(This is a transcript of my speech today at Toastmasters. Read it and heed it. PLEASE.)
This year in early September we will note with sadness the hundredth anniversary of the death of a passenger pigeon named Martha. She was the last passenger pigeon on earth, and with her death a species that numbered in the billions only a few decades earlier disappeared forever from the world.
Throughout the 19th century, witnesses had described the pigeon migrations: how they took hours to pass over a single spot, darkening the sky and rendering normal conversation inaudible.
In 1871, their great nesting sites covered 850 square miles of Wisconsin’s sand oak barrens – 136 million breeding adults were estimated. There were so many of them, people hunted them without thought, for food and for sport. They burned their nests, and took their eggs.
When it became clear that the flocks were diminishing, the general public couldn’t believe that anything so ubiquitous could possibly become extinct.
In 1890, when calls for conservation were made, the industry of killing them for food complained, “If you restrict the killing, people will lose their jobs.”
By the mid-1890s wild flock sizes numbered in the dozens rather than the hundreds of millions (or even billions).
Then they disappeared altogether except for three captive breeding flocks spread across the Midwest. And finally, the last known passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
“Is there anything we can learn from this story of extinction? What can this teach us?” asks David Blockstein, senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment.
Today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 13 percent of birds are threatened. So are 25 percent of mammals and 41 percent of amphibians.
Hydropower and road construction threaten China’s giant pandas.
The northern bald ibis from the Middle East has been driven to the brink of extinction by hunting and habitat loss.
The whooping crane is barely holding its own – only by a concentrated effort at preservation throughout its habitat.
Little brown bats are dying off in the United States and Canada.
70 percent of freshwater mussels in North America are extinct, imperiled, or vulnerable.
Facts (National Geographic)
•Average temperatures have climbed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit around the world since 1880, much of this in recent decades, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
• The rate of warming is increasing. The 20th century’s last two decades were the hottest in 400 years and possibly the warmest for several millennia, according to a number of climate studies.
• The Arctic is feeling the effects the most. Arctic ice is rapidly disappearing, and the region may have its first completely ice-free summer by 2040 or earlier. Polar bears and indigenous cultures are already suffering from the sea-ice loss.
• Glaciers and mountain snows are rapidly melting—for example, Montana’s Glacier National Park now has only 27 glaciers, versus 150 in 1910. Our very own Mt. Rainier is seeing its glaciers shrink significantly.
• Coral reefs, which are highly sensitive to small changes in water temperature, suffered the worst bleaching—or die-off in response to stress—ever recorded, with some areas seeing bleach rates of 70 percent.
• Industrialization, deforestation, and pollution have greatly increased atmospheric concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, all greenhouse gases that help trap heat near Earth’s surface.
• Humans are pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than plants and oceans can absorb it.
• Although natural cycles in Earth’s orbit can alter the planet’s exposure to sunlight. Earth has indeed experienced warming and cooling cycles roughly every hundred thousand years due to these orbital shifts, but such changes have occurred over the span of several centuries. Today’s changes have taken place over the past hundred years or less.
• Since 1870, global sea levels have risen by about 8 inches.Sea level could rise an additional 7 to 23 inches by century’s end.
• One hundred million people live within 3 feet of mean sea level, and much of the world’s population is concentrated in vulnerable coastal cities. Some experts suggest that by 2050 New Orleans will be in a bowl surrounded by man-made levees, about 3 feet below sea-level, and 20 miles off shore.
• Strong hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other natural disasters are already commonplace in many parts of the world.
• More than a million species face extinction from disappearing habitat, changing ecosystems, and acidifying oceans.
• Changes in the ocean’s circulation system, known as the ocean conveyor belt, could cause a mini-ice age in Western Europe.
Solutions (Natural Resources Defense Council)
Set limits on global warming pollution
Invest in green jobs and clean energy
Drive smarter cars
Create green homes and buildings
Build better communities and transportation networks
We need to be careful that we don’t become mesmerized by the scope and complexity of the problem, or we may find ourselves like the passenger pigeons – permanently gone from the face of the earth.