“. . . Last week, the United Nations released the summary of an enormous report that broke my heart in more ways than any backyard-nature observations ever have. The Times article about the report, “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace,” called it “the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization.” The story opens with the picture of an olive ridley sea turtle washed up on an Indian beach. The turtle is dead, apparently strangled: Fishing rope is looped around its neck, cutting into its throat.
If the photo is traumatizing, the story is worse. Because of human activity — both direct activity, like fishing and farming, and indirect activity, like the fossil fuels that accelerate climate change — up to one million species of plants and animals are headed for extinction if we don’t take immediate measures to halt the devastation.
That’s one million species. Every individual creature in a species — times one million. We can’t possibly conceive of such a thing. We can hold in mind, however uncomfortably, the image of a single animal who died a terrible death. Devastation on this scale is beyond the reach of imagination. How could we hold in mind a destruction so vast it would take not just one sea turtle but all that animal’s kind, as well as all the kind of 999,999 other species?
Whole expanses of the natural world are disappearing. It’s not just poster animals like polar bears, tigers and elephants; it’s life on earth as we know it.”
Thank you Margaret Renkl. Here is one of several comments I admired. In this one, it is the quote of the Talmud that I value most.
In his iconic essay, The Starthrower, Loren Eiseley gives us reason to keep up the fight against impossible odds. Eiseley describes going to Costabel Spain and sees a figure on the beach repeatedly picking up starfish stranded on the beach by the receding tide and throwing them back into the water that they might live. The cynical Eiseley tries to explain to the starthrower that his task is hopeless. There are too many starfish to make a difference. But the starthrower proclaims “It makes a difference to this one.” as he returns it to the mother sea. In that moment, Eiseley realizes that it wasn’t starfish so much as men the thrower sought to save and there was something holy about reaching out a hand in pity across the gulf of evolution that separates mankind and starfish. The Talmud says: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it. Ms. Renkl’s essay is a good down payment on the task.