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When an Elephant Falls in the African Bush

March 22, 2012

When South Korean scientists announce, as they did earlier this month, that they hope to clone a Woolly Mammoth, the world listens, but if poachers kill 200 elephants in the African bush, as they did recently in Cameroon, does anyone really care? Does our love of exotic animals begin with extinction? Are we turning the world into a virtual zoo in which a growing number of large animals go extinct in the wild, preserved only in small, heavily protected game parks? Fifty or a hundred years from now, will we be cloning extinct species of elephants, tigers, and rhinos for our personal amusement? Is that where our love of science and animals leads us?

Will we spend billions of dollars to determine whether microbial life ever existed on Mars, only to extinguish in a matter of decades the last vestiges of countless Earth-bound species, large and small, that evolved over many millions of years? Will we send ocean probes downs into underwater volcanoes to catalog rare extremophiles living under seemingly impossible conditions, while simultaneously doing our damnedest to make life impossible for ocean life as we have traditionally known it?

Does it matter that the rate of plant and animal extinction is 100 or even 1,000 times faster than it was a thousand years ago? Are we so invested in human worth that we really don't care about the survival or other species? Do we really believe that this planet is our personal playground? Do we really think that everything will be okay as long as we are the last species standing? At what point did we begin acting as if we could appropriate unto ourselves the sole use of Earth's biological capacity? At what point, if ever, will we stop acting that way?

We are vigorously scanning the galaxy looking for rocky, extra-solar planets with enough liquid water to sustain life, but do we stop draining the ancient underground aquifers that we rely upon for our own food production and survival? When we are looking for signs of ancient river beds on Mars, do we ever reflect upon the fact that many of our own rivers no longer run to the sea? When our space probes cannot withstand the intense heat and pressure of the Venetian surface, do we stop to do anything about own greenhouse gas emissions? Do we ever wonder whether Earth will be able to sustain life a million years from now?

With over 1 billion people living in extreme poverty, and just under 1 billion people going hungry every night, do we really believe that we can add another 2.3 billion people to the planet over the next 40 years without adding to the number of those living in severe poverty or hunger? Living standards rose dramatically in the 20th century, but do we really believe that we can sustain such dramatic growth without eventually running out of food, energy, minerals, arable land or water? We worry constantly about reviving the global economy and getting economic growth back on track, but do we ever wonder whether our long-term growth path is sustainable?

Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, so why are we shutting down family planning clinics and talking about limiting contraception? The world's poorest countries and those that are most dependent on food aid have some of the highest fertility rates in the world, so why are we contributing so little to international family planning? When women in the developing world don't have access to contraceptives, maternal and infant mortality rates soar, so why are "pro-life" groups fighting to slash support for family planning? Do we really believe that denying women the ability to prevent an unwanted pregnancy will make our country or the world a better place?

The advance of science has enabled us to measure our impact upon the planet with increasing precision, so why are we ignoring all the science? Will our intelligence in the end count for nothing? Are we destined -- like the elephants, tigers, and rhinos -- for extinction? Are we to become the ultimate victim of our own success? And, if so, when the last human falls, centuries or millennia hence, will there be anyone there to hear it?

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on March 22, 2012 on The Huffington Post.

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