Late-night thoughts on human hubris

It’s 7 a.m.

Do you know where the songbirds are?

I have been struck by the silence of the woods as I take my daily walks.

Once in a while a chickadee will call in a high hemlock.

More rarely, I’ll see a nuthatch making its way sideways up a tree trunk.



But for the most part, the forest is eerily silent, and even at my bird feeder the once lively ranks of brightly colored birds—goldfinches, purple finches, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, juncos, titmice—have thinned.

It’s not an illusion, and it’s not an anomaly.

The Silent Spring predicted by Rachel Carson 50 years ago is well on its way to becoming a reality.

And the emptiness of the air is being mirrored in the waters.

Last week, over the protests of commercial fisherman, New England fishery management officials voted to sharply reduce the catch limits on cod, in the hope of saving this iconic Atlantic fish from extinction.

Cod was once the passenger pigeon of the sea, so numerous it was used as farm fertilizer and treated as if it were in endless supply.


After just a few years of commercial trawling—a blink of the eye in relation to cod’s million-year history on the planet—the cod, along with so many other fish species, is almost gone.

“The United States has watched the near total collapse of cod stocks in Canada,” reports The New York Times. “The demise of the fish populations was hastened by the widespread use of big trawlers equipped with radar and sonar systems that enhanced the ability to catch the fish. They expanded the area and depths that could be fished and sped up the process, diminishing the ability of the remaining fish stocks to replenish themselves.

“The big trawlers also swept up other fish that had little commercial value but played important predator-prey roles in maintaining the ecological balance of the species. Today the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is at 18 percent of what scientists deem to be a healthy population; in Georges Bank, it is 7 percent.”

I well remember my sons’ disappointment when they threw some fishing lines into the glistening ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia.  Not a fish was to be had, and when we asked local people about it, they just shook their heads sadly.

The fish are gone.

Because we don’t eat songbirds, there is no “management agency” keeping track of their populations.

At best, there are conservationists and wildlife biologists trying to sound the alarm.

But the truth is that the collapse of biodiversity is too huge a problem for any one agency to deal with.  In the ocean it’s about greedy, reckless trawling; on land it’s about the relentless destruction of the forests and the poisoning of farmland and fresh water.

It’s about the continuing reliance on dirty fossil fuels, despite the robust evidence of the impact of climate change on planetary health.

It’s about the hubris of human beings, thinking that we alone can survive the biodiversity collapse we have engineered.

buffalofThe saddest story I’ve read in a long time is about the bison in Montana.

You remember, the ones that were shot and left to rot by the hundreds of thousands in the late 19th century?

The ones that were a hairs-breath from extinction, but were painstakingly brought back by breeders, and now roam “free” in national parks?

Well, the Montana legislature is proposing to restore the 19th century practice of shooting bison on sight, treating any who dare to stray onto private property as “vermin.”

The once noble buffalo herds that thundered across the open prairies and mountain valleys of North America, reduced to a tiny fraction of their original population, are now to be shot for daring to step across an invisible property boundary to eat the green grass on the other side.

In the 1980s and 1990s, reports The New York Times, “Department of Livestock officials gunned down hundreds of famished Yellowstone bison that migrated into Montana in search of forage.”

Now a group of landowners and ranchers in Montana wants their state Legislature to make this practice law.

If Americans cared about the demise of the innocent creatures of the natural world a fraction as much as they care about their oh-so-beloved Superbowl, we would find the will and the way to solve the slow-motion nightmare of extinction.

We would figure out how to live sustainably on the magnificent planet that has enabled our remarkable rise as a species.

The truth is that human beings are the ultimate invasive species.

We are over-populating to the point where everything else is being crowded out beneath our monolithic spread.

What will happen when there are no more coral reefs, no more fish, no more forests, no more birds?

I’d like to give myself some comfort by saying I won’t live to see that day.

But realistically I have to face the fact that that day is just around the corner.

Leave a comment


  1. Kyle Holberg

     /  February 4, 2013

    I so often wonder if we humans will ever wake up to reality. Thanks goodness for people like yourself who give a voice to the “innocent creatures” who have none.

