Why Extinction Matters at Least as Much as Climate Change

The images most associated with climate change — huge chunks of Arctic ice crashing into the Northern seas, large swaths of the Amazon basin being denuded, or rising sea levels threatening to wipe out coastal metropolises — are those of the colossal forces of nature unleashed upon a vulnerable humanity. No matter that we helped set these calamities in motion. As a matter of survival we are now left to confront and subdue a natural world run amok.


An art installation at the Como Zoo in Saint Paul, Minnesota, memorializes the many species that have become extinct. Credit: Creative Commons/Bart Heird.

For those not in denial, the most common reactions to climate change are ones of shock, fear, and anxiety. Has it truly become so dire so quickly? What kinds of changes will be necessary and how hard will they be to make? Is it too late? These questions certainly get our attention. Nevertheless, concerns about the present and future effects of extreme weather often mask other fundamental aspects of the global environmental crisis that need to be addressed directly on both a practical and emotional level. The most outstanding of these is the mass extinction of other species.

The center of the ecological crisis is not the weather but the ongoing and wholesale destruction of life. We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction spasm, accompanied by unfathomable figures such as three to ten species, many of them millions of years old, being extinguished daily. The planet’s entire evolutionary experiment, at least three-and-a-half billion years in the making, is bruised and battered. Further, scientists have only identified about 10-15 percent, at most, of existing species. Most types of life are unknown, rendering the great dying crisscrossing the globe eerily invisible to human eyes and silent to human ears.

Despite these epic developments, it is climate change — a term used interchangeably with global warming — that has captured the public’s imagination, while the staggering scope of the extinction spasm remains hidden from awareness. Since Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, climate change has become the central symbol or grand icon of the environmental crisis. As such it has done much good, helping to reinvigorate an international environmental movement that had been decimated and demoralized by the Bush administration’s accelerated attack on nature. Attention to global warming has elevated public concern for the natural environment perhaps higher than ever before.

Indeed, the power of climate change as a motivating image is dramatically illustrated by the swift and severe reaction it drew from the corporate world, which views ecological sustainability as an untenable limit on profit. After initially “greenwashing” many of their products, industry adopted a far more aggressive tack by bankrolling right-wing groups that viciously attacked the scientists and science behind climate change. In 2010, major corporations provided vast amounts of funding for politicians who flat-out denied the existence of global warming or who denied that it is caused by human activities. The result was the election of a Republican majority in the House, almost all of whom refuse to acknowledge the devastating impact of global warming. The corporate world would not have responded with such an all-out effort if it did not fear the strength of climate change as a symbol that could rally huge public support.

Despite its impressive initial success, as I will elaborate below, the use of climate change as the primary symbol of the environmental movement is likely to backfire. In fact, it is already beginning to do so. Complimentary symbols and images that highlight different dimensions of the crisis and broaden the spectrum of people’s reactions and actions are needed. Otherwise, we are apt to fall back into old patterns and practices that have already proven fatal.

Climate Change: The Symbol


Images of nature as an immense destructive force wreaking havoc on vulnerable human communities can serve as a powerful wake-up call, but they also need to be examined carefully lest they steer us down an all-too-familiar path. For centuries, Western civilization has been steeped in the belief that nature is a wild, impersonal enemy that needs to be tamed in order for humanity to flourish. As many observers have noted, this story lies at the heart of the current predicament, as it has led to many of the practices and technologies that are so ecologically destructive. Climate change taps into this adversarial tale and in so doing triggers habitual responses that worsen the problem.

Collins Glacier

This photo of the Collins Glacier in Antarctica offers a common image of climate change: warming seas eating away at colossal natural structures. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

One such response is to view the ecological crisis primarily in terms of human well-being. Political, public, and much of scientific discourse on climate change now focuses on resource depletion, hunger, disease, and other harmful effects of global warming as they apply to our species. This framework, of course, appeals to our self-interest. It tells us, something like this: “Get sustainable or die.” And on one level it makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t we want to protect ourselves?

However, the assumption that people are primarily motivated by self-interest, and therefore that the best way to induce change is to appeal to their selfish desires, is simplistic, misleading, and, once again, part of the problem. Without altruism, compassion, and care, our species long ago would have expired. That said, this is not the place to dive into a debate about the relative merits of altruism versus self-interest as sources of motivation. Rather, to grasp the deep flaws in the self-centered approach it is far more worthwhile to attend to those powerful aspects of society that have over-emphasized self-interest to the extreme detriment of the environment, and to how we must take care not to further these practices with our green symbols.

Specifically, the world’s dominant economic system, capitalism, not only assumes that people are fundamentally selfish but goes to tremendous lengths to drive this point home on a daily basis. For example, the primacy of self-interest is woven into worldwide corporate law to such an extent that in most jurisdictions corporate officers can be fired if they are found to put the interests of society above their company’s profit. Corporate culture, with its millions of daily participants, demands ruthless competition and insists on a “dog-eat-dog” mentality that it hides behind neutral-sounding terms such as “efficiency.” The ubiquitous presence of sophisticated marketing ensures that the glorification of selfish desire reaches most people every day, and for many, almost hourly. Much like religious institutions of the past, capitalism has become a dominant institution whose values and perspectives permeate society.

For those who live in capitalist societies, it appears practically self-evident that the best way to create change in human behavior is to stimulate self-interest. Appeals to compassion for others, or for nature, are considered at best naïve and certainly impractical. Emerging from within such a culture, it is easy for environmentalists and others who seek large-scale shifts toward sustainability to conclude that the most effective strategy for altering environmental behavior is to convince people that global warming poses a danger directly to them.

Yet, an exclusive focus on selfish motivation will almost certainly backfire. When people are frightened, they draw inward, look for scapegoats, and become concerned only with protecting their own. When the environmental crisis is depicted primarily as a threat to humanity’s well-being, the result is far more likely to be international conflict, resource wars, and the rich and powerful protecting only themselves while leaving everyone else vulnerable — a continuation of the environmental injustice that is already so rampant — than the global community pulling together to care for the eco-sphere.

As the planet’s condition worsens, the last thing we want to do is fan the flames of self-interest. Instead, institutions, cultural practices, laws, and values that give priority to the well-being of the more-than-human world will best serve us. The collective commitment to sustainability will need to be strong enough to withstand the demands of individuals, communities, and groups of every imaginable sort that will claim that their agendas supercede the planet’s long-term viability. To remain rock solid in the face of such onslaughts, our guiding images must speak on the most profound level to our capacity to rise above brute selfishness.

The picture painted by climate change evokes yet another problematic habitual response — the technological fix. The technological fix is not simply the use of technology to solve a practical problem — a reasonable proposition in many instances. Rather, it is the expression of a cultural mindset in which society believes it can overpower nature with inventions so potent they force the world to its knees. Inevitably, the arrogant and aggressive nature of this perspective underestimates the stunning complexity and subtle workings of natural systems billions of years in the making. “Side effects” ranging from cancer to global warming generate worse problems. It is no coincidence that most modern technology is ecologically harmful, for it was designed from within a system that seeks to subjugate the natural world rather than operate in harmony with it.

Climate change, which emphasizes the wild, destructive strength of nature, tempts us to meet power with power, to manufacture planet-altering technologies that allow us to control the unruly weather. This is why there are serious proposals afloat to defeat global warming by fertilizing the ocean’s phyto-plankton with iron to absorb carbon dioxide or launch huge orbital sunshades to reflect back sunlight. These interventions are doomed to fail and likely will boomerang for the simple reason that they interfere with unbelievably complex ecological systems about which we have limited knowledge. The urge to turn to dramatic technological fixes will intensify as the landscape deteriorates. The images associated with climate change will only further the temptation to do so.

