The Caribbean monk seal is extinct. I read it in the BBC Science news. Now, the article normally wouldn’t have caused a blip on my radar, but it was accompanied by an “Aww”-inducing picture of a baby monk seal. At the same time, polar bears went on the endangered animals list. They were drowning in the Arctic seas, I read with horror, since the polar ice floes were shrinking.
Polar bears are ferocious, but when it comes to looks, their cuddly appeal cannot be beat. It broke my heart that these lovely creatures were dying off. Of course, articles on animal extinction also mention that habitat loss causes the death of many insect and plant species. I tend to gloss over these, because, let’s face it, the fewer the insects, the less we have to swat; and a plant is a plant (I am a horticulture major, I should know) and has no “cute” appeal.
What annoys me in all these stories, however, is the implication that, somehow, I’m responsible. If only I had remembered to include tomatoes and paper towels on my original shopping list, I wouldn’t have used more gas to return to the store, increasing my carbon footprint, which is causing the warming that is melting the ice floes that is killing those cute white polar bears. The authors of these pieces name no names, but they target people with overactive consciences like me. Each time I read an environmental sob story, I feel like sinking to the earth and crying out, “I’m sorry! I knew not what I did!”
Let’s take carbon emissions by vehicles. Growing up in a middle-class family in India in the ’70s and ’80s, I walked to my high school, a mile away. A little BSA bike took me to college. I took public transport everywhere else, waiting an hour sometimes for a direct bus from point A to point B, and traveling like a human sardine when it arrived full of people. When I came to the United States in ’91, I couldn’t afford a car, so I mooched rides from friends. Then I married a man who owned a bare-essential economy subcompact, which was over 10 years old and gave over 30 miles per gallon. This marvel of automotive engineering had a problem with warm weather, however, and our summer trips were stop-and-go more out of necessity than free will. But we couldn’t afford anything else, so we slugged on.
A few years ago, we could finally afford better cars. So we bought a nice Toyota Corolla. Then we had two children, who needed to be carted around, so we got an SUV. Not only was this more roomy and convenient, it made us look that much more successful. I was also the proud possessor of a dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer. These may seem like nothing to a casual onlooker, but I had slaved over sinks full of dishes, and hand-washed clothes with Surf and Rin, for long enough to know the difference.
Then global warming and environmental pollution suddenly came to the forefront. One morning, we all woke up to discover we were messing up the world in a big way. By adding exhaust to air, and bleach, pesticides, and insecticides to water, we were destroying the third planet from the sun. Initially it seemed okay, since only big industries and government policies were blamed, but then scientists began measuring how much carbon each individual person emits during her life, calling it the “carbon footprint.”
I’m pretty sure my carbon footprint, which used to be as negligible as a gnat’s, is now as large as a Yeti’s. My water consumption has also grown from about 15 gallons a day to just a shade under a gazillion gallons. But is it fair to blame people like me for causing the planet’s crisis? Changes thrust on us in the name of progress—and prosperity and success defined in terms of physical possessions—have made culprits of us all. I care about the environment as much as the next person; but when it comes to interfering with my life, I suddenly become rather ambivalent about the issue.
If you think I am being selfish, consider this: what if it was suddenly discovered that gophers, which are destroying your pristine lawn, are endangered? Would you, a) let the gophers multiply and continue to destroy your property, essentially enslaving you to your mortgage company; or b) “persuade” the endangered but pesky rodent to relocate by fair means or foul, and pray that you are not discovered? I myself hate to see cities expanding, but when we bought a house, it was in a newly formed subdivision outside the city. We all hate to see baby animals killed, but let them grow and invade “our” limits, and we load up our guns with righteous rage.
Even when we crusade to save habitats and ecosystems, we do so because they serve us in some way. When we talk about rescuing orangutans, for example, it is because we want to preserve them for our children.
In a news story on property damage, I was amused and chagrined by the author’s insistence that “beavers cause the most damage to public property by building dams and changing the course of rivers.” Beavers don’t build dams to cause trouble; it is how they evolved, and it is all they know how to do. It is not as if they deliberately turn their hairy backs on more “useful” activities, such as gnawing wood into finely crafted furniture. Then again, there is a caveat: if there are any beavers on my property, the pesky vermin will soon be toast.
Sometimes, I feel it is time to end the hypocrisy, and tell the whole truth: wehomo sapiens have become the dominant species on earth and will make sure that we remain that way by ensuring that all other species are either extinct or locked up where we can keep an eye on them. Of course, we humans have broken so many fragile but vital threads in the web of life, and poisoned our own air, water, and land, that we ourselves face extinction at an accelerated rate.
And yet I lament that I’ve not even begun to really “consume.” I don’t own anything made out of animal skin (I’m allergic to leather and not fond of reptiles, or the prospect of wearing anything with a face); I buy bags of cookies rather than those cute individually wrapped cookies; I don’t drive American (I can’t afford to). It is tragic to think that life as we know it might end before I get to go out in a mink stole, driving a Hummer, eating singly packed Oreos.
I think my being on the threshold of serious consumption gives me the right to put on a greener-than-thou attitude without martyring myself for the sake of the environment. Because, after all, I am not the lead foot in the driver’s seat of the extinction bus. Anyone who wants to rescue a drowning polar bear is welcome to, with my blessing. And if it eats you, you can be proud that you have done your part to slow extinction … one bear at a time.
|Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com|