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Making the Sixth Extinction More Visible

This article was written by Alex Steffen in September 2004. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

One of the formative experiences in my life was covering the Kyoto round of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A cub reporter, I was frankly awed by the whole culture of major treaty negotiations: the diplomats and world leaders, the grizzled journalists and government flacks, the whirl of information and the party hordes. I was intimidated (for instance, at one point I was introduced to Prince Phillip. At 23, I didn't think my cocktail banter up to entertaining royalty, but he was very nice about it).

But what hit me harder than the event was the subject. For Kyoto was the first time I was forced, day after day, to come to grips with extinction. Day in, day out, I listened to speeches and interviewed experts who debated which species we'd already driven into extinction, which were going fast, which might still be saved, and which were, in E.O. Wilson's phrase, already the living dead. At one point someone gave me a document -- a rather thick document -- which turned out to be a listing of the known species believed to have vanished. Page after page after page, gone. And everyone -- everyone -- agreed the die-off was going to get much, much worse.

[[it gets better, below, sort of...]]

I left CITES feeling emotionally bludgeoned.

Since then, I've spent a few late nights thinking about what it means to be living in the midst of the Sixth Extinction -- what it means to have a part in causing the largest mass-extinction since the Death of the Dinosaurs.

I continue to struggle with it. The extinction crisis is one of the major problems humanity faces -- right up there with climate change, poverty and genocide -- yet it is little-mentioned outside of environmental and scientific circles. Why?

I think the reasons are cultural. To consider the extinction crisis is visit with death and guilt and horror. It's like living in a W.S. Merwin poem. It overwhelms you. It pulls you down like dark cold water. We are not culturally equipped to handle this stuff.

But cultures change. Cultures can be changed.

There's even an opportunity: the Threshold Foundation is offering a $50,000 grant "for projects to proactively address societal awareness of mass extinction and our responsibility in creating and reversing it."

"We are looking for new out-of-the-box approaches, which are at once creative, psychologically sophisticated and media-savvy. We see this issue as potentially analogous to the cultural taboo against discussing cancer a few decades ago, or to our collective attitudes toward smoking, drunk driving, firearms, asbestos, or most recently the health crisis of obesity due to fast food."

Years ago, I thought we ought to build a Museum of Absent Nature, something the size of the American Museum of Natural History, where visitors could wander among the biologically-departed and point out the dodos, great apes and snow leopards to their kids. But honestly, who would go? It would just sit there, a giant intellectual mausoleum, dusty, empty and full of ghosts. Such a place would just entomb the extinct far out of our sight.

No, what we need is more immediate engagement with the Sixth Extinction, something that moves it onto the streets, brings it into people's homes, takes it to the bar and buys it drinks until we're forced to be comfortable enough with it to at least talk about it. Something like the red or yellow ribbons people wore to destigmatize HIV and breast cancer. Something that moves it from abstract issue to human concern. And, preferably, something beautiful and moving.

So, here's my modest proposal: I propose that we start wearing the dead on our skin.

Images exist of a great many extinct species, and I expect the proportion of well-documented extinctions to increase in the next couple decades. I propose that we assemble and maintain a database of names, pictures and information on species which have gone or are clearly soon to go extinct. I propose we make it possible for people to "adopt" a dead species, on one condition.

That condition? That you have an image of that species tattooed on your body in a visible place, with the Linnaean name underneath.

Style, size, color, location -- those are all your call. I'd think some tattoo artists would even do them for free, if asked. The main thing is that you agree to become someone who remembers, in a very personal way, that this plant or animal once existed, and no longer does, because we killed it; and who is willing to talk with others about it, to drag the taboo out of the closet and carry it around with you.

It'll hurt. It'll hurt, and then it'll heal, and then we'll start to talk about it. We might even begin to live differently. We might even begin to more widely celebrate and feel wonder at the species -- living and dead -- with whom we share the planet.

It's worth a try. Consider this a free idea -- if someone wants to put this into a grant application to Threshold and get it going, I'm totally behind you.

I'll even volunteer to be the first to put my hand under the needle.

This Culture of Extinction is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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spelled extinction

Posted by: rob on 5 Sep 08

As long as you're mentioning the American Museum of Natural History in New York,
I saw a display there Wednesday this week on the great extinctions-- I expected them to let people know that we are in the middle of one, but there was nothing.

The implication (on this particular chart, regardless of what was said elsewhere in the building) was that they were all in the past, and that one was not underway.

Anyone reading this work at the Museum have connections to it?

Posted by: Jim on 6 Sep 08



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