1 Million Species Face Extinction, and the Pandemic Tells Us Why 1

A million species across the world are in danger of going extinct. This was the prediction of an international panel of scientists, convened by the United Nations, published in a report last year.

The chair of the UN panel was a British chemist and atmospheric scientist named Sir Robert Watson, Sir because he was knighted in 2012 for his service to the realm. Say what you like about the English: over there they give folks knighthoods for being smart and honest and working for the government at the same time. Over here, people like that get fired.

Watson said this when the report was published: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

If you go to the report’s webpage, it gives you a thumbnail sketch right at the top. The takeaways include: “Current global response insufficient; ‘Transformative changes’ needed to protect and restore nature; Opposition by vested interests can be overcome for public good.”

One million, the scientists say. Admittedly it’s hard to make these kinds of projections. Models are flawed. Variables are near-infinite. Assessment of cumulative impacts is beyond complicated. Quibbles are always possible, and sure: they’re possible here.

But the report is the product of tedious committees stacked with white-collar professionals, not radicals. Professionals facing bureaucratic obstacles, peer review, funding shortfalls, and political opposition. And still, what they presented to the global community is a bleak picture of a five-alarm fire, and at its white-hot center is our life-support system.

Because animals, plants, and the ecosystems they sustain are what give us life. Our climate was made by trees and algae and bacteria and the creatures that co-evolved with them over deep time. Slow, evolutionary time beyond our fathoming. Without them, we don’t have a life-support system.

Personally, I’ve lived for more than two decades feeling the weight of mass extinction—of the accelerating, cascading disappearance of species that looms over us. Along with runaway climate change, to which the rate of extinction is increasingly bound. For most of that time I’ve worked for a conservation group dedicated to addressing these crises, along with the promotion of environmental justice and health.

I get to be aware of the bad news in a practical, businesslike way during the day, editing press releases and action alerts and letters to decision makers on the subject of endangered species and global warming. In the evening, that awareness turns dreamy and vague as I lie in bed waiting to fall asleep. With the dread of a lonely future—less for me than for the generation of my children or grandchildren and everyone who comes after—hunkered down like a mournful ghost in the corner of the bedroom. Bristling in the dark.

But one million was a shocking number, even to me.

There are about 78,000 known species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. The rest of the 1.6 million species biologists have described so far are invertebrates, fungi, protozoa, algae, and other micro-organisms. And plants.

This means that if you took all the animals you’ve ever heard of, and added, say, all the rest you’ve never heard of that have bones—all the mammals, all the birds, all the frogs and salamanders and lizards and fish—and then counted every kind of tree and flower and grass you’ve ever seen for good measure… well, you wouldn’t even have one-tenth of those projected to vanish.

On the scale of deep time, this will happen in the blink of an eye.

Of course, the arc of disappearance of the wild won’t look like that. Doesn’t look like that now, as it’s already occurring. Some groups are far more threatened than others, and many of those that are lost, going about the business of living and dying out of our field of view, will be extinguished before we even knew they existed.

The UN’s prediction is more or less this: If we go on as we’ve been going, we’ll soon face the end of nature.

And whether we like it or not, whether we see it or not, that nature includes us.

In the wake of that prediction I sit in my house amid the unfamiliar and confusing limbo of a pandemic that’s brought daily life as we know it to a screeching halt—a pandemic caused precisely by the brutal exploitation of animals that’s killing them off at a breakneck pace. It’s a lucid illustration of the market forces and public policies that are driving the sixth mass extinction, destabilizing the climate, and for a few months, coming home.

I recall how I used to imagine that one day, one day a cataclysmic event would occur that would wrench us into a collective moment of reckoning. A realization of the urgent need to change the way we use the world. One that would force us to part company with the business-as-usual destructiveness of growth for its own sake, of overconsumption, of a sense of entitlement to everything we believe we want.

And I’ve wondered if this could be it.

Because here in Pandemia, we’ve felt the powerlessness of social isolation acutely. A lot of us for the first time. My household, like many households of middle-class privilege, still hasn’t sent an emissary to the grocery store.

Instead of waiting in a line outside Trader Joe’s, I browse the internet to discover where I can order yeast or vegetables or eggs. Or booze—I freely admit it. (Ebay; a local store with a hefty but, since I live out in the boonies, well-earned delivery charge; a wine-selling website). When I succeed in acquiring a desired item at an acceptable price point, I feel the brief, petty triumph of a hoarder. Yes! I think. I’ve gathered well today.

The logistical difficulty of securing basic foods is new to many of us. It brings us close to the razor edge of vulnerability that always hovered just outside the normal, waiting to be revealed.

Clearly that vulnerability is nothing compared to what people who were already living near the edge are dealing with—those who have lost their jobs, or may lose them any day, and don’t know how next month’s rent or utility bills are going to get paid. The homeless and those whose homes weren’t stable or safe in the first place. The workers on the front line, the desperately ill and their families.

Still, I look around and see many, many households like mine. Inconvenienced, frustrated, depressed, anxious. But not starving. Or dying.

