His name was Voortrekker. He was the last giant bull elephant of a unique herd adapted to the Namib desert. The survival of African elephants is already perilous. But the loss of key bull elephants to a herd can destroy the prospects for them all. An elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes. Colonial and post-colonial land changes and management practices saw hundreds of thousands killed, and now conservationists struggle to save those that are left from habitat loss, conflict with farmers, poachers, trophy hunters, the ivory trade and drought. Fifty-year-old Voortrekker was shot by a trophy hunter exercising a Government permit that was justified by conflict between elephants and local communities. Concerned citizens from around the world had already bought out his trophy fee and prevented his death once. This time, the price on his head of $NZ120,000 was paid by a foreign recreational marksman killing for status and for fun.
His name was Wolverine. He was a Northern Right Whale with a slash of propeller marks across his tail stock that reminded researchers of the comic book hero of that name, and he lived to only nine years old. He’d survived three entanglements in fishing gear, and was found dead in the Gulf of St Lawrence in June in a pool of his own blood. His death was followed by another five of his kind, of the last of the 411 Northern Right Whales on Earth. Among the six dead last month was Punctuation, named after the scars on her head. She was 38, a prolific breeder and essential for the survival of the species. She died from ship strike, which is for no reason at all, which with entanglement in fishing gear, is pushing these whales over the edge of extinction long after whaler’s harpoons drove them to the brink. It’s thought that as the seas warm with climate change, the whales follow their prey moving further north, into heightened human threats which are responsible for the latest unsustainable spate of deaths.
On the other end of the spectrum, his name was George. He came from the ‘extinction capital of the world’, Hawaii, and he was the very last known of his species of Hawaiian land snail, Achatinella apexfulva. He lived to the old snail age of 14 but has no successors, no compatriots; and many other Hawaiian land snail types face the same end of the line.
Here in New Zealand, Māui and Hector’s dolphins ride a similar trajectory, as whole families of unnamed dolphins die in fishing nets offshore, unobserved, often unreported. And without even the benefits of charismatic megafauna status, in Canterbury the Eyrewell forest owned by Ngai Tahu, is felled and converted to dairy farming, taking the Eyrewell beetle with it into the annals of extinction history.
Across the globe, humans have never lived better, with generally longer life expectancy and survival of curable diseases. We have a cell phone in every pocket, even if we don’t always have portable water. We rail against climate change while extinction occurs in every niche. Information and celebrity news are at every person’s finger tips, but we can also know the names of the individuals of endangered species, and track CO2 emissions, the rates of icesheets melting, how much environmental overshoot we’ve reached so far this year. We live with the benefits and comforts of past deforestation, despoilation and degradation. Much of today’s quality of life is based on the earlier harvesting of whales but we’re horrified where whaling occurs now. Our fish and chips is at the cost of Maui and Hector’s dolphins in real time. But with the benefit of technology, we can count the cost. We’re right to be worried about the state of the environment for tomorrow while we destroy nature today.
But the extinction of elephants, whales, dolphins, animals and invertebrates around the world has its roots in imperialism. Colonisation, war, alienation and enclosure of lands, capitalism, itself has destroyed indigenous human and animal relations and communities on land and at sea. We’ve pushed biodiversity to the margins into tentative and perilous positions, exacerbating conflicts with subsistence farmers or poverty stricken communities.
In response to unfolding horrors and fears of calamity, Extinction Rebellion calls on Governments to declare a climate change emergency, to end biodiversity loss and to create Citizen’s Assemblies. And indeed, governments and councils around the country and around the world have declared an climate emergency in turn. But even if we kept CO2 emissions to the aspirational 1.5 or 2 degrees, we still face a genuine existential crisis. We can’t save the world by symbolism, tokenism, or slogans. We can’t save species with declarations or by building smarter appliances. We can’t solve the problems of today with the system that created them. If we can’t save Māui and Hector’s here, what hope is there for elephants in developing Africa, or whales in the world’s busiest shipping routes? If we couldn’t save Voortrekker and Wolverine, we definitely couldn’t save the Eyrewell beetle.
But in asking the state for a ‘little bit more power’ in the form of Citizen’s Assemblies while species burn, Extinction Rebellion asks the state for permission to define the problem and the solution. It puts trust in current tools to solve the problems those tools created.
The Extinction Rebellion tactic in the UK of provoking arrest of its protesting members, to clog up the court system and to recruit the police to the side of dissenters is a privilege of those not already targeted and marginalised by the state.
Calling for villagers not to kill elephants destroying their crops, or tigers killing their children, are just causes for us in the west. But we live in the luxury of the system that’s delivered goods to us at the expense of those communities and ecosystems and species.
Writer George Monbiot has called for an end to “green tinkering and ‘micro-consumerist’ bollocks”, that sees us finding virtue in changing from lightweight, handled plastic bags to heavy duty plastic bags or paper, plastic cotton buds to card, or our petrol cars to EV. He says ‘don’t change your cotton buds, change the system’.
Attempts to address climate change will be fraught if we don’t stop the extinction crisis, and we can’t stop the extinction crisis if we don’t stop the economic engine that drives the extraction, pollution, exploitation and appropriation of people and nature alike, and where the costs and benefits fall unevenly and conflict is inherent.
In recent years, since it’s been publicly popular, we’ve seen that economic engine harnessed to ‘green capitalism’, ‘green-growth’ and product switching, which ameliorates one type of harm at best, where products are cynically rebranded ‘green’ but still drive species loss, untenable resource use and extraction, conflicts between people and nature and often further displace environmental and social impacts onto the global south.
Climate change is just one force impacting on the extinction crisis, and even in the face of half-hearted governmental measures and solutions shackled to market incentives, and because there are market benefits to be had, it may be an easier problem to solve than species loss altogether.