Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

What Is Our Duty to the Planet?

I’ve been thinking about people quite a lot lately – how we influence the planet and its denizens – and I find myself questioning things I used to believe. Like how much we should try to mitigate the damage we have done to our various habitats.

Animals and even plants in the northern hemisphere are moving north. Trees that used to thrive in the southern US are faring better farther north, dying off in their southern ranges, drifting into colder climes as the warming planet has made those new territories more palatable.

There will be winners and losers in this new reality, even among humans. Those living in coastal areas and deserts seem destined to lose out, while folks in the northern plains probably will do better.

A mass extinction seems a real possibility – the sixth extinction. The question becomes: is that necessarily a bad thing? We’ve already had five mass extinctions in our history, which made it possible for humans to become the dominant species on the planet. Life cycles on and off, up and down. Humans currently reside in an upward cycle.

There’s a chance we could make things better for those more fragile life forms by altering our lifestyles. But should we care about animals and plants that are so specialized, so unable to adapt, that we have to go to extreme lengths to save them?

The murrelet, for example, lays an egg on a platform of moss or lichen on an old-growth conifer branch. A heavy wind can knock the egg off. The more we cut down old growth forests, the greater the impact of wind on the remaining timber. Similarly, the giant panda prefers eating mostly bamboo. Changes to the environment that don’t necessarily harm the panda can nevertheless harm bamboo and hence the panda.

I could cite many examples of endangered plants and animals: the Bornean orangutan; the Amur leopard; the pika; the Sumatran rhino. The point is, it will be almost impossible to save them all, and very difficult even to save most. Incredibly expensive. That money might be better spent on endeavors that make life better for us at the expense of these exotic animals and plants.

I don’t advocate that, but I understand the arguments. With change, some species will win and some will lose. And some of these changes are inevitable; others are just extremely likely.

What responsibility do we bear for our fellow creatures? What is our obligation to save a frog in the Amazon basin or a plant on the side of a Mongolian mountain? If the vaquita goes extinct, how will we be diminished?

Perhaps it matters only to our pride, our sense of self-worth. Perhaps our focus needs to be on only the plants and animals that give us the most joy rather than trying to preserve them all. For it seems certain we cannot save them all.

The best argument for trying to save them all seems to be that there may be medical marvels hidden away in obscure flora or fauna that once lost will never be regained. Yet if we pour our energies into the myriad creations that need saving, we risk spreading ourselves too thin. And we may end up saving fewer species as a result.

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I have to try to save at least a few of these endangered creatures, if only to depart this world with a smaller stain upon my soul.

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