Jean Shields Fleming
Were you there when we saved the world?
Lately I’ve been thinking about a baboon I met. He was a big bull male, watching as his troop crossed a trail on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls. I was hiking down that trail, that ran from the top of the falls to the bottom, a magnificent place. It was afternoon, the sun was waning, and the baboon’s teeth looked very large.
I wasn’t scared exactly. I was in awe.
To see this fierce, strong, wild creature free in his domain, is a memory I cherish.
This encounter comes up in relation to a sense of mourning I feel. There’s a lot of death going around – the raging and seemingly never ending COVID-19 pandemic, of course, and just good old life, with its terminal cancer and fatal accidents. Bad as that is, it’s not what’s caused my sorrow. German conveniently has a word for what I’m feeling – weltschmertz. World pain.
I’m grieving the loss of the earth, the prospect of mass extinction, the possibility that fresh air could become a distant memory that us oldsters talk about, like a parlorphone or a fax machine.
This is not an abstract feeling for me. In my “day job,” I work for a nonprofit sanctuary alliance dedicated to rescuing African primates – monkeys and great apes (like us) – from the many forces arrayed against them. So on a regular basis I see both the unfolding slow motion tragedy as well as the creativity, compassion, and courageous action taken by people who have given their lives to protect these animals. You could think of them as a thin green line.
The threats are varied and yet they all stem from a single source: us.
We log and mine the land, activities which destroy the forests, plains, rivers and mountains that the animals need for their lives. And to get to the forests and mines, we build roads, set up camps and otherwise people the landscape, compounding the loss and fragmentation.
And our numbers are growing. In Africa, for instance, the human population of the continent grew from 177 million people in 1950 to 1.3 billion people in 2020. It’s on pace to reach 2.7 billion people by 2060 – just 39 years from now. This growth increases the pressure on the land and puts human communities increasingly in conflict with wildlife, while also creating conditions that favor viruses such as Ebola and COVID-19.
At the same time, human hunger and poverty is on the rise, so the agricultural imperative is significant. How will we feed so many people?
Already, one answer is clear, and it is devastating. Hunting wildlife for bushmeat. People living a subsistence life will go after a viable source of protein for their families. That's not the problem. It is also a large scale enterprise, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that one million metric tons of bushmeat is transported from Central Africa alone each year, which does not account for the meat sourced in other parts of Africa, or other areas of the world.
When we look globally, it turns out that we have lost 1.9 million square kilometers of land since 2000, and more than one million species are threatened with extinction. Right now, as you’re reading this.
The challenges are large and they are urgent.
We tend to think of these causes as separate from each other but they are in fact deeply related – and connected to our own lives. And therein may lie the good news.
The opportunity now is to reset our relationship with nature. We must move away from the “natural resources” paradigm, where the value of an acre is in what we can extract from it or in how we maximize what we grow on it. This functional view has outlasted its utility.
To move forward, we need to ascribe value to unexploited land, to wild spaces and wild creatures, and count our wealth in acres preserved and species rebounding. A biodiversity index, if you will, as hotly watched as the Dow Jones.
You may say I’m a dreamer, as John Lennon said, and I say, guilty. But, as John also noted, I’m not the only one. Millions of people around the world are working on these issues locally. International nonprofits exist for any animal you can think of - as well as plants, the atmosphere, and beyond. What needs to happen now, however, is something new. We need to get out of our silos and create alliances. We face the same challenges. The world has many individuals and corporations with mind melting wealth. They can be recruited to help – and in fact, they must be. Not only because we need new ways to fund conservation programs, but because they too need to evolve or they will die with the rest of us.
So I am not going to mourn. I will not capitulate to the inertia of despair. The end has not happened yet and with creativity, grace, and courage, we can change the trajectory for the animals, the earth, and ourselves.