Dis­ap­pear­ing birds: the eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter so­ci­ety is ig­nor­ing

The Peterborough Examiner - - OPINION - MICHAEL VALPY Michael Valpy is a se­nior fel­low in Pub­lic Pol­icy, Munk School of Global Af­fairs and Pub­lic Pol­icy.

A re­port in the aca­demic jour­nal Sci­ence of the dis­ap­pear­ance of three bil­lion wild birds over 50 years in Canada and the United States ruf­fled the me­dia for one day, maybe two, and went away.

Cana­di­ans’ re­sponse to these lat­est sta­tis­tics of the An­thro­pocene ex­tinc­tion — just un­der 30 per cent of the north­ern con­ti­nent’s to­tal bird pop­u­la­tion van­ished in half a cen­tury — came as close to be­ing non-ex­is­tent as can be imag­ined.

So a ques­tion: if the num­bers don’t dis­tress us, don’t lead us to de­mand in­stant govern­ment ac­tion, should we tell the story in a dif­fer­ent way, maybe plug it into the spir­i­tual cos­mos?

Ten years ago I in­ter­viewed worl­drenowned Uni­ver­sity of Toronto philoso­pher Ian Hack­ing in his back gar­den. As we talked, Prof. Hack­ing sud­denly pointed to a wasp fly­ing past a rose and be­gan de­scrib­ing the physics prin­ci­ple of non-lo­cal­ity, the di­rect in­flu­ence of one ob­ject on an­other dis­tant ob­ject. Just sup­pose, he said, that the whole uni­verse is gov­erned by non-lo­cal­ity, that ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse is aware of ev­ery­thing else.

His words gave me the eerie feel­ing of look­ing down a deep well into the mind of Cre­ation. We and the birds are to­gether on this planet.

Thirty-five years ago, I was with a young doc­tor, Klaus Hor­netz, who worked with a Ger­man med­i­cal aid agency at a United Na­tions famine refugee camp in Ethiopia. To­gether one af­ter­noon we walked through a gath­er­ing of 2,000 peo­ple with­out food.

Dr. Hor­netz pointed to one child and then an­other held in the arms of a par­ent. “This one will die in maybe seven days,” he said. “This one will die in two weeks. This one ... ” — he pointed to an un­mov­ing child, its mouth at its mother’s empty breast — “this one ... ” Dr. Hor­netz shrugged and walked on.

I wrote in a news­pa­per the fol­low­ing day: “Only God should know what Klaus Hor­netz knows.”

The Cana­dian pub­lic and politi­cians re­sponded to the Ethiopian famine, sent aid, money, cloth­ing and food.

What is our re­spon­si­bil­ity for three bil­lion dis­ap­peared birds?

Con­ser­va­tion sci­en­tists are now cau­tiously ex­am­in­ing a new ap­proach: save those species for which there’s enough cost-ef­fec­tive money avail­able. And maybe the rest? Shrug and walk on.

Pop­u­la­tions of grass­lands birds in gen­eral have dropped by 69 per cent since 1970. Will the con­ser­va­tion sci­en­tists con­clude that they have an­other half­cen­tury be­fore sur­vival is too pricey?

The pop­u­la­tion of the bobolink, once a com­mon sight in mead­ows, pas­ture­lands and plains across much of south­ern Canada, has shrunk by 88 per cent since 1970. Maybe they have a decade or so left? The bur­row­ing owl, with fewer than 1,000 breed­ing pairs left in Canada? The con­ser­va­tion sci­en­tists shrug and walk on.

The main threat to bird species is de­struc­tion of habi­tat. De­struc­tion of habi­tat is fix­able. Nat­u­ral pas­turage and na­tive grass­lands are our most im­per­illed ter­res­trial ecosys­tem. They sup­port bio­di­ver­sity — birds and the in­sects they feed on — and are giv­ing way to sin­gle an­nual crops like corn for bio­fuel. What lim­its can gov­ern­ments set on bio­fuel pro­duc­tion?

Dianne Saxe, On­tario’s en­vi­ron­ment com­mis­sioner un­til her job was abol­ished by Pre­mier Doug Ford, has called land use pol­icy in On­tario the province’s oil­sands. Birds that have nested in the same area for gen­er­a­tions sud­denly find their breed­ing ar­eas have be­come park­ing lots and hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. Do we al­low de­vel­op­ment to go on like this? What birds will be left for the next Sci­ence re­port?

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