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Tomgram: Frida Berrigan, The Cheetah in Us All

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One genuine joy in my life is spending time with my grandson. He's six, like TomDispatchregular Frida Berrigan's son Seamus, and he reminds me constantly of just how remarkable -- how clever, quick, quirky, inquisitive, and ready to absorb the world -- we human beings are. Unlike a new-born foal that, on arrival, struggles to its feet almost instantly and stumbles into its life, we're slow to fully enter this world of ours, but once we're truly here: wow! Seeing a life, a mind, unfold is certainly a small but never-ending wonder. And yet in any afternoon we spend together there's always what I think of as that moment. I mean the one when I suddenly find myself thinking about the planet I'll leave to him, the planet I won't be on, and my heart sinks -- not because I won't be there but because he will and it's increasingly clear that it will be an ever more extreme place.

Just the other day, for instance, Drew Shindell, a Duke University climate scientist, indicated that an upcoming report he co-authored from the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will suggest that the world's governments are now "nowhere near on track" to keep the planet's temperature from passing the 1.5 degrees Centigrade mark (above the pre-industrial moment). That was the aspirational goal of the Paris climate accord before Donald Trump insisted that he would take the globe's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases out of it.

While few are going to be shocked by such a report on such a planet, it's bad news nonetheless -- and keeping that rise under 2 degrees Centigrade seems unlikely, too, or even possibly under 4 degrees. As anyone paying any attention at all to last summer's heat waves or the havoc recently wrought by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas would know, we're already living on a new (and degraded) planet. This is no longer a prospective matter. It's here -- now -- and if certain feedback loops kick in, it could prove even worse than most of us imagine in that future my grandson will inherit.

I must admit that such thoughts, and a certain feeling of helplessness, weigh me down sometimes when I'm with him. On the other hand, being there to see firsthand the ingenuity of humanity in a single being also gives me a certain hope that somehow, somewhere along the line, in some way, we'll pull it off, which brings me to Frida Berrigan, her son, Seamus, and the cheetahs... Tom

A Child at World's End
A Mother Thinks About the Inheritance of Children
By Frida Berrigan

"I don't want to live in a world without cheetahs, Mom."

Seamus loves cheetahs and what's not to love -- unless you are a Thomson's gazelle? Cheetahs are the fastest mammals on the planet, formidable predators, sleek, saucy looking, and they even have spots.

My six-year-old boy can't imagine a future without his favorite animal, but we live in the small city of New London, Connecticut. Unlike coyotes, cheetahs are, to say the least, rare here. The nearest zoo is more than an hour away. I'm not sure where his love for cheetahs came from, since he doesn't watch much television, not even nature shows. Still, here we are, my six-year-old boy and me talking about those cheetahs and the end of nature on a Sunday morning.

His observation actually turned out to be remarkably on point when it comes to our current situation, globally and environmentally. He made it during a week in which nature was hitting back hard. If cheetahs are indeed endangered, so were surprising numbers of human beings that week as killer storms struck from the Philippines to North Carolina. With rage and rain, an increasingly overheated, climate-changed Mother Nature briefly reclaimed some of her territory, which we had defiled, dividing it up into endlessly buildable lots all the way to the high-tide line, pocking it with hog farms, studding it with nuclear power plants. Hurricane Florence and SuperTyphoonMangkhut flooded the works, making the whole sodden mess hers again, at least for a time, and sending a signal about what humans and cheetahs are up against in the decades to come.

Unlike Seamus, I haven't given cheetahs much thought. Still, after he expressed his worries about that cat and his life, I did a little research. Cheetahs, you won't be surprised to learn, live throughout Africa(northern, eastern, and southern), as well as -- and this was news to me -- in India and Iran. There are only seven or eight thousand cheetahs left on Earth. Once upon a time (and not so long ago) there must have been 100,000. They are speedy and range widely over their habitats. They want to move. They are also killed as pests by farmers, taken as trophies by big-game hunters, and regularly hit by cars careening down the growing number of roads crisscrossing their territories.

Headed Toward Oblivion

I've never seen a cheetah in real life. Neither has my son. And, if truth be told, I'm no cheetah champion either. I don't even particularly like tabby cats. Still, I found that, in the wake of our conversation, I didn't want to live in a world without them either.

In 2012, when Seamus was born, 196 species of mammals were already "critically endangered," the animals closest to extinction. Today 199 are in this most endangered category and 37 more species than when he was born are "endangered," the next level down, according to the "Red Lists" maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. We don't see this dramatic decline of species variety in our little corner of the world. It's all squirrels and raccoons here and they seem to be winning always, but what scientists are calling "the sixth extinction" is as real as the possum now going through my recycling bin.

From cheetahs and other endangered big mammals, it's only a short hop to what environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert says are "a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays,[...] a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds" that are "headed toward oblivion." And it's but another short hop to other forms of obliteration and climate collapse, including the rapid decline of coral reefs, the growth of ocean dead zones, the retreat of sub-Arctic boreal forests, the "new-normal" of a raging fire season, the cracking and melting of what was once the strongest ice in the Arctic...

I could, of course, go on, but the mind shudders. Or thought of another way, the mind shutters. It forms a protective shell against what it can't truly take in -- or, at least, what it can't comprehend without radical change.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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