It is possible, of course, to understand climate change in terms of its horrific impact on nonhuman species. There are scientists and environmentalists who have emphasized this aspect of global warming. Conversely, it is also possible to examine the harm that befalls humans when other species go extinct, and this, too, has been explored. My focus in this article is on the images that permeate the media and dominate political discourse, the predominant emphasis of current scientific research, and crucially, the emotional reactions most likely to come forth when either climate change or extinction takes center stage.

As the central symbol of the environmental crisis, climate change is too narrow in its scope and effect. It too readily leads us down old paths that are dead ends. It may be that no single ecological issue is sufficient to call forth the profound changes, on both a social and individual basis, that are now required. This is where extinction comes into play, for it evokes a complimentary set of reactions to those of climate change that are crucial to the task at hand.

Extinction, Mourning, and Altruism


Although I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, only as an adult did I learn that sand dunes once graced the San Francisco coastline and only in recent years did I discover that a small butterfly, the Xerces Blue, once fed upon vegetation unique to these dunes. During World War II, the army built up the San Francisco Presidio, in the process destroying the last butterfly colony. At that moment the Xerces Blue joined Earth’s sixth extinction spasm. Journalism professor Mark Jerome Walters has remarked:

Each extinction is a unique voice silenced in a universal conversation of which we ourselves are only one participant. When the tiny wings of the last Xerces Blue butterfly ceased to flutter, our world grew quieter by a whisper, and duller by a hue…. Rarely, in turning our attention from a recently extinct species to our last-ditch efforts to save another, do we pause to say goodbye.

To pause to say goodbye is to grieve. Yet with so much to do, and in the face of such an overwhelming crisis, can we afford to mourn? Why is grief absolutely essential if we are to turn things around? In contrast to climate change, extinction shifts our awareness away from ourselves and onto the suffering and loss of other species. Our sense of the crisis widens to include the entire evolutionary arc of life on Earth and the epic tragedy that humanity is authoring within this astounding story.

altar to xerxes blue

This Altar of Extinction honors the Xerces Blue Butterfly, which was last seen in the early 1940s. Credit: Monique Aguerre and Venee Call-Ferrer.

As those who have grieved or work with grief know, death and loss need to be mourned. When grief is allowed to surface, and the reasons for it are not denied, a healthy process unfolds that can lead to new depths of insight and feeling, major shifts in values, and subtler and nuanced decision-making. When grief is denied or curtailed, dysfunctional patterns recur, rash decisions are made — often involving aggressive or avoidant behavior — and growth fails to occur.

Strange as it may seem, humanity has a pressing need to acknowledge, remember, and honor the thousands of species now meeting their untimely deaths at its hands. The great dying off now hovers only at the edge of our collective consciousness, yet it is a fundamental truth of our time and on some level we reverberate to its rumblings.

Through grief we access our compassion for our companions on this planet. By mourning extinction we directly experience our interconnection with the rest of life, for there is no way to be fully in touch with nature at this point in time without feeling its ongoing agony. Compassion requires courage, for it means opening to the sadness and tragedy as well as the beauty and wonder that is our world.

Grief also opens the door to intimacy and love. Consider that most societies do not ask parents to care for their children strictly on a moral basis — because they should — or strictly on an intellectual and pragmatic basis — because they know how to. Society expects parents to allow love to enter the picture, which it will if given a chance. The wisdom here is stunning. For when we love, our perceptions alter dramatically. We notice details, we intuit, we “tune in,” we plan ahead, we sacrifice, we tolerate, and we celebrate. We enjoy and find meaning as in no other form of connection. This is not romantic; this is survival. It takes such a complete bond to raise children successfully.

For all the same reasons, our best chance of creating sustainable ways of living on the land is to allow love to enter the picture, along with our moral dictates, intellectual understanding and practical skills. For then we will notice the critical details, make the necessary intuitive leaps, and choose well the tough sacrifices needed to move through the difficult times ahead.

