There are few things sadder than watching walruses walk themselves off cliffs to their certain deaths.
If you think this image is some kind of sick joke then you haven’t checked out Our Planet on Netflix, the new David Attenborough documentary series that boasts beautiful wildlife shots and the overall message that humans are leading the world to another period of mass extinction.
Few things illustrate that point as well as walruses slipping and sliding off cliffs.
Walruses used to rest on sea ice but with that disappearing due to climate change, they turn to little spits of land. They turn to land they would never have used otherwise, like craggy outcrops, cliffs they have no right trying to climb, but they do it anyway out of desperation looking for anywhere to rest.
They climb far up away from the water, their fins slapping at the rock, trudging and dragging themselves further up the cliffs, further away from the environment they were designed for – it would be funny if you didn’t know what was coming.
At this height, they sit too close to the edge, water-borne animals with no concept of gravity and falling. When they want to return to the ocean, they head straight for it. They head straight off the side of the cliff.
Then they fall. Ungainly, their fins flapping uselessly as their bodies bounce and break against the jagged rock.
And to be sure, they don’t die quickly.
They lie broken and battered at the bottom of the cliff, the ocean lapping against them, teasing them with the feel of a life they’ll never return to.
They die there. Slowly and painfully.
These awful moments are important to see because we did this.
We are continuing to do this.
The United Nations released a report last Monday saying that humans threaten one million species with extinction. That the past 50 years of human existence have been particularly devastating on the environment as more and more land is appropriated for our agriculture (particularly for the meat industry).
Climate change and pollution – every year we dump hundreds of millions of tonnes of “heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes” – are both factors that are leading to an extinction rate for species that is astronomically high.
Some key findings are that 25% of species are threatened with extinction, natural ecosystems have declined by 47%, the biomass of wild animals has fallen by 82%.
It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean, aw shucks, the forests are getting hammered. The mass extinction of species has grave repercussions for us humans and our way of life.
For instance, bees are crucial pollinators that our ecosystems cannot do without, and therefore that we cannot do without. Many of our medicines are derived from plants and animals and when we lose biodiversity we lose our ability to heal ourselves.
Everything in the ecosystem is interconnected. Losing one species you don’t care about might lead to losing a bunch of other species that you love and need.
But I’m repeating what people already know. Because these reports have been coming out for decades and no one cares any more. We all think, something will happen that lets us continue life as we know it. That our society can’t collapse. Wrong.
Author Jared Diamond agrees. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed (Penguin Putnam Inc, 2005), he lists several examples of past thriving human civilisations that have done exactly what we’re doing now and are no longer around.
One example Diamond uses is Easter Island. The island is best known for its large stone monuments called moai which were constructed by the Rapa Nui. Diamond hypothesises that the Rapa Nui, to raise such large monoliths, had to build large tree trunk highways to move the huge slabs of stone. So intensive was their moai building that the Rapa Nui eventually used up all the trees on the island.
With no trees there were no animals to hunt, no wood for fire. Soon the civilisation collapsed because they were indentured to raising their monoliths. They couldn’t stop. They had to see it coming but they didn’t stop.
Pretty stupid right?
But that’s exactly what we’re doing right now.
We continue on the same path of economic primacy over every other value because we’re as blindly fixated as the Rapa Nui raising their stone monoliths.
Both the UN report and Diamond’s book state the recipe for survival: Long-term planning and the ability to reconsider core values. The UN report states specifically that getting away from the “limited paradigm of economic growth” and moving to a more holistic measure of quality of life is necessary if we are going to overcome the coming disaster.
Otherwise, just like those poor walruses, we’re heading straight for a cliff-edge but unlike them we’ve got all the knowledge and ability to stop.
Are we a civilisation that chooses to succeed or fail? We’re about to find out.