Fifteen years ago Douglas Adams wrote a book called Last Chance to See. Unlike his Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently series, this was non­fic­tion; in it he chron­i­cled the plight of a half dozen or so extremely endan­gered species — imper­iled by human encroach­ment on their ter­ri­to­ries — and penned a beautifully-​​done mem­oir of desperation.

He wrote the fol­low­ing of the Yangtze River dol­phin, a fresh­wa­ter por­poise that was even then reduced to a pop­u­la­tion of per­haps 100, when con­tem­plat­ing the lives they must now be lead­ing in the silty, pol­luted waters of one of the most indus­tri­al­ized rivers in the world:

As I watched the wind ruf­fling over the bil­ious sur­face of the Yangtze, I realised with the vivid­ness of shock that some­where beneath or around me there were intel­li­gent ani­mals whose per­cep­tive uni­verse we could scarcely begin to imag­ine, liv­ing in a seething, poi­soned, deaf­en­ing world, and that their lives were prob­a­bly passed in con­tin­ual bewil­der­ment, hunger, pain, and fear.

Alas, that strug­gle has ended. The Yangtze River dol­phin is extinct.

Why is this impor­tant? Because these crea­tures were not low-​​order life forms or (puta­tively) insignif­i­cant “minor” species. The American Bald Eagle might be on the rebound, but for every suc­cess we see has­ten­ing decline and col­lapse of impor­tant and large pop­u­la­tions. Polar bears are drown­ing at sea because of van­ish­ing ice floes; man­a­tees are still threat­ened by too-​​careless boaters; pan­das are los­ing habi­tat and in decline; Japan is con­sid­er­ing using veni­son in sushi because over­fish­ing has so dras­ti­cally depleted seago­ing pop­u­la­tions; and our clos­est rel­a­tives, chim­panzees, bono­bos and goril­las, are severely threatened.

And none of this — absolutely none of it — would be true if we were not on this planet with them.

For how much longer do we intend to con­tinue our wastrel, reprehensibly-​​irresponsible behavior?

Soon, all too soon, we’re going to be left with cock­roaches, rodents and pigeons. Nothing else will stir, noth­ing else will scut­tle or fly across the coun­try­side as we con­tinue to raze and burn and rove over­land in our ridicu­lous carbon-​​belching monstrosities.


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