In the first days of January 2000, whilst millions of people were recovering from the ‘world’s largest party’ to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium, a sobering event of global importance took place, largely unnoticed by the international media and the general public alike. In Spain’s Ordesa National Park a falling tree hit and killed the last surviving Pyrenees mountain goat, a species endemic to the mountains on the border between Spain and France. Thus, the ecological event which marked the arrival of the new millennium was the extinction of another species – a deeply symbolic and alarming continuation of the destructive trends of the 20th century.
According to the best estimates of conservation biologists, the rate of species extinctions is now on the order of 150 per day. Virtually all of these are invertebrates in the tropical rainforests, and they will never have been described or studied by scientists. Thus, when a documented extinction, such as that of the Pyrenees mountain goat, occurs, it is just the tip of the iceberg of what is actually happening to our planet’s biological diversity.
This gloomy start to the new millennium was compounded in September 2000, when another mammal extinction was reported – that of Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey. Despite intensive searches, this species had not been seen since 1978, and with its natural habitat – the tropical rainforests of West Africa – now reduced to tiny fragments covering less than 10% of their former range, biologists concluded that the species was extinct. This loss was particularly significant because it was the first extinction of a primate, the family of animals which are humanity’s nearest biological relatives, to have occurred in 200 years.
With these losses, and the devastation of forests and other habitats, continuing apace on every continent, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the destruction in the world today. Our population of more than six billion people is putting an ever-increasing burden on the Earth’s ecosystems, and I’ve come to think of the destination which our culture is heading towards as the ‘enslavement of the planet’. For me, this represents the thrust of our industrial, consumer society to harness all the world’s ‘resources’, and to exploit every square metre of the planet’s surface for human material gain. The direct corollary of our rush to get rich is the impoverishment of biological diversity, as species become extinct and natural habitats are converted to sterile monoculture plantations or degraded wastelands. This is matched by a spiritual impoverishment in people, as our opportunities for experiencing our original home – wild Nature – diminish.
With this perspective, I sometimes feel as helpless in attempting to halt the relentless tidal onslaught of humanity’s impact on the planet as in stopping the incoming tide of the sea. More than 32,800 hectares of forest are lost in the world every day, and our expropriation of the Earth’s natural wealth reaches new heights with each new record high in the international stock market indicators. Thirty years after the publication of the Club of Rome’s ground breaking book, ‘The Limits to Growth’, every national government and international financial institution is still committed to the principle of unlimited economic growth. This is despite evidence such as a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme, which stated that, in order to sustainably satisfy the legitimate needs of the world’s poorer nations (never mind the habitat requirements of the planet’s other five million species), a tenfold decrease in resource consumption by the wealthy nations is necessary.
In the face of such seemingly irreconcilable trends, where does my deep-rooted sense of optimism for the future come from?
It stems largely from my personal experience of having access to an unlimited source of inner power – the passion for what I really care about and believe in. By acting with total commitment to the vision and inspiration which arises when I allow that passion to flow through me, I’ve found that I, like any individual, have the power to effect meaningful change in the world. By giving voice to the deepest feelings of my heart and finding ways to express those through practical and positive action, I’ve discovered previously unknown skills and abilities within myself, and that I can make a difference far beyond my immediate surroundings.
It was in 1986, after being touched by the plight of the last few remnants of the original forest in Scotland, that I made a commitment to launching a project to help restore the Caledonian Forest. At the time I had no training or skills in conservation or biology, no material resources or funds for such a project and no access to land to do the restoration work on. However, I had a deep personal connection with the trees, a determination to do what I could to help the return of the forest and a willingness to speak about my passion to anyone who was interested. As I did so, all that was needed for the project began to come together – information, enthusiastic colleagues, contacts with landowners, volunteers and funding. From such beginnings, Trees for Life has grown into a highly effective organisation today; one which is achieving substantial results in regenerating the Caledonian Forest, and which is helping to pioneer and promote ecological restoration at an international level.
Through the work of Trees for Life and many other individuals and organisations, the tide has unquestionably turned for the future of Scotland’s native forests. After 2,000 years of forest loss, restoration projects have sprung up all over the country, capturing the attention of the public and probably known to every school child in the land. At the same time, there has been a vast groundswell of awareness of the need for political self-determination amongst the Scottish people. This has culminated in the reestablishment of a Scottish parliament, with real power over the nation’s affairs, after a gap of three hundred years. Following closely on the heels of that will be the first reintroduction of an extirpated mammal, when the European beaver is returned to Scotland this year. For me, it is no coincidence that the reclaiming of political power has happened at the same time that the movement to restore Scotland’s forests and wildlife has gathered such momentum. By reconnecting with our almost-lost biological heritage, we’ve begun to discover our personal power both individually and also collectively as a nation.
As a result, I’ve discovered that while we can’t stop the incoming tide, we do have the ability to reduce and reverse the impact our culture is having on the planet. Although the tidal pull of gravity is beyond our control, the destruction of forests and the loss of species are entirely within the power of humanity, and we can turn away from our seemingly unstoppable rush to ecological disaster.
In the past few years, I’ve become aware of many initiatives which reflect an entirely new dimension to the international conservation movement and the efforts to protect the planet’s biological diversity. Previously, such projects had been mainly focussed on ‘damage limitation’ – on preventing the destruction of the rainforests, or the extinction of threatened species such as the tiger, blue whale or giant panda – and were therefore reactive in nature.
Now, however, while that essential work must continue, there’s another qualitatively different aspect to the endeavours of many people and organisations concerned about the future of the planet. This is embodied by new projects which are pro-active rather than reactive, and which seek to implement a positive vision for how their proponents would like the world to be, instead of just opposing what they don’t like. The movement to restore Scotland’s native forests is an obvious example of this, and the one closest to my heart and home, but numerous others have sprung up everywhere. These include: the Wildlands Project, which advocates the rewilding of large parts of North America, through expanding and linking up existing protected areas, to provide adequate habitat for all the continent’s species; the Gondwana Project, which proposes that all the world’s forests south of latitude 40 degrees south be protected as international sanctuaries to safeguard their species, many of which have a common origin in the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland; the Paseo Pantera project, which seeks to create a system of connected protected areas throughout Central America, thereby providing a migration and dispersal route again for the jaguar, which gives the project its Spanish name; and the Global Ecovillage Network, which brings together small scale environmentally-sound communities from many countries that are demonstrating a sustainable way for humans to live in balance with the planet.
Although these projects have yet to bear significant fruit, they all share a common feature – they are expressions of an affirmative vision for the future, and are empowered by the passion and cares of the people who have initiated them. Together, they form part of the only viable alternative to the ‘enslavement of the planet’ – the revitalisation of the Earth. While it may be too late for the Pyrenees mountain goat and Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey, these projects and other similar ones will ensure that there is a viable future for many other species.
At present, such initiatives are largely unknown to most of the mainstream media and the public at large. However, just as the change in the ocean’s tides is imperceptible at first, but then gathers momentum with increasing speed, so too is a sea change underway in overall human consciousness and action.
I feel it in myself, in my heart and in my bones, and I see it in others who are acting with the passion and commitment of their hearts to put their visions into practice. Our collective efforts may not be very obvious just now, but if enough of us pull together, that will soon change and human endeavours can be redirected towards nurturing, rather than destroying, all other life. I believe that we each have our own unique contribution to make to this change, and there’s a simple verse which summarises this succinctly and poetically:
We are the power in everyone
We are the dance of the moon and the sun
We are the hope that will never die
We are the turning of the tide
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 2002 edition of the Trees for Life Calendar)
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