Extinctions are not good for the planet, I think we can all agree, but there’s a growing belief that wildlife population declines — the slow but steady degradation of the environment, the deterioration and erosion of ecosystems, coupled with habitat loss — are the more pressing concern.
A recent thoughtful, reasoned, finely researched article by Slate staff writer Henry Grabar noted that, between the loss in 1914 of Martha, the last passenger pigeon known to science, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the death last month of Sudan, the last known surviving male northern white rhino, at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, extinction crises have always been quick to grab the headlines.
The steady but inexorable decline of environmental ecosystems is a harder sell with the news media, however, where the news is always defined by what is happening right now — there are no male northern white rhinos left, anywhere — and not what might happen months, years and generations down the road: i.e. if grasslands vanish across East Africa, there will not be much of anything left, let alone northern white rhinos.
Wildlife populations are crashing, Grabar noted, and we barely notice.
This may be as good a time as any, then, to revisit Michael McCarthy’s 2015 book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, “an urgent, rhapsodic book full of joy, grief and rage,” according to Cambridge University naturalist and research scholar Helen Macdonald. McCarthy, veteran nature writer and environmental columnist for some 20 years for The Independent newspaper in the UK, focused on the joy that nature gives us in our everyday lives, and how the “Great Thinning” is cheating future generations — and the planet — of a hopeful future.
“One problem we have with abundance,” Grabar writes — whether it’s so many passenger pigeons that it’s inconceivable that they might one day all disappear or a wide, open landscape of untrammelled wilderness that’s impossible to comprehend in a single glance — “is that we’re not very good with numbers. And the larger the numbers get, the more trouble we have telling the difference between them.”
That may explain at least in part why the Great Thinning is going largely unnoticed.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Living Planet Index, which monitors some 14,000 populations of roughly 3,500 species of vertebrates worldwide, recorded average population declines of 60 percent, species by species, over a 40-year period between 1970 and 2010, the last year for which official numbers were measured, tabulated and published.
It seems obvious, but some things bear repeating. Nature, McCarthy writes in The Moth Snowstorm, has many gifts for us, but perhaps the greatest of these is joy; the delight we take in the natural world, in the wonder it can offer us, the peace it can provide.
The natural world is ever more threatened, and it’s happening right now, on our watch.
The Moth Snowstorm was published three years ago, but it has never seemed more timely than it is right now.
“Hyperbole?” McCarthy wrote then. “You could say so, I suppose. But what can I do, other than speak of my experience? Once, on a May morning a few years ago, I cam out on to the banks of the Upper Itchen, at Ovington in Hampshire, and the river with its flowers and willows and the serenity of its flow and its dimpling tout in its matchless, limpid water, all gilded by the sunshine, seemed to possess a loveliness which was not part of this world at all.,
“Yet it was part of it; and there, once again, was the joy.”