Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, September 1, 2014

100 years ago today

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.


To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons.


                                                                                                Aldo Leopold, 1947


One hundred years ago today, the world lost the last passenger pigeon – a bird named Martha – who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo and had never known life in the wild.  This was a species that had once darkened the skies; the peak population in the early to mid-19th century estimated at 5 billion.  Yes, billion with a “b”.  A single colony in Wisconsin had over 135 million birds in 1871.  As the naturalist and scientist Aldo Leopold noted, the pigeon was no mere bird, he was a biological storm.


In 1947, Leopold wrote in On a Monument to the Pigeon,[1] from which the above quotes were taken.  I invite you to read this lovely, but poignant essay, in which Leopold not only laments the loss, but questions whether the gains and comforts that industry brought in exchange were worth the price.


It was once believed that it was impossible for a species to go extinct.  Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes of the evolution of our thinking on this topic in her latest book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.[2]  We know now that extinction is a natural phenomenon, that there is a “background rate” of species loss, and that there have been 5 mass extinction events in the long history of the planet. 


So have we learned anything after the loss of Martha and all of her billions of relatives?  Apparently not much.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity[3]:


Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.[4] It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.[5]


The topic of the decline of biodiversity shows up in journals as diverse as Science magazine and The Economist.  Many believe, as Kolbert’s book title alludes to, that the planet is now facing the 6th mass extinction.  This time, however, the cause is us. 


Later this semester, Dr. David Blockstein will be on campus to talk about Lessons from the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon a Century Ago.  We will also be participating in the Fold-the-Flock origami project ( and showing the film From Billions to None commemorating the loss of this bird that once were a living wind that shook the trees.   We invite you to join us in reflecting upon our impact on the planet.


[1] Available at
[2] 2014, Published by Henry Holt and Company.
[4] Chivian, E. and A. Bernstein (eds.)  2008. Sustaining life: How human health depends on biodiversity. Center for Health and the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, New York.
[5] Ibid. and Thomas, C. D., A. Cameron, R. E. Green, M. Bakkenes, L. J. Beaumont, Y. C. Collingham, B. F. N. Erasmus, M. Ferreira de Siqueira, A. Grainger, Lee Hannah, L. Hughes, Brian Huntley, A. S. van Jaarsveld, G. F. Midgley, L. Miles, M. A. Ortega-Huerta, A. Townsend Peterson, O. L. Phillips, and S. E. Williams. 2004. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427: 145–148.

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