THE PASSING OF THE PASSENGER PIGEON: A MORALITY TALE

By Paul

Human behavior is ever fascinating, even if not entirely unpredictable.  Among its most basic, bedrock features are a marked propensity toward shortsightedness and an equally strong penchant for egocentricity.  What I mean is that we have a great tendency both not to think through what the consequences of our actions may be, and as powerful a motivation not to care, but instead to concern ourselves only with what appears to work for our own good in the immediate moment.

It could also be argued that these are traits that have served us well in the past, that they are in the main responsible for our success as a species, and also that no other species on earth has demonstrated any greater foresight than we, or any less selfishness, for that matter.  It’s just that one of the things we humans like to do is to think well of ourselves, sometimes to our own ultimate disappointment.

I was recently reading an article in The New Yorker that in part deals with a review of a book about the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It’s an amazing story.  There were not mere millions of these beautiful creatures (and by all accounts they were gorgeous birds), but billions of them.  Yes, that really is billion, with a “b.”  It was reported that one observer saw a flock that obliterated the noonday sun, and that this flock then took three days to pass by!   Such a recounting at first may sound like myth and stretches credulity for us today, until we learn that it came from no less a reliable a source than John James Audubon.   Another observer reckoned he saw a flock containing in excess of two billion birds.  They were so numerous that, when roosting, their combined weight would regularly crack the limbs off of trees upon which they landed.

And yet, within the space of a mere fifty years, this country went from a place where there were billions of passenger pigeons to one where there was zero.  How, we may well ask, could this have happened?  How could our ancestors have allowed such a tragedy to occur?  The answer, I’m afraid, harkens back to human shortsightedness and egotism.  Just as we do today, people back then did what was in front of them to do.  They ate and slept and raised their children; they worked, they made war, they made peace, they made love, and occasionally they played.  In other words, they did their best to survive, and they tried to have as good a life as possible while doing so.

And who, I suppose, could blame them?  After all, the very basis of the country is founded on the pursuit of happiness, is it not?  And of course no one set out consciously to destroy an entire species.  No one ever sat down one fine day and said: “Let’s devise a plan whereby we cause the mass extinction of this entire population of passenger pigeons.” And yet, there can be no denying that this is exactly what we wound up doing.  We even know when and where the last wild bird was killed, by a boy in Ohio, who shot it out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun in the year 1900.  A few other birds languished on for a while in zoos, but these were creatures whose entire evolutionary history had prepared them to flock together in enormous groupings.  Ought it to be a surprise, then, that a few isolated pairs here and there, in a sense, lost heart and no longer reproduced?  Finally, on the 1st of September, 1914, ironically the year that also witnessed the beginning of mass massacres of hundreds of thousands of human beings in the World War I, the last passenger pigeon on earth expired.

There’s irony aplenty involved in all this.  And tragedy, as well, of course.  I can well imagine that the humans who had originally witnessed billions of these birds flocking together thought that there could never be an end to them.   And yet that end came, sooner than anyone ever could have guessed.  Just as, perhaps, we today think that there can never be an end to the human civilizations we have created, bound up as they are with and dependent on fossil fuels and ever expanding populations.  But there is no guarantee of that, either.

Another irony ought to be noted when it comes to the passenger pigeon, this time a more modern one.  There appears to be a movement on to “de-extinct” the bird.  De-extinction has actually become a useful word in today’s biological lexicon, a neologism that accompanies human over-reliance on and adulation of technology.  I suppose it’s obvious what it means: it is an effort to use DNA from long-dead pigeons which, when injected into chickens, would produce as close a replica as possible to their extinct forebears.  Whether or not these manufactured passenger pigeons could themselves reproduce is not clear, although it is highly unlikely.  And even if they could, once again, would they wish to do so?  This seems all the less likely, given the disinclination their zoo-confined ancestors demonstrated in the past in this regard.  And even if they did reproduce, would we actually want enormous flocks of hungry pigeons alighting in our fields of wheat and corn, now that so few of their original primary foods (acorns and beechnuts) are themselves available?  Would we, in fact, be creating a monster that we would have to “render extinct” all over again?

All this brings up questions regarding how we human beings relate to our environment.  The extinction of passenger pigeons is not so far removed from the continued extinction of numerous other species the world over that still continues to this day.   The passenger pigeon went extinct for two very good reasons.  One had to do with the fact that they apparently tasted good, so people hunted them and ate them, and two because humans have largely removed the favorite choice of food for the pigeons from the environment.  As noted above, they lived mainly on the nuts of hardwood trees such as beech and oak that abounded in the pre-contact (i.e., with Europeans) forests of North America.  There are far fewer of these trees today.

