“The ultimate path in front of us appears to be the total extinction of everything,” she said. But she was laughing when she said that too, and when I pointed that out, she shot back, “Well, because what else are you going to do?” I was relieved not to find yet another crabby and wounded ex-environmentalist, and I asked her how she was managing to live in a world that she found so discouraging. The answer wasn’t reassuring. She told me about the Taoists in ancient China. “They looked around and saw they were facing the same situation, a world that was disintegrating around them. And they realized the best thing to do is do as little as possible. Don’t feed any new energy into a system that’s falling apart, because you don’t know what that energy will wind up being spit back as.” Rather than try to change society, it’s better to retreat. “You try to stay virtuous in your immediate life, you try to be correct—because you only feed the monster if you interfere too much.” That was why she’d disappeared after the Mendocino Ridge, she said. She was done interfering.
climate change, by warming up the Arctic, is allowing grizzlies to range farther north, where they and polar bears have started interbreeding. Eventually, the polar bear may go extinct only after being absorbed into a new and unrecognizable hybrid species, which scientists, for the time being, can’t decide whether to call pizzlies or grolars.
As her divorce plodded on and the legal documents piled up, Jana felt herself clinging to the Palos Verdes blue, identifying with it in a richly personal way that many scientists might not admit to—as two kindred underdogs, spurned but battling their way out of a corner. She wasn’t just anthropomorphizing the butterfly; you could say she was Oprah-pomorphizing it. The butterfly was becoming her avatar, a gauge of her ability to reinvent and empower herself as a scientist and single mother. Resuscitating the Palos Verdes blue became both a literal test of her abilities and a metaphor for her own resilience. “That was me redefining myself,” she told me. The symbolism was almost too easy. Butterflies have always been symbols of rebirth and renewal, and the closer Jana got, the more levels of metaphor she saw. A larva, for example, doesn’t just develop into a butterfly inside the pupa; it first breaks down completely into an amorphous goop, then re-forms. Mattoni called it “the soup stage.” “You’re not what you were before,” Jana told me, “but neither are you what you’re going to be. The soup stage really sucks, but you just have to embrace being soup for a while.”
Nature can seem this pure and honorable only once we’re no longer afraid of it. We seem to be forever oscillating between demonizing and eradicating certain animals, and then, having beaten those creatures back, empathizing with them as underdogs and wanting to show them compassion. We exert our power, but are then unsettled by how powerful we are.
We’ve entered what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene—a new geologic epoch in which human activity, more than any other force, steers change on the planet. Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will survive only if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. Scott and his colleagues gave those creatures’ condition a name: conservation reliance. It means that, from here on out, we will increasingly be forced to cultivate the species we want, in places we protect and police just for them, perpetually rejiggering some asymmetrical balance to keep each one from sliding into extinction. We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.
Ice skating at the Natural History Museum rink was an unreserved success this morning. Lots of fun, and I didn’t fall over a single time.
If it wasn’t so expensive I’d go again soon.
Between 1850 and 2005 overfishing reduced the cod population in the northwestern Atlantic by 92 percent