  2. Gerry Gras

     /  February 4, 2013

    Regarding “Invasive species”: I guess in a sense we are an invasive species for everywhere on the planet except where we originated. But I also think that because we are harming the ecosystem of the whole planet, and we originated on the planet, I think more in terms of humans having out of control growth, so we’re a cancer on Earth.

    Regarding “waking up to reality”: I think we are waking up to reality … slowly. And if our waking up continues at the same slow pace, well, I think we are in for catastrophic consequences for our own species, possibly extinction, possibly a major dieoff. To avoid
    catastrophe, we need to wake up much faster.

    After observing the hurricanes, the flooding, the droughts, the forest fires, the forests decimated by insects, the spread of diseases, the melting of the ice in the Arctic, Greenland,and Antarctica … my guess is that climate change will have consequences within 5 years that few people will be able to ignore.

    If you want to hasten the awakening, and help push government to be more responsible, you might consider getting involved with and/or Citizens Climate Lobby. Both of these groups are growing rapidly. ( ) was created about 6 years ago and has had thousands of events around the world, with at least one event in every country but North Korea. Starting a few months ago it has been creating local groups around the U.S., to work on divestment from fossil fuel companies, stopping the XL pipeline, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, creating carbon tax and/or cap and trade policies, and more.

    Citizens Climate Lobby ( ) was created about 6 years ago with its main purpose being to lobby elected officials on government policy. It also works on educating the public.

    Best wishes,


    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  February 4, 2013

      Hi Gerry,
      I do follow both these groups closely! I plan to be in Washington DC for the Feb 17 climate rally, sponsored by and other groups. Time to put my boots on the ground in the environmental movement, for sure! Past time!

      • Gerry Gras

         /  February 5, 2013

        I will not be in DC on Feb 17. But I will be at the San Francisco climate rally that day:

      • @Jennifer: thank you for a wonderfully penned piece.

        @Gerry: If you can’t be in Washington DC on 17Feb2013, please consider co-signing the open letter to President Obama, and/or using the Sierra Club Foundation’s form letter to devise your own, as I did (see links on my blog post).

  3. Martin Lack

     /  February 4, 2013

    The Silent Spring predicted by Rachel Carson 50 years ago is was well on the way to becoming reality 50 years ago.

    With my thanks to Artur Mol*, Rachel Carson’s book was a mere bump in the road for the “institutionalised destruction of nature” design flaw in modernity that leads inexorably to environmental degradation.

    * Mol, A. (1996), ‘Ecological Modernisation and Institutional Reflexivity: Environmental Reform in the Late Modern Age’, Environmental Politics, 5(2), pp.302-23.

  4. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  February 4, 2013

    Yes, it was well on the way 50 years ago, but as 50 is my current lifespan, that’s how I can measure experientially. I know that as a child I saw many, many more birds in the local forests than I do today. In the past 5 years the silence has become downright dramatic, like the total absence of fish in the sea around Nova Scotia. Is it a “design flaw in modernity”? Or just the usual pattern for Earth creatures–we do our best to succeed until we are undone by our very success?

    • Martin Lack

       /  February 4, 2013

      OK, maybe I was being too harsh:. Rachel Carson clearly wrote her book in response to observing a wide range of negative trends. Thankfully, the book halted and, for a while, reversed many of those trends. However, as you and many others have noted, those wide-ranging negative trends are now obvious once more. [Full disclosure: 50 years ago I did not exist].

    • I would argue that it is a design flaw in modernity on the grounds that Hominidae survived successfully as homo sapiens sapiens for a couple of hundred thousand years, but the species evolved into homo fatuus brutus in a mere two centuries — coincident with modernity, by definition.

  5. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  February 4, 2013

    Ok rub it in Martin, I know I’ve had more years on this sad planet than you!

  6. …snorkeling in the Caribbean 30+ years ago, the water was teaming with various species of fish…. on a recent trip a couple of years back most all were gone… I feel the same, I never thought I’d see this happen in my lifetime…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: