HomeClimate ChangeTogether On A Living Planet

It is time to say goodbye to the great mammals.  Nothing vanishes in a tidy fashion and these creatures have been persevering for decades with remarkable composure to maintain a wild existence while living in the midst of a most extraordinary crisis.  Last century and all of this century, despite our evolving skill inventing a technological culture, we have committed increasingly brutal crimes against elephants, wolves, whales, polar bears, grizzlies, rhinos, African lions, Bengal and Siberian tigers, mountain lions, jaguars, and all their families.  They can do nothing except endure.

Even Jane Goodall, our perennial optimist, is “immensely depressed” now that our government is led by oilmen and beneficiaries of massive corporate empires, one or two of them very rich psychopaths.  Indeed, some scientists have glumly observed that conservation has become a bleak calling, a culture of despair and hopelessness that simply records and reports the decline of life on Earth.

According to the UN population bureau, there are now 7.3 billion people on the planet, and there could be 8.5 billion in only twenty-three years: more cars, more cattle ranches, more housing developments, more sprawling malls, fewer trees.  Gone is the luxuriant green world of the 1800s when there were only a billion people on Earth.  Even If we could provide the right habitat for all the endangered animals in the world right now, if we even manage to save a few more, where will they go?  There is no room or desire for them.  The values and assumptions of the hyperpower, those nation-states identifying themselves as Western Civilization, that have insured that so many of our lives are safe and comfortable, have already created an extinction-level event.

That the development of intelligent life on Earth has not been helpful to this living planet and certainly not calculated to prolong the life of our own species has been obvious for some time.  Human nature impairs our chances.  We were perfectly equipped to survive as hunter-gatherers in the world of a million years ago, but we are not equipped to survive in our contemporary industrial civilization.  Furthermore, according to Stephen Hawking, there is no time to wait for Darwinian evolution to make us more intelligent and less harmful.

This explains why many of our richest, most successful entrepreneurs (Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Elon Musk of Tesla, Larry Page of Alphabet, the Sundar Pichai team at Google, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Bill and Melinda Gates), are vigorously leading us into a new phase of what might be called self-designed evolution in which they hope to change and improve our DNA.  They are confident that we can not only create, but save our own future.

Singularity University (SU) is a Silicon Valley think tank founded by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, focusing on the kind of scientific progress that could massively increase human intelligence in the next twenty years.  Putting to use exotic rapidly accelerating technologies: artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, and synthetic biology, it encourages its students to take on our biggest challenges in order to improve billions of human lives and make money at the same time.  Needless to say, its focus on one species, ignoring all others, is almost comical.

Ironically, in the midst of our current fossil fuel frenzy, high tech corporate titans envision us more safe and comfortable than ever before in an abundant future.   Apparently failing to appreciate the full magnitude of climate change and the rabid craziness of the anti-federalism, anti-science, anti-environmental rhetoric springing up everywhere, not to mention the scary authoritarian bullies being elected worldwide, they focus on an extraordinarily optimistic future which assumes liberal democratic societies will continue to hold sway among nation states and the philosophy of “economic growth” still makes sense.

Jackson Hole Grizzly Bear #399

What all this has to do with grizzlies in the twilight of their existence on Earth remains to be seen.  About 700 still live in the 20-million acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  They are some of the rarest creatures in the lower 48, only recently worth more alive than dead.  That any survive at all is a modern miracle, considering the hatred for wildlife predators common in the cowboy culture of western states like Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, which intersect 28,000 square miles of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.  “Shoot, shovel and shut up” is a familiar refrain of ranchers who resent federal over-reach in classifying bears, cougars and wolves “endangered species.”

For many in the American west, grizzlies and wolves represent a despised federal presence. “End the Fed” commonly appears on license plates.  The federal Endangered Species Act has been under siege in Congress since its inception in 1973.   Apparently, it is as hard for congresspersons as well as ranchers to surrender to the possibility that “exceptional beings thrive in wild settings”, as Jane Goodall once said.

#399, a grizzly female born in Grand Teton National Park in 1996, is by all accounts an exceptional animal.  She would be just another Yellowstone bear if it wasn’t for Thomas Mangelson, a nature photographer who has travelled widely over the past forty years photographing what’s left of wilderness.   His home valley happens to be Jackson Hole, Wyoming so he has followed #399 since she was five years old when she was a sow with triplets.  He is convinced that she and other grizzlies are important sentient beings with intellect, feelings and emotions who we need to protect if we are to remain (or become) truly human.  Of course, there are levels of sentience and frankly,  #399 seems to know her place.

She is now twenty-one years old, 400 pounds and seven feet tall.  She and her descendants have raised thirteen cubs in sixteen years, five still known to be living. One of her cubs grew up to be #610, a female who has already raised two sets of triplets.  Because #399’s first cub was killed by a boar in the remote outback, she has since stayed close to the roads of Grand Teton and Yellowstone hiding in plain sight among the crowds of tourists standing on the roofs of their vans snapping pictures of her dignified little families ambling across the road, a place no male grizzly would ever frequent.

Cautiously tolerant of this pandemonium of onlookers pointing and screaming with astonishment as she lumbers past their car, she has made her way back and forth for two decades through two national parks, a national forest, and the National Elk Refuge in her daily quest to find food and explore her home, dutifully passing on her exceptional skills, emotional stability, and survival instincts to each new generation of tiny cubs.  Almost single-handedly, she is keeping the lineage of ursus arctos horribilis alive in the American West.  Hope and optimism are generally not part of a bear’s make-up, being more familiar with brutal empirical reality, but #399 seems to have calmly accepted the fact that hunger is on the horizon.  The seeds of the tall whitebark pine trees are gone, trees that tend to grow slowly and last more than 1000 years.   No single food has been more important to #399 and grizzlies generally than their high-fat, protein-rich seeds.  But because of a warming climate, mountain pine beetles have decimated the whitebark pine forests, the largest insect outbreak in recorded history.

Cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake, another one of her crucial foods, have also disappeared largely because of low water levels due to prolonged drought.  Only clouds of white army cutworm moths remain plentiful on the high Rocky Mountain slopes, although in a few years unseasonably warm weather will migrate up these wildflower-covered slopes, and this food source will also disappear.   Steaming gut piles of elk that hunters leave behind and ants are all that is left, along with ground squirrels and pocket gophers.   Moths are pure fat and ideal for putting on weight, but not if they are the only real food source.  #399 is currently losing weight and finds it more difficult to breed.

And looming on the horizon is the local determination to remove grizzlies from the endangered species list by the very states that would permit killing one on sight.  An outfitter was recently overheard declaring that he “couldn’t wait until bears are delisted and Wyoming enacts a sport hunt.  He can’t wait to get a tag because the first bear he’s going to target is #399 because he hates that bear.  He hates what she represents.  He hates environmentalists.  And he hates the federal government telling people in Wyoming what to do.”  

So, what is it that makes people hate these animals?  Of course you can’t sneak up on a grizzly mother with cubs.  You would probably be, as our overfunded military says, neutralized.  And male bears are generally as intolerant of humans as ranchers are to them.  But otherwise, Mangelson’s pictures show that #399’s normal lifestyle with her family is simple, relatively harmless, and irreproachable.

As a family, they cool off in a pond on warm mornings.  Tiny toddlers struggle against the current of the Snake River following their mother to the other side where an elk herd lingers.  They play together in aspen groves.  #399 nurses her cubs in flowering meadows and stands on tiptoes to shake down a branch of berries for her cubs. They wade through shoulder-high grasses and wildflowers and graze on the small yellow blossoms of biscuitroot. They wrestle and touch noses, share tender moments, climb trees, and occasionally, covered in snow sit quietly Buddha-like watching a spring blizzard fall all around them.  #399 teaches her cubs to break through ice in search of fish frozen beneath the surface. She intervenes in quarrels between squabbling cubs. They rest in the willows under a full moon after digging for ants in three feet of snow all day.  They roll back rocks to find shoots of fresh grass.  The growing cubs learn to sniff the breeze like their mother, standing on their short hind legs and pointing their little noses high in the air, learning the ancient ways of the grizzly.  They take well-deserved naps after exploring the shoreline of the meandering Yellowstone River.

