Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Passenger Pigeon

Today is Earth Day, and this year marks the centennial of the death of the very last Passenger Pigeon, Martha, in captivity in 1914.

The Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America through the first half of the 19th century with huge flocks darkening the sky.  In less than 100 years, the pigeon was obliterated as a pest that devoured crops, and because it was so delicious to eat.  The flocks were said to be so dense that a hunter could bring down a bird simply by flinging a rock in any direction.

John James Audubon's watercolor of the passenger pigeon

I've never considered myself an environmental activist or a "tree hugger." I'm not an animal rights activist nor am I a vegetarian.  However, after 10 years of asthma and after my non-smoking father died in 2000 of lung cancer, I take environmental issues very seriously.

Saving the wilderness and saving species from extinction is great.  I'm all for it.  I find talk among scientists about a sixth "great extinction" with us playing the role of the asteroid very alarming.  But I think what we are really trying to save is ourselves from our own selfish excesses and from the profit motive that reduces everything to commodities (and ultimately to trash).

Part of that effort to save ourselves is a change in our relationship with the rest of life on this world.  My thoughts in this area are very unformed and unarticulated, but it seems to me that there must be an alternative beyond the misanthropy most famously expressed by DH Lawrence that says that the earth was happier before the arrival of humankind, and the dominionist view that says that nature is raw material to be exploited and nothing more.

I see a possible way past this grim choice in Charles Darwin.  The 19th century derived the wrong lesson from Darwin's work, the idea of "survival of the fittest;" a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer and mistakenly attributed to Darwin ever since.  Darwin never said any such thing and was horrified at the whole school of thought that called itself "Social Darwinism."  It was based on a complete misunderstanding of what Darwin meant by "natural selection."
I think the real moral lesson to be learned from Darwin's big idea, and from evolution, is that all life is joined together in its very substance.  And from there, life is physically joined to the material of the earth and the universe.  We are an animal among many others, though by now, a dominant animal.  We owe a certain responsibility to our neighbor animals, even to those we eat and to those who labor for us.  We are the first creature ever to have the power to destroy all life on the earth, whether through deliberate acts of war or terror, or through selfish negligence.  We've had that power only in the last 100 years.  We've been very bad neighbors to our fellow creatures.

In many respects, Charles Darwin was a typical Victorian gentleman.  He reacted with more horror than curiosity when encountering unfamiliar tribes of humankind.  He enjoyed hunting and a good steak.  And yet, when he served as a local Justice of the Peace, he enforced animal cruelty laws with remarkable zeal.


I think it is the height of irony that it is the much vilified and mocked "tree huggers" who want to preserve something of that post World War II broadly shared prosperity, the idea of a high standard of living for everyone; only now made more sustainable and responsible.  The Ayn Rand influenced libertarianism that dominates political commentary these days isn't interested in any such thing.  As far as they are concerned, us moochers should be grateful that our Genius Overlords are allowing us to live and work at all.  Theirs is a very dominionist attitude toward nature as resources and property.

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