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Alternatives to Extinction*

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*possibly, in my humble opinion

I admit I came close to dying of depression after my last article, "The DNA Frame." But I wanted to summarize and solidify my own thinking about what I've read on extinction, information that raises the real possibility of humans waving a final bye-bye. I also wrote it to employ the old Dale Carnegie trick of mentally accepting the worst case scenario, then doing what you can with what you have, to hopefully avoid that scenario. And I wrote it to sound the alarm that many people who've done their homework have been sounding for a number of years, that extinction of our species is not only possible, but likely if we don't start mending our ways.

So I propose this article as a response to my own earlier article, and as food for thought on precluding the disappearance of our own DNA. I begin with what I think is a small injection of common sense, run through a short biology lesson, then offer what I believe is the One Big Asset that just might save ourselves from ourselves.

Anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of science or logic must recognize that no one is a prophet, in spite of claims to the contrary. The universe is loaded with more than enough surprises to make "reliable prophecy" a contradiction in terms. I've made so many predictions that I was absolutely certain were right""that Reagan would start a nuclear war; that civilization would never make it to the year 2000; that one year ago I was going to die, on several occasions, but then I got a heart transplant last August""that I now argue that anything I personally predict, will NOT come to pass. So it's a good thing that I predict human extinction. Some friends even encouraged me to predict that Bush would win, but I just couldn't go the distance (sorry about that--it's a heavy burden, believe me).

Accurate predictions encompassing many variables are next to impossible to make, particularly long range ones involving decades or hundreds of years. This is all the more so in the realm of biology, where variables abound. I just finished reading Extinction, Bad Genes or Bad Luck?, by David Raup (W.W. Norton and Company, 1991), and was reminded that some species, such as a black sea urchin in the Caribbean, the Diadema, have gone to extremely low numbers, then made resounding comebacks with a change in conditions. There is what's called the minimum viable population, which, according to Raup, "is very low, commonly in the range of a few tens or hundreds of individuals." The lower the numbers of a species, of course, the more likely is extinction, which is why every effort should be made to protect multiple habitats. But the point I bring away is that nothing is inevitable, and what time we have ought best be spent working to preserve what we have, rather than despairing.

Also, efforts which protect habitats, particularly with bridges between them, appear to have an excellent chance of succeeding. And as anyone who has done some gardening or landscaping knows, flora or fauna often flourish where once there was wasteland. Many examples come to mind, but I'll use just two: While visiting NYC a few summers ago, the scenery along the Long Island Railroad astonished me. Nature was reclaiming a decaying industrial infrastructure at a prodigious rate, with flush trees, healthy shrubs, vibrant flowers, and weeds of every description, and obviously birds, insects, and small mammals, taking over and thriving amidst fracturing and crumbling concrete. I was reminded of pictures of the Mayan ruins being gently recycled by Mother Nature. (The decaying infrastructure is yet another issue, but surely curable if we introduce the concepts of sustainability and perhaps humanity into our domestic policies. But more that on another time.)

Here in Utah, I have seen once barren, severely eroded ground from early mining days, as shown in old photos, now covered with tall grasses, alpine flowers, and sturdy conifers, a veritable living skin on a once rocky wasteland. Point being, good things can happen to the earth's surface in a relatively short time, with proper care given""and sometimes if we just leave things alone. All over the planet, life itself proves this is so.

Raup's book also noted that great debates now rage over the structure of ecosystems (at least at the time of publication), with some biologists claiming great resiliency and a very loose interconnectedness of species, suggesting large extinctions may not be as likely as many claim (even though it is often stated that species are going out at possibly 1,000 times the normal rate, that Raup gives as about ten species per year, with as many as 40 million species in existence).

The degree of resiliency of ecosystems is a huge and telling issue, but the bottom line for anyone living on earth would appear to be protecting what we have in every way we can. A planet covered with cockroaches, starlings, ragweed, and man, along with various bacterial strains, would be worse than no planet at all. It is the rich diversity which makes earth precious. And given that we are at the peak of so many food chains, as primary predators, our own position is infinitely more precarious than those lower down the chain, even in best case scenarios.

But my focus here is the human side of the reason why I think our own extinction may not be inevitable. It is our One Big Asset, assuming we learn to work it right.

In response to the DNA Frame article, my younger son announced that I ought to move to Baghdad, because I might be happier there. And he sent along the following horrifying, morbid, yet all-too-typical article, from somewhere online, to "cheer me up":

[Article] Violence raged across Iraq this weekend with as many as 80 people killed on Sunday alone. In Baghdad, officials discovered 22 bodies that had been burned, blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into a river. In a small town north of the capital, masked gunmen assassinated 24 people - mostly teenage students - in broad daylight. In Basra, a suicide car bomber killed 32 people and wounded 77. On Monday, gunmen in police uniforms abducted up to 50 employees of various Baghdad transportation companies.

Meanwhile the Los Angeles Times reports that new Iraqi government documents show that more Baghdad residents died in shootings, stabbings and other violence in May than in any other month since the 2003 invasion.

The news comes a day after Iraqi political leaders failed to reach agreement on the two most important cabinet posts, further delaying the formation of a new government. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki planned to put candidates for the Defense and Interior Ministries before the Iraqi Parliament, but he ran into intense resistance from members of his own Shite party over the choice for defense minister. [Article end]

Dark clouds fill my head when I read such things. My spirits sink deep in the gutter of despair. My nervous system gets paralyzed, and hope sails out the window. You know the feeling, we are the same species.

In response to my son, I forced myself to rewrite the article, employing that one extraordinary tool we humans and we alone seem to be endowed with, and that I and countless other teachers encourage in the classroom regularly: Imagination. This rewrite was not an easy matter, emotionally, and at first glance I suspect it appears somewhat ludicrous. I felt stupid hammering out the words and it is in fact a fairytale. But it is also a very real possible alternative, that any damn fool could imagine (as my writing it proves). Please proceed with suspended judgment.

[Article] Good times were had in Iraq this weekend, with 80 men, women, and children passing out Frisbees, flowers, kites, and ice cream to surprised passersby and local residents. In Baghdad, this cheerful group of government workers visited 22 hospitals, nursing homes, and day care centers, playing music with portable CDs, acting out small skits, and passing out poems they had written or copied.

In Eastern Baghdad, a Race for Hope was held for handicapped competitors, over a two kilometer course. The race was used to raise funds for research in the growth of neurological tissue. A large crowd cheered the contestants on and donated funds for each meter travelled. The prime minister of Iraq announced the winner, a ten year old with no legs in a wheel chair. Owners of a nearby fruit stand offered free fruit to all the contestants, with the young winner getting a month's supply. "This is the happiest moment of my life," exclaimed the young girl, with a wide grin on her face.

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In my run for U.S. Senate against Utah's Orrin Hatch, I posted many progressive ideas and principles that I internalized over the years. I'm leaving that site up indefinitely, since it describes what I believe most members of our species truly (more...)

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