A personal existential crisis about biodiversity and climate change


When did you first realize the scope and the scale of biodiversity loss and the impact of climate change? Did it hit you like a metric ton of bricks falling from a pallet at a construction site? Did you feel like you were slowly sinking underwater in a still lagoon when you realized the weight tied to your ankles? Or was it like you finally put the pieces of the puzzle together just enough to make the picture? Was it like you were in a darkroom, creating prints of your negatives and you see what’s been hiding in the shot the whole time? Or was it like you watched the basketball video and saw the gorilla on your second view?

I distinctly recall this moment for me, though I don’t know the best metaphor for it. I feel like it came to me rather late — I was probably about 20 years old at the time. I was perhaps in the most apt location for this, in a lecture hall as a student in Conservation Biology class. I arrived into this course with what I think was a solid understanding the baseline issues with climate change, the ozone hole (which was a major issue at the time, as chlorofluorocarbon regulations hadn’t done their thing yet), habitat conversion, extinction, and such. Of course I learned more about all of this in the context of the course, but I don’t think learning the scope of the problem is what led to my reckoning with this existential crisis. We were in the midst of some lecture in which we were getting into the weeds of some particular issue. I don’t remember which one it was. Perhaps it was the SLOSS argument, or about different ways of attempting to estimate species richness, or the population genetics of captive breeding programs. Anyhow, whatever it was that we were talking about — all of a sudden — it felt like all of the experts who were dedicating their professional efforts to this issue were rearranging furniture on a cruise liner that just rammed into an iceberg and doomed to sink to the bottom of the ocean.

What I felt was an acceptance of the massive scope of how much we’ve lost when people started to dominate this planet. All the cool animals that my generation never had a chance to see, and how many things future generations won’t see that I’ve been able to experience. It wasn’t just an understanding of how much we as a species have botched things on long and short timescales, it was more of a resignation to what’s already happened. A recognition that all the cool things that we like to study and appreciate as biologists, and as lovers of the natural world, are diminishing all over the place because of what we are doing. That we have transformed things in many ways that are for the worse, and there’s no bringing back what was lost. I think I knew all of this, but this was just a WHAM sinking moment of accepting that this is the actual state of affairs.

To be clear, I’ve been sitting with this experience for almost thirty years, and nowadays I understand the importance and the validity of hope, and planning for the future, and there is so much that we can save. I believe that we have the capacity as a society to take actual steps to avoid the worst the climate change has to offer us, and the nature we have can sustain us and is still amazing. As an ecologist, I feel like it’s my duty to contribute to this realm in a substantial way, and this means affecting how policy is made and how public effort on these issues is pointing in the the most effective directions.

I realize that some folks, perhaps most folks, haven’t had this kind of moment. Some people have simply been raised with an understanding about that this is the way the world is. A lot of people don’t think about this stuff much at all. As I was raised with all the cultural baggage of the contemporary standard western ideas at the time, I had to be disabused of a lot of notions, and that’s of course an ongoing process.

Emerging out of this pandemic, I’m now spending more time with people. Working with a variety of college students over the past year has been a real mixed bag of successes and major difficulties, and clearly our community has experienced a lot of trauma and recovering is going to take a long time. Now that things in California are rapidly returning to whatever ‘normal’ is, I’m hearing more from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about how their high schoolers have been managing. Reader, let me tell you, many folks have not been doing alright. Aside from school performance, there has been an onset of of despair, anxiety, depression, and an assortment of other mental health challenges. We’ve known about this from a quantitative perspective for a while now, and we know that the impacts are going to stick with us well into the future. I’ve read and heard about this. It hit home more forcefully when I realized it’s impacting so many people around me.

This mental health crisis in Gen Z is tied to the climate crisis. When I had a my own climate existential crisis, things weren’t nearly as bad as they are now. This was when the first Bush was president, and it was clear that we weren’t going to be getting the greenhouse gas polices that we needed, but this wasn’t a top issue for many people. Now compare that to how things have been last year, with an outright fascist regime in charge and leading a party that has embraced science denialism in general, and climate denialism in particular. At that time CO2 was only at 350ppm and now we are quite over 400ppm, and still climbing. This generation (unlike mine) is worse off financially than their parents were at the same age, and we’ve experienced resegregation well as further degradation public divestment from common needs, and concentration of wealth into the hands of very few people at the cost of everybody else. These are not good times, and with even the best case scenario for climate change, this has to take a toll on a generation whose children will be living well into the next century.

Like other scientists of my generation, for the duration of my career, I’ve had an intellectual handle on the peril associated with climate change long before it became a substantial public policy issue, when Al Gore was discussing this as the central political concern of our time but the media and the public at large was not yet on board. Because I’ve experienced climate change emerge as the front-and-center issue as an existential crisis for humanity over the past couple decades, I don’t exactly know what the experience must be like to emerge into adulthood into this full-blown crisis in this particular environment. What it must be like to have one’s entire high school years with Trump as president, with the political party in charge denying the reality of things that are fully established by science, and then to survive a pandemic of an emerging disease only to see a substantial fraction of the population rejecting the actual vaccine that protects people from this plague. I mean, the past year hasn’t been good for my own mental health, and I’ve managed to position myself in a role that is heavily protected from all of the crappy goings on. To be emerging as an adult at this moment and see this particular world that you’re inheriting with a clear set of lenses? That seems so overwhelming.

The good news that kids and young adults are showing some outstanding leadership and effectiveness in huge numbers, and the sooner the reins get handed over, the better off we’ll be.

5 thoughts on “A personal existential crisis about biodiversity and climate change

  1. Started for me when in the very early 1980’s, I realized that the horse is the only Pleistocene mammal extinguished by us that I can still know.

  2. I grew up with the fear of the bomb, atomic annihilation. Of course, it was a bit mixed to also be exploring the world and its possibilities at the same time, since there wasn’t anything I could do about nuclear war. It was only after that fear started to reduce, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, that it was apparent that, Oh shit, we really have to plan for the future. I was interested to find more recently that some evangelicals see Armageddon as that sort of rapidly approaching annihilation, and consequently it is irrelevant to them to fight to save species or reduce climate change effects. We can only hope to be saved by some higher power. I’m just wondering if there’s some default setting for humans to fear a coming apocalypse, no matter what the circumstances.

  3. I’d not thought about it before, but my moment was as a PhD student in north Borneo. I was chatting to a friend about the main east-west road in Sabah and he idly commented how great it was when it was built a few years ago. Of course, he said, back then the forest came right up to the road. I drove back acutely aware that every patch in sight had gone within only a few short years. The reserve I was working in suddenly seemed much, much smaller.

  4. I don’t think it hit me with a big bang, but more of ever increasing sense of doom. I am so sorry that the younger generations will have to try to fix and endure our short sightedness. I truly do not have words to express how depressing it is.

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