Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Will We Lose Even the Remembrance of Biodiversity?

And now, time to get really depressed.

In the July 30 essay, I  speculated about the loss of biodiversity in a future world, producing a natural world that may more resemble my Garden of Contemplation than a rainforest. In this essay, I speculate about not just the loss of biodiversity, but the loss of the remembrance of biodiversity.

Dedicated scientists have recorded over a million species of organisms on Earth. You can find many of them on the Encyclopedia of Life website. In Oklahoma, we have a vascular plants database. Most of these species remain unknown to anyone except scientists. Photographs of many of them appear on calendars sent out by conservation organizations, but for most of us, we look at the photos and then forget the species. I tried to keep all of my old conservation calendars, but it was an impossible task. Information in a huge pile of old calendars or Nature Conservancy magazines is as inaccessible as if it were hidden away in a vault. Only a few experts really know the truth about biodiversity. If you put me in a room and told me to list all of the plant species in Oklahoma, of which there are thousands, I would run out at about 300. There might be two people in Oklahoma (Amy and Bruce, that’s you) who might know all of them. And in a rainforest? The fabled acre of rainforest in Peru that has more species of birds than all of Europe? Only a few experts know what those species are. For the rest of us, it is hearsay.

These species are rapidly becoming extinct. And one of the reasons is global climate change, resulting from carbon emissions for which the coal and oil industries are largely responsible. People want solar and wind energy; but the coal and oil industries, and the United States government which they own, do not. Furthermore, the coal and oil industries want to be self-righteous. They want us, and future generations, to admire them, even to love them. Therefore, it is imperative that future generations NOT know about these extinctions for which the corporations are partially responsible.

In my imagination, I foresee a future in which databases of species, many of which will by then be extinct, will be purged. Paper backups—including scientific papers, which few people read even now—can be locked away and kept from public knowledge. The Republican government, by then a dictatorship, can then proclaim to the world, “We are not responsible for the sixth mass extinction. There never was one! The species that you see today are the only ones that were on the Earth before we began releasing energy from fossil fuels. And anyone who accuses us of causing a mass extinction, of destroying God’s creation, is a liar and an enemy of the state! An enemy of God! Anyone who says a mass extinction occurred, show us the data! You cannot! It does not exist! We cannot have harmed God’s creation; we Republicans are God’s people!” I will leave it to you to guess whether such a scenario might ever happen. What is more likely is that biodiversity information will simply be forgotten, even as it sits in digital piles.

A couple of decades ago I wrote a short story set in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I used to teach field botany in the summer. In the story, what had once been forests of ponderosa pine had eroded into an artificial desert. People lived in walled cities with artificial resources. Except for some wild people called rock bunnies because they jumped from one rock to another. The rock bunnies had found, and hidden, a herbarium that showed that not only pines but many species of wildflowers from lilies to shooting-stars had once lived there, and birches had once grown along clear brooks.

(This photo from 1994 shows a student named Lily holding a lily in a meadow at the top of the Black Hills, here in Wyoming.)

In the story, many of the herbarium specimens had been collected long before by a long-forgotten teacher named Stanley Rice. A military contingent from one of the cities destroyed the herbarium, since the central government wanted everyone to think that the eroded landscape had always been there, and that they had caused no environmental degradation.

To those of you who think this speculation may be extreme: can you prove me wrong? Can you deny that the current Republican leadership, under its charismatic antichrist Donald Trump, create their own “truths”? How is a student in the year 2080 to know that hundreds of thousands of species that they have never seen, and that their government does not acknowledge, exist or existed?

Those of us who are documenting biodiversity—might our work, someday, be considered treasonous?

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