One of the things that we humans like to do is to fiddle with our environment.  We have never been satisfied with it the way it was, but wanted (and needed) to create housing to protect ourselves from the elements, to clear fields of pesky trees in order to plant grain, damn rivers, build roads and bridges and towns, and eventually make cities and now mega-cities.  To the point where most people today have lost touch entirely with untrammeled nature.  Is there even such a thing left in the world as a true wilderness?   Most of what we like to call wilderness consists of mere isolated parcels of what was once the endless forests and plains that stretched from coast to coast on any given continent.   We are left to “manage” our forests, a thing that hardly seems compatible with the notion of real wilderness.

In the meantime, countless other species continue to go extinct.  The passenger pigeon is but one of many, if a mega example of the process.  And we are not just talking about the dodo and (very nearly anyway) the North American bison, but also – just in the last ten years – the golden toad, China’s Baiji dolphin, the Hawaiian crow, the Pyrenean Ibex, the West African black rhino, and many other “lesser creatures” that do not even make it onto our lists.  What, we have to wonder, will make humans less shortsighted?  What will make us more concerned with “the other,” and less focused solely on our own immediate good?

I am not sure I have a very satisfactory answer to these questions, but I do think that we must ponder them.  We must in the end find a way to somehow coexist on this planet with other life forms, giving them the space they need to live, while we, too, live our lives.  Otherwise, while we concern ourselves blindly with our own day-to-day existence, we may suddenly realize that we have somehow wiped out whole legions of other creatures we thought would always be there.  And who, in the end, will one day protect us from ourselves?  Who will be there to stop us from creating our own demise?  We have, unfortunately, seen that it does not take long for billions of once successful creatures to entirely vanish.  Even if we see it only from the human point of view (and how else can we see it?), let us if nothing else remember that no law says that extinction cannot happen to human beings, too – those most powerful and most successful of creatures upon the face of the earth.

 

The World Bank Commissions the Potsdam Institute Climate Change Report, “TURN DOWN THE HEAT — Why a 4 Degrees Celsius World Must Be Avoided”

Potsdam Institute report synopsis (and art, “The Revelations of Eve and Adam,”) by Kevin

Miller Eve & Adam 2003 20 x 24

“Recent research suggests that large-scale loss of biodiversity is likely to occur in a 4 degrees Celsius world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of services on which society depends…”

    –  from the Potsdam Institute Climate Change Report for the World Bank, Nov 19, 2012

The World Bank commissioned the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analysis to produce a global climate change report. It was published on Nov 19, 2012, entitled “Turn Down the Heat – Why a 4 Degrees Celsius World Must Be Avoided.” A team of 15 renowned scientists headed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber wrote the report which was peer-reviewed by 13 highly respected scientists. The report’s analysis of prospects for the world’s climate, ecosystems, continuing life on Earth, and for the future of the human race is solid, scientific and profoundly sobering. However the report asserts that humanity can still reverse course and save ourselves and many other life forms and ecosystems with urgent cooperative international action soon.

Jim Yong Kim is President of the World Bank, and a physician, anthropologist, and former president of Dartmouth College. He has demonstrated an active commitment to educating the world about the apocalyptic dangers of global climate change and to committing the resources of the World Bank to aggressive advocacy for cooperative international action to avert the tragic destruction of the climate, the world’s land and sea ecosystems, and life on Planet Earth. He has said:

“Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”

President Kim’s foreword boldly defines his motives for commissioning the report:

“It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency…”

“It is clear that we already know a great deal about the threat before us. The science is unequivocal that humans are the cause of global warming, and major changes are already being observed…”

“The World Bank is a leading advocate for ambitious action on climate change, not only because it is a moral imperative, but because it makes good economic sense.”

“Our work on inclusive green growth has shown that – through more efficiency and smarter use of energy and natural resources – many opportunities exist to drastically reduce the climate impact of development, without slowing down poverty alleviation and economic growth.”

     – from “Turn Down the Heat” foreword by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

“TURN DOWN THE HEAT – Why a 4 Degrees C Warmer World Must Be Avoided”

(a synopsis of the executive summary)

Opening Statements from the Executive Summary of “TURN DOWN THE HEAT:”

“A 4 degrees Celsius world would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with severe impacts on ecosystems and associated services. But with action, a 4 degrees C world can be avoided and we can likely hold warming below 2 degrees C. Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the world is likely to warm by more than 3 degrees C above the pre-industrial climate. Even with current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4 degrees C could occur by as early as the 2060s.”

“Small island developing states and least developed countries have identified global warming of 1.5 degrees C as warming above which there would be serious threats to their own development, and in some cases survival… The sum total of current policies – in place and pledged – will very likely lead to warming far in excess of these levels. Indeed, present emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward 4 degrees C warming within the century.”

“A world in which warming reaches 4 degrees C above pre-industrial levels… would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services.”

“Warming of 4 degrees C can still be avoided: numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2 degrees C. Thus the level of impacts that developing countries and the rest of the world experience will be a result of government, private sector, and civil society decisions and choices, including, unfortunately, inaction.”  (Kevin’s note: U.N. climate talks set a goal of 2 degrees C maximum rise. We are on track for a 2 degree rise by 2028, and many scientists assert that there will be dire consequences even at that level of warming. Many destructive extreme weather effects have already been experienced around the world.)