For twenty-one years, this earnest single mother tramping through our national parks, playing hide and seek with her devoted cubs, has patiently navigated millions of tourists, hunters, inattentive drivers, cattle and sheep, loose pets, human foods, recreationists, and other bears.  She only wants to be left alone so she can raise her defenseless brood and live out her life as a roadside bear on a never-ending search for food.  I only wish all the stars in our part of the sky would notice this animal’s mysteriously self-effacing and brave efforts in thwarting the extinction of her species, always accomplished in the midst of terrible danger, and crown her with the honor and celebration she deserves.

Meanwhile

A new analysis of Hubble telescope images reveals that there are trillions of galaxies in the universe, making the number of existing planets unfathomable.  When astronauts in space look back at our own Earth, they are faced with a vivid exuberant planet, hanging on the edge of the darkest part of the sky, undoubtedly flagging, but still full of energy and hope, lost in the remote hinterlands, far from the margins of the glittering mall of lights at the center of its galaxy.  The love and awe and gratitude, the profound appreciation these stoical, pragmatic men and women feel, gazing out the small windows of their orbiting shuttle at the sudden burst of color from their beautiful overtaxed planet, changed their lives forever.  They have understood what the great saints have always known:  “No one is a stranger, my child; the whole world is your own.”   Indeed, scientists predict that the most important revelation in modern physics will be that all life is inseparable and interdependent.

Still, for most of us, the harried distracted majority of human beings, well, we are typically tribal carnivores and life is very much the same: mysterious hatreds and paranoia, child-like religious tantrums of righteousness, dreadful vanity and lethargic denial of our continued damage to each other and the planet.

One day, because of these very characteristics, we might have to own up to the fact that we are a failed species.  It is already assured that by the end of this century the global temperature will have increased 7 degrees (4°C), a disastrous and catastrophic setback, enough to produce inevitable feedback loops (large-scale melting of Greenland and Antarctica ice, and release of toxic methane from frozen soil) which means that feverish 8° and 9° increases are now unstoppable.

Our consumer society is gradually accepting that things will alter for the worst, although we are so alienated from nature there is still little moral seriousness or urgency dealing with the fact that catastrophic climate change is now certain, and that in a brutally hot 4° world, mass starvation is a permanent danger not only for wildlife, but for much of the human race. Even so, scientists have no apparent power or will to stop elite corporations from capturing governments and paying them to ignore reality.

Ironically, the descendants of #399, and the generations of cowboys and ranchers who so implacably hate them, will all be in the same boat.  Eventually, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and the greater Yellowstone Territory will be blowing sand.  Wolves, grizzlies and elk and other large and small animals who have not starved or collapsed from heat stress, who have the fortitude and endurance to risk a long and hazardous journey, will have fled to Canada long before the end of the century, reluctantly followed by their menacing neighbors.

This disappearance and death of most large wild animals on Earth will not in itself drive humanity to extinction. Neither will the abandonment of Miami, Manhattan, London, Bangkok, Shanghai, and Bombay as more than half of humanity move away from the coastlines.  Indeed, human beings are Earth’s toughest, most aggressive and ingenious predators.  Even if the worst happens and we are once again only a billion people living on a much smaller land mass, we will survive.  But the progress we have made in the 200 years of exploiting fossil fuels will be rolled back.

And what of Singularity University?  Nine years after its beginning in Silicon Valley, it has secured a trillion dollar network of corporations, hedge fund directors and billionaires to keep it financed; located and invited hundreds of remarkably gifted students from all over the world to try and make a real difference in solving our life threatening problems. It presently has 370 ‘impact initiatives’ in the areas of health, environment, security, education, energy, food, prosperity, water, space, disaster resilience, shelter, and governance.  Yearly Canadian summits have been organized, attempting to establish a footprint in this northern paradise well before most Americans realize their descendants will have to move there…

©Linda Clarke 2017

 


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