Public Grief

When I first encountered the shocking statistics about mass extinction, I didn’t know how to react. Stunned and aghast, I resolved to double my activist efforts, or at least contribute more to environmental groups.

Grizzly altar

This Altar of Extinction offers a space to mourn the California Grizzly. The last one of its kind died in the 1920s in Los Angeles County. Credit: Monique Aguerre and Venee Call-Ferrer.

Yet soon enough I forgot. How could I comprehend the fact that several exquisite species, some perhaps millions of years old, had expired today? In time, I came to believe that we can’t grieve alone. A tragedy of this magnitude needs to be mourned collectively.

In the early 2000s, Mary Gomes, a psychologist at Sonoma State University, and I started the Altars of Extinction Project. We provided local artists with information about an extinct local species or subspecies, such as the El Segundo flower-loving fly, the Raven’s Manzanita (a plant), or the Thick-Tailed Chub (a minnow), and asked them to create an altar. The altars were magnificent — and strikingly different. They were displayed in exhibits around the San Francisco Bay Area that included a place to sit quietly, a comment book, and descriptions of each species and how it went extinct, for example, through pollution, hunting, or habitat destruction. Many who came were moved by the altars and thanked us for the chance to grieve, remember, and honor these beings. The artists told us they felt close to the species with which they worked.

I envision permanent altars appearing in public squares and parks, at zoos, on campuses, and elsewhere in communities. Other types of memorials, similar to the Vietnam War Memorial or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem but this time for extinct species, could be erected. Religious and spiritual practices that remember and honor the dead could be expanded to include local species, as well as mass extinction. The goal is to bring awareness of the most important development of our time into public consciousness on an ongoing basis, and to let the grief work begin.

Nature’s Rights

Through grief we make a gut-level connection to the plight of other species. How might this change our actions?

water chub

This Altar of Extinction honors the Thicktail Chub, a minnow from California's Central Valley. Agribusiness practices destroyed many of the wetlands and rivers that made up the chub's habitat. Credit: Monique Aguerre and Venee Call-Ferrer.

On the legal front, we could recognize that species have rights. This deceptively simple idea, in fact, has been driving an international movement that has gained surprising momentum in the last several years. In 2008, Ecuador rewrote its constitution to recognize the rights of nature “to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions, and its process of evolution.” Bolivia is in the process of passing a series of laws that, collectively, hold that nature has equal rights to humans. In the United States, over a dozen communities have legally recognized nature’s rights, and over a dozen more are preparing to do so. The UN is currently debating whether to adopt the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which would recognize the rights of all aspects of nature, from species to natural communities to ecosystems, to be given “full and proper restoration” whenever any of their rights are violated by human activities. This would mean that if a corporation were found guilty of polluting a river it would be obligated to the river to restore it to full health.

Indigenous peoples have long recognized that other species have rights. For these cultures, the source of rights, that is, where the right to have rights comes from, is the universe — all of nature itself. In his book, Wild Law, South African Attorney Cormac Cullinan summarizes theologian Thomas Berry’s thoughts on this matter thusly: “Since the universe is, in [Berry’s] words, ‘a communion of subjects and not a collection of objects,’ it follows that all of the component members of the universe are subjects capable of holding rights and have as much right to hold rights as humans.”

When nature’s rights are fully recognized, the entire idea of property, both private and public, is radically altered. Under such circumstances humans would have the obligation to maintain the ecological integrity of any part of nature with which they interact, which includes the responsibility to know the land well enough to sustain its health, its diversity, and its place in evolution. I am not sure if it is appropriate to call such a mutual relationship with nature “ownership.”

When nature has its own rights, many of the key concepts underlying the market economy come into question. Limits to growth, the accumulation of wealth, and property rights would become so extensive that capitalist economies, if they remained at all, would be unrecognizable. Other economic structures would need to be developed that more readily accommodate a “communion of subjects” than a “set of objects” owned by one species.

