Don’t lose hope for the environment

If you care about the earth and the life residing on it, take a few decades off from voting for the Republican Party

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Don’t lose hope for the environment

By Dan Riley, Assistant OpEd Editor

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Across the globe, wildlife is facing declines due to human actions. The Declaration of Independence stated the all men have the self-evident right to life, but should that right only be conferred to humankind? Assuredly, if life is sacred then all life is sacred. I write this with the knowledge that I kill bugs with reckless abandon and go into a murderous rage at the sight of spiders. I write this with the knowledge that I regularly consume food products farmed from cows, pigs and chickens even though I have the economic means to forgo meat consumption. I write this because I know that we can never be perfect in our treatment of the species with which we cohabitate the Earth. However, to paraphrase Voltaire’s old aphorism: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

To keep things in perspective, here are a few examples of the way wildlife are currently suffering under human tenure:

Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, has lost half of its orangutan population in the last 16 years as a result of deforestation and hunting. In fact, 62 percent of primate species and subspecies, our closest genetic cousins, are threatened with extinction. Even if lumbering practices are reformed to avoid destroying entire habitats, smaller-scale fracturing of those habitats in places like Indonesia and Brazil still creates room for human infrastructure and opens the door for hunters.

Furthermore, striped hyenas in India and the Middle East, vital in their ecosystems for their roles as vulture-like scavengers who pillage human waste and eat decaying carcasses, thereby cleaning the environment of filth and microbes, are close to being classified as a threatened species. They face superstitions that create high black market value for their body parts. As a result, fewer than 10,000 striped hyenas remain. That is not even half of the student population here at the University of Massachusetts, and I have not seen any students cleaning the Pioneer Valley of microbes.

Closer to home, survivors of Hurricane Irma include Puerto Ricans, Floridians, people living across the Caribbean and the endangered Key Deer. For the three-foot tall deer to have survived the storm’s six-foot seawater surges is miraculous. However, what the Key Deer cannot survive is climate change: Rising sea levels are expected to eliminate the deer’s habitat by 2045, estimates predict. Over a dozen other endangered inhabitants of the islands may drown with them.

Of course, no example of threatened wildlife populations as a result of human actions is more iconic or dire than that of the polar bear. A few months ago, a video went viral of a starving polar struggling through what may have been its final hours. There are considerable data on population growth and decay, wind patterns, sea levels and other climate science that one might look to when evaluating human-wildlife interaction. None of that data is as important or as impactful as the image of that polar bear suffering through a hellish and prolonged death. That should strike you deeper in your heart than any statistic; it is just plain wrong, and it is absolutely infuriating.

However, fury coupled with just a glimmer of hope can be directed in a way that inspires change. According to environmental biologist Maria Voigt, author of the report on Bornean orangutan population decline, there is a glimmer of hope. It is not too late for the orangutans to rebound if the deforestation and hunting come to an end. The entire situation is complicated: Surely those Bornean hunters are killing the orangutans out of necessity rather than malice, and I would hesitate to render harsh judgment on the subcultures in the Middle East and India that lead to unnecessary hyena deaths from my comfortable American dormitory. However, what is not complicated is that the earth has always been vibrant with a diverse array of interconnected species and for the first time in history, that diversity is threatened by human actions.

What can we do here in the United States to defend wildlife? For starters, support leaders who can enter the international stage and form deals with foreign nations (like those governments with territorial claims to Borneo) that seek to promote sustainability and environmentalism, like President Obama did with the Paris Agreement. Vote politicians who deny climate science out of office; if you care about the earth and the life residing on it, take a few decades off from voting for the Republican Party. Donate to organizations that seek to protect the environment from people like President Trump. These things may seem small from an individual level, but they are a step in the right direction that may make the water and air cleaner for us while improving the lives of apes, deer, hyenas and bears along the way. There is no need for fatalism: As the orangutans demonstrate, there is still time to save the animals. There is still reason to hope for a renewed global ecosystem, we just need to start immediately.

Dan Riley is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]