I heard the most offensive metaphor of my life at a big, expensive multinational jamboree about saving the animals. The rich and important country hosting this conference had sent one of their politicians, a man considered smart, eloquent and up-and-coming, to give the opening remarks. Many in the audience were politicians, too, from other countries, whose feelings about saving the animals were not to be taken for granted, and the rich country’s politician had obviously been charged with impressing upon everyone the gravity of the problem that had brought us there. He did this by telling us that human civilisation had so diminished the natural world, that the combined mass of all human beings and their farmed livestock now weighed twenty times as much as the combined mass of all other living creatures on earth. Later, another speaker repeated the comparison, which showed up in press reporting as the gathering’s anointed analogy.
The first thing that struck me about this particular comparison was, of course, how hard it was to visualise, and then to understand. Was I supposed to imagine both groups on separate, continent-sized dishes of a balance, one much lower than the other? It was an analogy dreamed up by someone who wanted to translate the whole thing into a cash number, but finding the thing he assessed to be invaluable, felt sweaty and mean and annoyed.
The sheer awkwardness of the global fight to avert mass extinction really crystallised for me in that moment. Human beings seem to be unable to succinctly describe, metaphorically explain, or even, at very basic levels, notice the disappearance of other species. I know because I suffer from this blindness, too. Extinction bobs helplessly at the surface of your mind—looking like a serious problem, definitely—but without being absorbed as true knowledge.
As dispiriting as I found the analogy, I have grown a bit more sympathetic to this man’s speechwriter over time. It’s difficult to convey this information in a way that really hits home.
Take, for instance, the fact that the World Wildlife Fund and the London Zoological Society found recently that global populations of vertebrates have declined by 68% since 1970.
Now, if you’re like me, this sentence kind of horrifies you, but then also seems very dull and plasticky and you have to go through it slowly to understand. “Vertebrates”—“has a backbone” (no plants, no insects, no molluscs, but snakes, primates, birds, fishes). “Populations have declined by 68%”—that’s the passive voice, working hard. Just how hard becomes more obvious when you consider that even 1970 is a very recent starting line. The first written accounts of landscapes in some parts of Africa and North America mention flocks of birds so dense they’d block out the sun, seas boiling with fish, vast plains carpeted with bison—sights that were already fantastical long before the decade of shag carpeting and Star Wars.
We are both deliberately, and innocently, bad at perceiving the absence of other living creatures in our lives. In a 2018 New York Times Magazine feature, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here,” Brooke Jarvis reported on Danish researchers whose studies confirm catastrophic declines in insect populations. But these studies began with what Jarvis sums up as decades of people feeling “a loose suspicion of wrongness” as insect populations plummeted all around us. Not a massive internal klaxon. Just an ordinary, loose bit of ‘wrongness’.
A species of endangered toad used to breed in my parent’s garden. At a certain point in summer there’d be a cacophony of croaking as Cape leopard toads called out for mates. I boasted about this to friends recently, as we watched a monstrous female clamber into a flower bed, only to be rebuked by mother. For the last three years, a killer fungus, much to her dismay, has taken up residence in the pond; the fungus has destroyed the toads’ larvae, preventing a new generation from being born even as the breeding stock diminishes. Which is perfectly horrific—in fact, memorably gross—but as she said it, I remembered I’d been told the same thing on each of my last three annual visits, always after remarking how loud the pond-sounds had been that night. An unintentionally ironic spin on, “The toads are really croaking,”
Some believe that nature documentaries create a false impression of boisterous biodiversity in massive, overflowing edens, while instead, these parks are often small pockets of land, and even those are threatened by poachers and pollution. Another consideration is that our lifestyles are so urban, so sterile—first mechanised, then digitised—that we don’t need to notice wildlife.
But if evolutionary psychology has anything to offer, why can’t it explain this? Electricity has made dawn and dusk vastly less important in our everyday lives than they were for most of our history, yet daylight still holds a deep psychological resonance. For hundreds of thousands of years, we were surrounded by and dependent on animal and insect life, and yet we don’t seem to have any instinctual reaction to their disappearance.
I recently came across an essay by John Berger about walking in the Ardèche gorge in France, where there are caves in which Cro-Magnon families once lived. Around the same period, these caves were also home to wolves; there are depressions fixed in the clay ground of the caves’ recesses, which Berger believes are the lasting traces left by sleeping bears. That wolves and bears and Cro-Magnon had been all tenants of the same caves is central to what Berger’s trying to say about the lives of these early Europeans. They made music and jewellery, he says, but not metal or beer. They were a lot like us, but also not:
The Cro-Magnon reply…to the first and perennial human question of: Where are we? was different from ours. The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority who were overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not onto a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world, and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon, were more animals.
What can encompass the central, intimate relationship humans have had with animals for most of our history, and the fact that we seem to absorb their absence so blithely? Maybe we do feel an innate disturbance through our disconnection from animal life, but lack the cultural memory or don’t yet have the awareness to perceive or articulate it, and so we suppress it. Or, to flip that over, maybe we simply need to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, somewhere out there, the wild things are still constantly teeming, writhing, hunting, fluttering, and burrowing. Or, if you will, they’re out there maintaining a truly impressive mass.
Maybe it’s simply denial. There’s nothing more human than that.