“Cultivating reverence for the simple wonders of life is, in our times, a powerful act of resistance. Choosing to step outside, to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the presence of this beautiful planet takes courage and freedom. Society has conditioned us against it.” - SISTER TRUE DEDICATION (ZEN AND THE ART OF SAVING THE PLANET)
This holiday break, I was grateful to have time for reflection and to get outside to witness and experience some of the everyday wonders of the natural world around me. Visiting good friends in western Washington, I was awed by a huge cedar tree hundreds of years old near their house. Standing underneath branches going up to the sky and down nearly to the ground, I could feel palpable healing energy from this amazing elder. At home in Montana, seeing moose tracks in the snow in the hills around my house made me smile, reminding me that I was never alone.
These days, in our society we often feel that we are too busy, we feel pressure to buy something we don’t have, we don’t slow down, we don’t look up from screens at the life around us or the sky, the sun, or the stars. But it is all there waiting for us, if we can pause and take even a few moments to re-center ourselves within this miraculous Earth. During the last two years of the pandemic, I have been inspired by the fact that more people are opening up to the wonders of this planet and all the life it supports. But we are at serious risk of losing so much of it, in what is now known as the sixth mass extinction.
As we enter the new year, I am hopeful that humanity will realize what’s at stake, and think deeply about our individual and societal responsibilities to other species and to this very special planet. Everything that we have, and that we are, literally comes as a gift from the Earth. We are interdependent with all life. And it is truly a wonder that there is life at all. From the Backyard Guide to the Night Sky:
Situated about 93 million miles (150 million km) from Earth at the center of what is, since Pluto’s demotion, an eight planet solar system, the sun is a daily reminder of our own tenuous place in the universe. It is one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, which is itself one of perhaps hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, and its dimensions, dynamics, and distance from Earth provide enough energy and heat to support life without overwhelming the planet with violent radiation. Had the original gas cloud been larger or smaller, or the influence of other forces different, Earth might be withering under the 860℉ (460℃) surface temperature of Venus or frozen by the minus 350℉ (-212℃) conditions found on Neptune.
As far as we know, life as we experience and define it exists nowhere else in this universe. What we have on Earth is completely unique and precious, and as such should be fiercely protected. The Earth has surely endured mass extinctions of species before -- it’s generally accepted that there have been five periods of mass extinction prior to this one. The difference now is that this is the first mass extinction solely caused by human activities.
The leading cause of extinction –habitat destruction– was the primary reason the Ivory-billed woodpecker was declared extinct last fall by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with 22 other species. Though it made national headlines, it seems that we quickly moved past such sobering news. But we shouldn’t, and we can’t. We are driving countless species to extinction and the global biodiversity crisis is acute. Right now, scientists estimate that over one million species are at risk of extinction. What does this mean for species’ inherent right to exist, and for our own survival when the web of life irrevocably breaks down? We all have a responsibility and vested interest in recognizing and honoring other species, as part of our interdependence on planet Earth.
Animals, plants, and insects (critical for pollination and other functions) are going extinct at 1,000 times the natural rate. Right now, there are more than 1,600 species on the Endangered Species list in the U.S with dozens more proposed for listing. Even if not at immediate risk of extinction, numbers of many species are sharply declining. We have lost three billion birds in the U.S. and Canada since 1970. Globally, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish have declined by 60 percent on average, between 1970 and 2014. Life as we now know it on Earth is rapidly changing and disappearing. Our children will inherit a very different, diminished world without urgent, concerted action now to protect the Earth’s remaining biodiversity.
Alarmed by the rapidly increasing rate of extinction of myriad species, several years ago a global community of scientists led by the late eminent biologist E.O. Wilson initiated the “Half Earth” movement, calling for conserving half of the Earth by 2050 in order to protect the Earth’s biodiversity. In the U.S., a critical interim milestone is to protect 30 percent of all remaining intact lands and waters by 2030. That timeline means the next eight years are absolutely critical to identify and protect remaining intact lands and waters in order to slow both the extinction and climate crises. It is up to all of us to press the Biden administration to act urgently to meet this goal. So much of what can and will happen depends on what each of us does today, and every day, to speak up for species who have no voice in our politics, and the habitat they need to thrive.
That’s why I hope that in this new year, we each take many moments to pause and open our eyes to the countless wonders of the Earth. In recent years, I’ve personally become more and more awed and inspired by birds such as the blackpoll warbler – just five and a half inches long and weighing barely half an ounce, but making incredible migrations of many thousands of miles annually between breeding grounds in Alaska and wintering grounds as far as the western Amazon. We know so little, still, about these types of migrations and what birds innately know -- how to get from A to B across a vast distance, where to find food and where to rest – places they depend upon to survive and that must be protected. If we can slow down enough to really see and listen, all birds and plant and animal species are truly miracles to behold – each and every one. The stunning beauty and diversity of life on this Earth –and all that enables it– is a miracle and an incredible gift to honor and cherish, and we must protect it with all our heart and intention.
Bonnie Rice is Senior Representative for the Sierra Club's Greater Yellowstone/Northern Rockies campaign, protecting wildlands and wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Rockies ecosystems. She works out of the Club's office in Bozeman, Montana.