And I have to conclude: no. This is not the crackup. This is not the great disintegration.

“The virus’ death toll seems almost ideally calibrated to let the mainstream off the hook once the first wave passes.”

The disease we’re grappling with and its economic effects are frightening, but with a few changes to its profile, it could have been much worse. If COVID-19 had happened to carry with it the tragic 50 percent fatality rate of Ebola, for example, the landscape of Pandemia would have been far darker and stranger. Orders of magnitude more terrifying. It would surely have produced a greater existential shock.

And if the illness weren’t taking out mostly those who are old, weak, poor, and/or members of minority communities that were always already the victims of injustice and hardship, that too might have scared us straight. But its death toll, so far, seems almost ideally calibrated to let the mainstream off the hook once the first wave passes—to set the stage for a return to complacency. To allow a majority to go forth believing that the intrusion of a plague into their everyday lives was not the predictable result of far-reaching structural flaws in the culture and political system but a reducible exception.

One whose antidote, in the midst of whatever recession or depression follows our physical recovery from the contagion, will almost surely be a renewed embrace of the exact same patterns of growth, overconsumption, and abuse of the natural world that led us into Pandemia in the first place.

We yearn for and tend to swing back to the norm. Americans, in particular, have a gift for seeing every day as a new start—as though, each dawn, we’re freshly born. With a selective memory that separates us from the days that came before and the days that will come next. For us history recedes swiftly, a story already told and soon forgotten. Only the present is truly real, and the prospect of a shimmering personal future we chase forever and can never catch.

COVID-19—like the Ebola and previous SARS epidemics and many others before it—is a “zoonotic” disease, brought to us by viruses leaping from one animal to another and then to humans. The viruses, which love population density, travel this way because we take wild animals from their homes and bring them into our communities, where they’re sold and/or slaughtered together. And because we farm them on a massive scale, often in conditions that are unsanitary as well as inhumane, and then bring them into contact with other animals they’d never meet in nature and with the people who consume them. We create an unholy commingling, an incubator for disease.

Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have first leapt from a carrier animal such as a bat, civet, or pangolin to people, has now banned the eating of wild animals for five years, and China’s legislators are reportedly considering a wider ban on wildlife trade—though it’s likely to be full of loopholes

Meanwhile, at the helm of our own ship of state is a man who denies the reality not only of the medical science of the pandemic, along with the science of climate change and extinction, but of cause and effect itself. Of rationality and common sense.

Like the pandemic, Donald Trump’s an anomaly only in degree and scope. In the degree of his crassness, his amorality, and his self-interest. In the scope of his corruption and deadliness, since it’s no coincidence that under his watch we’ve now seen more deaths from the novel coronavirus than any other country on the globe. He actively denied the threat, actively refused to tackle it, and then turned “briefings” on the public-health emergency into a dog-and-pony show of braggartly lies in which he modeled careless and antisocial behavior—for instance, boasting that he wouldn’t wear a face mask even when his own government finally recommended that everyone do so. Or suggesting injecting disinfectant into the bodies of the sick. Or getting his personal doctor to put him on a drug regimen of hydroxychloroquine, whose efficacy against coronavirus is unproven but whose risks are not.

“Pandemia is showing us, in vivid color, that governance isn’t a flashy bauble and shouldn’t be put in the hands of shysters.”

Now, having made claims that his “authority is total” and inflamed supporters to rebel against mask-wearing and state social-distancing rules, he’s in a flurry of haste to end social distancing and reopen everything —a dangerous impulse that’s almost certainly inspired by his desperation to do whatever he can to improve his election chances in November.

The past is fiction, the present an empty-headed conceit delivered in a fourth-grade lexicon. Beneath the heavy feet of this lumbering mastodon of ego, the compassionate and the conservative—using the word in its old-fashioned meaning of “cautious” and “circumspect”—are both flattened into a paste. Trump’s the perfect product of postmodernism, where all truth is relative, words are interchangeable, and meaning is nowhere to be found.

We have an ethical void for a leader—a void that’s the product of our distrust of government, our disregard for education and knowledge, and our naïve embrace of the shiny and new at the expense of the wise and the good. From that void issues chaos.

It’s too late to stop the tens of thousands of needless deaths, among the more than 100,000 in the United States, that chaos at the top has already brought to us. And sadly, the checks on that chaos that should be coming from Congress are absent because Senate Republicans—led by a man whose corruption, power hunger, and amorality are second only to the president’s—are too spineless and cravenly self-interested to stand up to him.

But it’s not too late to choose our next moves carefully in order to prevent many, many more deaths. Pandemia is showing us, in vivid color, that governance isn’t a flashy bauble and shouldn’t be put in the hands of shysters. Governance is life support.

And one thing it’s not too late for is to embrace a way of living, thinking, and voting that puts our collective well being, now and for our children and grandchildren, before our baser urges and momentary whims—to insist on a future that doesn’t turn out to be a tragedy of our own making.