Elegy for Lonesome George

He was the last Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, and he looked as sad as his name suggested, as though he knew that this day was inevitable.  Despite several attempts by conservationists to save something of his race by encouraging him to mate with genetically similar females, it was not to be.  Tortoises like George can live up to 200 years – he was estimated to be about 100, turtle middle age, when his light gave out yesterday.  The earth is one species poorer today.

In photographs, George seemed to be possessed of a quiet dignity symbolic of the planet itself – struggling serenely onwards as human malfeasance continues to, essentially, kick the crap out of it.  For all the amazing and wondrous things we have created, the remarkable feats we have achieved, our greatness is undermined at every turn by our continuing almost gleeful abuse of our only home.  The problem is we think there will always be more – more to drill, extract, chop down and scoop up.  The passing of Lonesome George reminds us of how wrong we are about that.  All things end.  One day it will all be gone.

A year or so ago I was sent an email of pictures of people collecting turtle eggs from a beach in South America.  It was an obscene, heartbreaking, rage-inducing display of images.  Turtle mothers watching helplessly as thoughtless, careless human beings snatched up hundreds of their gestating children less than a foot in front of them – so wealthy diners half a world away could eat soup.  And turtles aren’t the only ones who fall victim to this mindless gluttony:  whale, bear, tiger, elephant, rhinoceros; truly majestic creatures who are massacred to become aphrodisiacs, filets, fur coats, and erectile dysfunction remedies, or worse yet, simple trophies.

Those looking to justify this pattern of slaughter come back with “what about all the pigs, cows and chickens”?  It sucks that any creature has to die for another creature’s nourishment, and the sight of the pigs in the truck on their way to the processing plant is as gut-wrenching as the resigned expression on Lonesome George’s little face.  We can accept, grudgingly, that world will likely not stop eating meat anytime soon.  We just don’t have to be dicks about it.  We don’t have to pursue the rarest of species into the depths of their most remote habitat just to discover that they taste like chicken.  If we’re going to continue to eat steak and bacon and wings, we don’t have to cram animals into cells that make the Death Star trash compactor look positively roomy and pump their veins full of tranquilizer, antibiotics and steroids so they’ll be nice and juicy on the barbeque.  Moreover, we don’t have to keep serving them up as super-sized monstrosities that either end up in the garbage wasted or inflating our bellies and thighs to Huttese proportions.  We can choose to take only what we need and be mindful of and grateful for the life that is being sacrificed for the betterment of ours.

The story of the tortoise and the hare would be different now if it was written today.  The tortoise would take his slow and steady time only to find that the hare had not only won the race, but dug out the land around the finish line and salted the earth so nothing would grow there ever again.  The speed and sheer smugness with which we are emptying the planet of its treasures both animate and inanimate is accelerating as our sole motivation for existence now – as much as we claim to be a spiritual people – is greater economic growth.  The trouble is you can’t have infinite growth in a finite system like our earth.  And this isn’t news to anyone, even those who are the strongest advocates for capitalism without limits.  One supposes that the consolation for some of these people (barring utter ignorance on their part) is that like Lonesome George, they won’t live to see the collapse.  The babies being born today will be picking up what few pieces remain of the future.

And yet there is still a vestige of hope.  George’s body was found by a man named Fausto Llerena, who had been looking after him since he was first found in 1971.  Forty whole years, a life really, devoted to caring for an animal who could never say thank you – the reward had to have been in watching George enjoy his time as he lived out the last days of his species in solitude.  That sort of commitment proves to me that human beings possess the capacity to act as gardeners on this earth rather than strip miners; indeed, as one who inclines toward the former point of view it makes me wonder what bizarre combination of circumstances lead toward the latter – toward the kind of ass-brained mentality that thinks making fun of Prius owners is a reinforcement of masculinity.  The Pinta Island tortoise is gone now forever because of human shortsightedness, but the lesson of Lonesome George and Fausto Llerena is that it doesn’t have to happen again.  Willpower is a tremendous thing – it built pyramids and sent men to walk on the moon.  Surely it can do the same for our natural world.

Rest in peace Lonesome George.

Every hour should be Earth Hour

My daily commute takes me past a small farm with a field where sheep graze every afternoon. Lambs walk with their mothers beneath the sunshine and play at the edge of a small pond where geese paddle lazily and shake droplets from their feathers. No matter how rotten a mood I’m in, how intense the tribulations of the day’s labours past, the innocence of this little place is unfailingly soothing, like visual yoga for the soul. Tonight we are asked beginning at 8:30 pm to turn off our electronics and live in that same silence and simplicity for an hour. Communities around the globe have thrown down the gauntlet to see who can outdo the other in terms of the biggest percentage drop in power demand. The ostensible goal of Earth Hour is to raise awareness of what the consumptive attitude of humanity is doing to its only home. But it behooves us as a species to be aware of the earth every hour of every day; of the treasures it holds and of the unparalleled, impossible-to-duplicate magnificence in something as small as a blade of grass waving in the breeze. Just pause, for one cleansing breath, before we climb back in the SUV and crank up the thousand-megawatt subwoofers.

This is a tough time for our planet. The human population has surged past 7 billion, and shortsightedness and greed on the part of a wealthy few has led to extreme poverty for the majority. And when the economy slows down, it is left to the earth to make up the difference. Dirty industry flourishes in the interest of quick growth; environmental review processes are gutted to get factories moving fast. Moneyed interests push misinformation about climate change into mainstream accepted thought. Anyone who suggests we slow down and give less destructive alternatives their due consideration is pilloried as a job-killing, tree-hugging, pinko Communist (Stalin’s and Mao’s lasting legacies being their keen environmental stewardship, naturally). The Lorax, the recent movie based on the fable by Dr. Seuss, was trashed in certain segments of the press for pushing an undesirable agenda onto kids, because it dared to suggest that levelling all the trees in sight wasn’t necessarily a good idea. We are in an era of reverse ecology – it has somehow become “cool” to hate the earth, and morally sound to sacrifice it on the altar of the GDP at every opportunity. As a result, turning one’s lights off for an hour one Saturday night a year feels like shouting into the winds of a rising storm.

The ad hominem counter-arguments will no doubt come fast and furious. “Oh yeah, well, why don’t you give up your car and your computer and go live in a cave somewhere, you stupid eco-fasci-socialist.” I’m not suggesting that the world shut itself off and return to a purely agrarian existence; that’s fantasy. Surely human beings are clever enough to figure out a way to have our toys and clean air too. As Al Gore said in An Inconvenient Truth, what is lacking is the will. How do we change our collective attitude from hungry consumer to responsible warden of a suffering world?

Maybe it begins with taking that moment to watch the lambs in the field, to reconnect with the innocent. To recognize that whatever you believe put us here – God, evolution or random chance – also gave us the capacity to appreciate and cherish beauty in all its forms, and an abiding wish to not see beauty destroyed for selfish, temporary gain. If it is indeed our duty to leave to our children better than we ourselves have inherited, then we owe each of them the chance to experience the forest, the ocean and the snow-capped mountain peak as we have. This can be the nobler purpose to which we aspire. We can start making the hard choices that reflect both our individual and societal commitment to achieving that purpose – saying no to the cheap and easy solutions and the leaders who peddle them, and embracing our human responsibility to tend the garden of our unique home. For all the beauty present in the world is of the earth, and as the earth dies, so does beauty. No matter our political stripe, we can agree that beauty is worth saving. And it is a solemn obligation that extends far beyond the dying seconds of Earth Hour.