Of Baby Eagles and Human Prospects
A curious convergence on the front page of The New York Times’ Sunday Review on June 22.
The lead piece, with its illustration taking up the vast preponderance of the page’s acreage, concerned the anguished public online response to the fate of a visibly ailing baby eagle whose Minnesota nest had, over the past two years, grown into the focus of a live online streaming video feed with literally millions of viewers. The other piece … well, we’ll get to the other piece in a moment.
The eagle article was by Jon Mooallem, author as well of last year’s book “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America” — as this piece was, too: both sometimes dismaying and weirdly reassuring, and very nicely turned as well. It traced the rise and increasing popularity of these sorts of live streaming video nature feeds, and then told the story of this particular incident: how over the preceding months, the three baby eagle chicks in the Minnesota nest in question had started being referred to among their myriad fans as Snap, Crackle and Pop; and how one recent morning, people began to notice, with ever increasing alarm and desperation, that Snap was clearly in some sort of trouble: It (he? she?) couldn’t seem to get up to eat and was growing weaker and weaker.
It seemed, at least to some viewers, that the problem was simply one of its having gotten stuck to the muddy floor of the nest, such that all that would be required to save it would be for someone to go up and jiggle the nest. But the operators of the camera, the Nongame Wildlife Program, explained that they were maintaining a policy of noninterference (sort of a streaming video version of the Prime Directive), that the whole point of the exercise was to let nature play out as it will, albeit across the screens of millions of viewers. But this was not good enough for many of those viewers, and ever more urgent and emphatic emails began pouring in to the Nongame Wildlife Program, demands that Somebody Do Something. So, as Mooallem relates, “a decision was made: Within a couple of hours, two utility workers got into a bucket truck and gently lifted Snap out of the nest: The chick wasn’t stuck in the mud. It was badly injured — most likely trampled accidentally by one of its parents. It had a severely fractured wing and a systemic infection. There was no chance of recovery. Snap had to be euthanized.”
The mood online in the wake of the incident, Mooallem went on to report, was mournful but respectful (frowny face emoji and bulging pink hearts and all manner of expressions of appreciation to the good folk at the Nongame Wildlife Program): “Fly high and fly free, little Snap,” as one poster eulogized. “You taught us humans so much.” For his part, Mooallem went on to ring all sorts of marvelous changes from the story: the way, for instance, nobody had seemed particularly put out, earlier in the live stream, when the chick trio’s parents had brought in a dead female pigeon to feed the kids, one that even proved, once everyone got into ripping the corpse to pieces, to have an egg inside, which was similarly torn to yokey pieces. Mooallem likewise pointed out that there was a time not that long ago when bald eagles had been seen as repellent and dangerous pests — how at the turn of the century papers regularly feasted their readers on horror stories of eagles kidnapping human babies right out of their prams, with consequent public outcry for the wholesale eradication of the winged vermin, so much so that “by the 1920s, all this vitriol and killing was pushing the bald eagle toward extinction.” Slowly, Mooallem reports, the public mood turned — in part owing to the bald eagle’s patriotic associations during World War II, later for the way its fate perfectly fitted it as a poster child for environmentalist concerns around the dangers of DDT and other pesticides — until seven years ago it was possible to take the bald eagle off the list of endangered species. (This despite the fact that the species remains highly regulated, so much so that whenever one dies, its corpse is supposed to be shipped to the National Eagle Repository, where, via meticulous controls and endless paperwork, its various feathers and other remains are to be distributed among Native Americans for religious use. That is precisely what happened with Snap.)
Mooallem concluded by noting that things probably were simpler and more straightforward when our relations with animals were viewed in more strictly utilitarian terms: which ones were useful to us, and which posed a threat to our various support systems. In a final twist, though, he noted how glomming on to certain animals the way we did with Snap may in fact still serve a useful purpose after all: “We have a destructive history when it comes to the natural world. … Maybe we latch on to the species we’ve willfully not destroyed as proof of our compassion.”
Indeed. This brings us to that second New York Times article Sunday, squirrelled away there at the very bottom of the same page, almost as an afterthought — an urgent plea from former “W” Bush Treasury Secretary Henry (Hank) Paulsen that the time has come (“there is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting,” he insists in the piece’s first sentence) to do something substantial about climate change. Going on to weigh the risks involved (the possible fate, after all, of humanity itself), he develops a cogent case for some sort of carbon dioxide emissions tax, in part as a way of unleashing market forces toward desperately needed environmentalist innovations. Having read the first piece you can now almost hear Paulsen exclaiming, “Damn it: Somebody, Do Something! Bring out the bucket truck and jiggle that nest!” And yet, having also been following the story thus far (and the piece’s anomalous placement there at the bottom of the page almost seems to underline the fact), there is much that is dismaying and little that is reassuring about the prospect of our political class, and Congress in particular, rising to the challenge. A carbon tax? Yeah, right: yada, yada, yada, yawn.
