Midway through the new special issue of Science, about the global loss of wildlife, my heart caught on this idea: We now live with a steady, imperceptible loss “in people’s expectations of what the natural world around them should look like,” and “each generation grows up within a slightly more impoverished natural biodiversity.” It’s not just about elephants, rhinos, and other iconic species disappearing. It’s about the decline of everything.
When children go outdoors today—to the extent that they go outdoors at all—they see 35 percent fewer individual butterflies and moths than their parents would have seen 40 years ago, and 28 percent fewer individual vertebrates—meaning birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. It’s not quite a silent spring, just one that is becoming quieter with each passing year, insidiously, so we hardly notice. The Science authors dub this phenomenon “defaunation.” I prefer to think of it as “the great vanishing,” but either way it’s bad news.
Why don’t we do something about it? Wildlife conservation suffers under a misguided notion that it is a boutique issue. “Animals do matter to people,” according to one article in the Science special issue, “but on balance, they matter less than food, jobs, energy, money, and development. As long as we continue to view animals in ecosystems as irrelevant to these basic demands, animals will lose.”
That need not be as hopeless as it sounds, because the authors go on to remind us in alarming detail just how utterly