When I saw last month that there were new daisies, red clover, butter and eggs in profusion along the path of my morning walk—alongside the fallen autumn leaves, there was something thrilling about the juxtaposition, as if I were experiencing a supernatural conflation of time, all the seasons at once. The strange beauty of the experience was quickly followed by a sadness about what has come to be called global weather weirdness, along with an apercu about related mixed feelings about changes in our built environment.
I had been reading Elisabeth Kolbert’s brilliant book The Sixth Extinction, about the “big five” extinctions which, over the course of millions and millions of years wiped out flora and fauna, each time decreasing diversity of species, and about the sixth extinction, which we are now apparently in the midst of, an extinction happening within the age now called “Anthropocene” by many scientists and anthropologists. Kolbert traces the astonishing way in which humans have proliferated over the face of the globe in unprecedented numbers and at unprecedented speed since the Industrial Revolution. How we have changed the face of the earth, the very nature of the atmosphere, and the acidity of the oceans at incomprehensible rates. Within the context of a human life, it used to be difficult to see the changes we wrought, but it is getting easier to take note, and scientists can now watch as species go from thriving, to rare, to extinct before their eyes.
The very same characteristics which have allowed humans to transport invasive species from one side of the globe to another, to out-compete the less-adept Neanderthals, to invent tools to kill the megafauna, and most dramatically since the industrial age, to emit lethal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, have allowed us to discover new ecological design methods, to make beautiful art which celebrates the beauties of the natural world, philosophies to defend its protection, and elaborate techniques to save the last remaining exemplars of endangered species in seed banks and laboratories. But human ingenuity may not be enough to reverse climate change, because no matter how clever we are, extinctions happen precisely because something unexpected happens.
Kolbert writes, “Traits that were once advantageous can become lethal. Organisms suddenly face conditions for which they are evolutionarily unprepared”.
From really up close it is usually hard to see the changes, and just as hard to realize how one’s own actions cause the changes. Often, changes are considered positive, progress. When humans first began to transport species across the globe, it seemed to increase diversity; but over time, as stronger, invasive species push out native ones, as species competed for sustenance over relatively smaller areas, diversity decreased dramatically: eventually all places come to have the same smaller collection of flora and fauna, just as in the built environment all towns come to have the same brand-name coffee shop, drugstore, and clothing stores, while the unique stores and cafes of an area go rare, endangered, and extinct before our eyes.
In the context of millions of years, it only took a flash in the pan for humans to wipe out the mega fauna or their Neanderthal brothers. They didn’t know what they were doing, but over a few generations massive destruction occurred. After the Industrial Revolution changes happened so fast that they were sometimes dramatic enough to notice.
Burlington too has changed over the last hundred years, for better and for worse, but relatively slowly compared to changes happening under the “Weinberger Revolution”—a wholesale free-for-all for invasive and predatory speculators. The city is changing so fast that anyone who is paying attention can see it, as if in some manic cartoon-speed-up of a boom town rising from the ashes. Again, at first this might seem like progress, like increased diversity. “Mixed use” development promises everything you could want within walking distance. A little of this, a little of that. But the large wildlife corridor is reduced to a tiny speck of lawn, dramatically decreasing species diversity in our shrinking urban wilds; human diversity decreases too, as local businesses cannot afford to prosper in competition with predatory big retailers, as lower income people cannot afford rents or prices. Increased traffic, stress, busy-ness, noise, fragmentation and alienation rob us of our humanness and our community’s cohesiveness. As we whittle away at our civic ethics, our democracy, our integrity, as we destroy our own city and continue to poison our lake, while apologists for over-development dare to pose as environmentalists fighting against “sprawl,” we contribute to the sixth extinction of the planet.
Can you see the signs? Or, like that poor frog in a vat of boiling water, who doesn’t notice the water is getting warmer, do you still think everything is going to be just fine?