primate that once numbered in the billions, savaging the environment and leaving its waste everywhere, has been eliminated.
Perhaps the last of us, like Martha, will stare at a world that stares indifferently back, a world that no longer tolerates us, that gives us no food, no reasonable temperature, and no option for survival. Would we be like Martha at last?
The difference would be that we would know.
Now we know.
* The Lake Superior retention cycle - the amount of time it takes for the water in Lake Superior to be 100% exchanged - is approximately 191 years. See “Martha’s Anniversary.”