 “Observed Impacts and Changes to the Climate System”

1. CO2 Increase — CO2 has increased from a pre-industrial level of 278 parts per million to over 391 ppm in September of 2012. The rate of CO2 increase is currently at 1.8 ppm per year.

2. CO2 Record — Current CO2 levels are higher than at any time in the past 15 million years.

3. CO2 Emissions — Current CO2 emissions are at 35,000 million metric tons per year, rising to 41,000 million metric tons per year of CO2 emissions expected in the year 2020.

4. Global Warming — Current temperature rise above the pre-industrial level is .8 degree C, causing observed impacts, including approximately 15 to 20 cm sea level rise. (Kevin’s note: reputable scientists tell us that there is another .8 degree C of inertial rise built into the system, even if all emissions were to cease today, for a total of 1.6 degrees C temperature rise, virtually guaranteed now.)

5. Extreme Heat — There is now a ten-fold increase in surface areas experiencing extreme heat since the 1950s. The 2010 heat wave in Russia left 55,000 people dead, a 25% crop failure, and one million hectares burned.

6. 2012 U.S. Drought — The 2012 U.S. drought impacted 80% of agricultural land – the most severe drought since the 1950s.

7. A Hot Future — Projected climate change impacts in a 4 degrees C world would include extreme heat waves, death, fires, and crop losses as seen in Russia in 2010.

“Projected Climate Change Impacts in a 4 Degrees C World”

8. “Rising CO2 Concentration and Ocean Acidification” – CO2 dissolves in and acidifies the oceans. In a 4 degrees C world, there would be 800 ppm CO2 in the sea – a 150% acidity increase, unparalleled in Earth’s history, and distinctly adverse to marine life. By 2060, if current warming trends are not arrested, the world’s coral reefs will start to dissolve. Coral reefs are the planet’s marine life nurseries, and they provide tidal protection for coastal populations.

9. “Rising Sea Levels, Coastal Inundation and Loss” – Sea levels are expected to rise up to one meter or more with several more meters rise in coming centuries. “Even if global warming can be limited to 2 degrees C, global mean sea level could continue to rise… between 1.5 and 4 meters above present-day levels by the year 2300. Sea-level rise would likely be limited to below 2 meters only if warming were kept well below 1.5 degree C.” (Kevin’s note: current warming is .8 degree C + .8 degree C inertial warming built into the system = 1.6 degrees C of virtually guaranteed warming now confirmed by reputable climatologists.)

10. “Risks to Human Support Systems: Food, Water, Ecosystems and Human Health” – “This report identifies a number of extremely severe risks for vital human support systems.” They include water scarcity, flooding, drought, wildfires, transformed ecosystems, forest dieback, and “large-scale loss of biodiversity,” (extinction of many plant and animal species.)

11. Fire-induced ecosystem transformation — “In Amazonia forest fires could as much as double by 2050 with warming of approximately 1.5 degrees C to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Changes would be expected to be even more severe in a 4 degrees C world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of services on which society depends…”

12. Reduced food production – in a 4 degrees C world, food security would be undermined by extremely high temperatures, drought, floods, invading insects, diseases, and sea-level rise in low-lying delta areas (Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and Africa, for example.) Agricultural disruption would lead to nutritional deficits.

13. Health – Aside from injuries and deaths directly caused by extreme weather events, epidemic diseases and allergies can be expected, as well as respiratory, heart and blood disorders cause by heat-amplified smog levels.

14. Risks of Disruptions and Displacements in a 4 Degree C World” – In a 4 degrees C world there would be large-scale population displacement with adverse consequences to human security, and economic and trade systems.

15. Sudden Changes – Sudden disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, for example, would lead to rapid sea level rise. Large-scale Amazon forest dieback would have drastic effects on ecosystems, rivers, agricultural, energy availability, and livelihoods. Unpredictable abrupt changes like these can be expected in a 4 degrees C world.

16. Cascade Effects – Cascading series of disastrous events and conditions would likely be triggered at national and regional levels by key failures such as seaport breakdowns.

17. Coral Reefs – Coral reef destruction and concomitant loss of marine life production due to rising temperatures and ocean acidification would have a large-scale impact on human settlements and infrastructure, especially in low-lying coastal zones, where sea levels will rise one meter or more this century. The coral reefs will not be there to provide tidal protection.

Concluding Quotes from the Potsdam Institute Report, “Turn Down the Heat:”

“With pressures increasing as warming progresses toward 4 degrees C and combining with non-climate-related social, economic, and population stresses, the risk of crossing critical social system thresholds will grow. At such thresholds existing institutions that would have supported adaptation actions would likely become much less effective or even collapse.”

“There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degrees C world is possible… The projected 4 degrees C warming simply must not be allowed to occur – the heat must be turned down. Only early cooperative international actions can make that happen.”