Baby eagles seize our collective imaginations: the fate of the Earth, or at any rate the prospects for the continuing existence of our own species on this planet, not so much.
Thinking on this curious and dispiriting disjunction, on the other hand, I was reminded of George Carlin’s legendary 1992 “The Planet Is Fine” routine (you can easily track it down on YouTube). You remember Carlin: He was that hippie comedian who was always getting pissed off about something. On that specific day, as I recall, it was golf, that stupid pastime in which grown men chase a little ball around trying to nudge it with sticks wielded from their waists into little holes in the ground, but you know what was really steaming his goat that day? It was those stupid “Save the Planet” bumper stickers. The sheer delusional self-aggrandizing conceit of it all! Because, as he now insisted, “There is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are fucked. … Compared to the people, the planet is doing great.”
Going on to note that the planet has been around for four and a half billion years (compared to our, what, 200,000?), Carlin argued dryly that “the planet has been through a lot worse than us. … Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sunspots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages. … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?
“The planet … the planet …” he now powered toward his main point, “the planet, isn’t going anywhere. WE ARE!” Because the planet was going to shake us off, in his words, “like a bad case of fleas. … Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac.” We were going to be going away, “and we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little Styrofoam.”
And he went on like that for another 15 minutes: a harrowing, hilarious, hilariously harrowing gaze into the very heart of the abyss.
And maybe Carlin was right, maybe he (R.I.P.) is right. Maybe such lucid detachment is the proper stance toward the approaching calamities. Observe the Prime Directive, even with regard to ourselves. No interference. Let nature play its course. Especially given all the astonishing damage we have done in our measly 200,000 years. As Carlin concluded, “The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, because that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. … Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. So, the plastic is here, our job is done, we can be phased out now.”
On the other hand, surely that’s wrong, surely Carlin can’t have been right in how he parsed matters. If only it were going to be that simple. The Earth getting set to shake us off the way a dog shakes off fleas. No, whatever is coming is not going to be sudden and final and definitive like that. Rather it will be hideously messy, playing out decade after decade, a complicated interweaving set of calamities — droughts, floods, famines, mass migrations, wars — that will seldom present themselves as “climate change.” (One wonders how people in the comfort of their own homes are going to respond to the live real-time streaming video feeds of the Maldive Islands slowly disappearing beneath the waves, what to do with all those people, and then, hard on that, the entire Bangladeshi delta, and Florida, and half of New York City.) Our children (if not we already) will be faced with countless ever-compounding triage dilemmas that will become pretty much the whole of their lives.
And then as well, one is faced with a deeper conundrum. For if it is indeed the case that over four and a half billion years, matter on this third planet out from a medium sized star on the flank of a medium sized galaxy slowly, infinitely infinitesimally gradually became aggregate, and then (eons later) organic, and then animate, and then (still eons and eons later, and all of it completely contingently, it never had to happen, it so easily could not have) sentient, and then terrestrial, and then (some of it, just an infinitesimal proportion) conscious, and then some of that self-conscious, which is to say capable of marveling at the whole process by which it itself had come into being and at the entire universe in which it was so wondrously nested — well then (and especially because who knows if this ever happened anywhere else or could ever happen again, the odds against so being pretty spectacular), was the looming extinction of such an awareness of no more cosmic import than, say, that of a little baby eagle named Snap? Was it all in fact just the same?
Surely, surely that can’t be right. Surely we don’t get to gaze upon the fate of our own species through the lens of the Prime Directive. On the contrary, surely it is our duty to intervene and to do so on an urgent basis (at the very least, and if only just for starters, by instigating the sort of plan Paulsen is advocating). That in turn is what makes the paralysis of our current political culture so very excruciating. And let’s not delude ourselves: That paralysis is not a passive condition; our political system is actively being paralyzed (by a collusion of tea party Randian denialists, the fossil fuel and other interests that fund them, and a Supreme Court majority, brought into being by those very interests, that sanctions their continuing and virtually unlimited funding of same).
The point, though, is that this is hardly an impasse that we are watching on the far side of our computer and video screens. It is one that we are living. And we ought to begin to act as if it were what it is: a matter of our own life and death.