Technology Wisdom

The implications of nature’s rights for technology are immense. It might be startling to consider this, but following a reasonable transition period, many modern manufacturing, resource extraction, and agricultural practices would become illegal, given that they are so toxic to other species. In their stead would be a host of sustainable techniques and practices now being developed around the world, including local organic farming, sustainable forestry, manufacturing based on biomimicry, factories that take life-long responsibility for their products, permaculture, and much, much more. A resurrection of many indigenous agricultural practices would flourish. Only through the use of technology that has been designed to function in balance with nature can there be justice for all, when all includes the whole world.

altar to Raven's Manzanita

Raven's Manzanita, an evergreen shrub native to San Francisco, is honored at the center of this Altar of Extinction. Credit: Monique Aguerre and Venee Call-Ferrer.

Far from limiting or restraining humanity’s technological genius, the creation of a built world that respects nature’s rights would require enormous leaps forward in technological sophistication. We would be asking more from our machines and inventions than ever before, for in addition to enhancing our lives we would insist that they tread lightly on the earth while facilitating our ability to do so. To meet such demanding criteria, fewer things would be made, but the fruits of our technological labor would be more durable, beautiful and ultimately more satisfying to use.

Recognizing nature’s rights includes one crucial way in which we would ask less of our technology. It would not need to generate short-term profits for the businesses that design and produce it. As a result, more time, thought and care could be taken between the old and the “new and improved.” The entire impact of new inventions — environmentally, culturally, spiritually and personally — could be taken into account, while innovation would be guided far more by compassion than by commercialism.

As Einstein cogently observed, “It is now appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.” The biggest challenge our species has ever faced is to reverse this trend. To accomplish this magnificent reversal, that is, to propel our humanity past our technology, we will first need to grieve for those species that have perished at our hands. Through this grief we can come to know our proper place among those beings that remain. Then, and only then, might we find safe passage through our planetary crisis.

(To read leading environmentalists’ responses to this article, click here.)


2 thoughts on “Why Extinction Matters at Least as Much as Climate Change

  1. It would also help if more of those who’ve made necessary changes did more to convince those with a public voice that “sacrifice” is the wrong word to use. For some, the publicly pious and ostentatiously moral comes to mind, “sacrifice” is yet another opportunity to show off “Look at how much I’m giving up, Look at my glorious suffering!”. For most people the idea of giving up is an anathema.

    I haven’t owned a car for 20 years, and I never owned a pod car or van. I didn’t intend to go this long without a car, it just happened and part of what made it work was moving to a transit rich city and living in the era of the car share program’s birth. Now it seems more of a hassle to go out and get a car, not to mention keeping one, and I don’t feel like I’ve made a sacrifice at all.

    I’m fortunate that I have the ability to spend more money on food than I have to, but that too has its benefits: Almost everything tastes better. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of choice, and more should be done to make good food available to all, and even more important, people should organize for better wages (among other things) so they can afford to buy real food instead of fattening food products of little nutritional value.

    It would help, of course, if people who realize the danger we’re in as a planet quit talking of sacrifices and started talking of the wasted lives we live in a disposable, bargain basement life. If we don’t get our act together, of course, real and unpleasant sacrifices will be forced upon us by Mother Nature. At the moment, it seems we can still entertain the idea that we can reverse some elements of the debacle by giving up things that aren’t doing anything good for us, that we don’t really enjoy (most people I’ve met consider their car transportation more than anything aesthetic) and that are damaging the planet as we produce, use, abuse and discard them.

  2. Nobody wants to be told what to do and yet our over-consumptive lifestyles leave us way out of touch with nature, with exactly the consequences you’re talking about — widespread and serious biodiversity loss. I’ve started profiling how artists and others are responding to the extinction crisis and in two recent interviews, both mention the need for public memorials and grief. Here’s an interview with Todd McGrain of The Lost Bird Project and one with Andreas Kornevall, who is building a Life Cairn