Their annihilation will also be ours: Exploring extinction through art

Scientists aren’t exactly prone to exaggeration. They are cautious and measured. So for scientists to call the loss of biodiversity happening worldwide a “biological annihilation,” you know it’s bad. Really bad. The biodiversity alarm bells have been ringing for several years now, and earlier this week (May 6, 2019), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) added to the urgent cry for action in a comprehensive global assessment of biodiversity. The report was authored by literally hundreds of scientists who drew on roughly 15,000 studies and government documents. To say its findings are sobering is an understatement.

There are plenty of great articles summing up the report floating around out there (like the media release IPBES issued), though probably—and frustratingly—not as many as there are about the new addition to the royal family. I encourage you to seek one or two out and read them (or, if you prefer to listen, this interview on CBC’s The Current is a great overview, especially for the Canadian context). The key take-away from the IPBES report, for me, is that we’re losing species faster than ever before, it’s our fault, it’s getting worse, it’s not just an environmental problem, and to solve the crisis we basically have to overthrow the system.

According to the Global Assessment, more than 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many in just a few decades, if we fail to act. There are far too many gut-wrenching statistics in the report to include here, but consider this one (just as a taster): Since 1970, vertebrate populations (i.e., things with spines) have fallen by 40% for land-based species, 84% for freshwater species, and 35% for marine species, and this steep decline is continuing.

The report is quite clear in pointing a finger at the cause of this mass disappearance: humans. More specifically, there are five major causes, all traceable back to humanity: land-use changes (i.e., we’re destroying their habitat to build cities, grow crops, extract resources, etc.), direct exploitation (i.e., we’re being greedy and taking more than we should), climate change (yep, that’s our cars, homes, factories, etc.), pollution (we treat the environment—from the air to the land to the water—as one big endless garbage dump), and invasive species (we travel, they come with us, whether we intend them to or not). In short: We are the problem. In fact, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than before humans came onto the scene, and are predicted to soar as much as 10,000 times higher if we don’t get our act together. At this point, only about 25% of the planet’s land area is (more or less) free of human impacts, and this is projected to shrink to 10% by 2050. Our dirty fingerprints are everywhere.

One of the report’s strengths (and it has many!) is that it makes it clear that this is not just an environmental problem. It’s not just a case of “Oh no, my grandkids will never see a [insert iconic species] in the wild.” The current mass extinction is tied to development, the economy, security, and social, cultural, and moral issues. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our lives depend on the earth’s biodiversity and that our fate is inextricably tied to that of all the various life forms we share this planet with. As the scientist who coined the term “biological annihilation” put it: this loss of wildlife represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”. Biodiversity provides us with food, fuel, medicine, flood protection, clean air and water, recreation, and so much more (collectively known as “ecosystem services”). A previous study by IPBES showed that in the Americas alone, these ecosystem services provide $24 trillion worth of benefits to humans every year. The earth’s biodiversity is so central to our overall well-being (and survival, to put it bluntly) that the current downward trends will undermine global progress on 35 of 44 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including ones related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans, and land.

“In the red” (2019), 23″h x 22″w — ceramic loon, degraded shells, concrete, ceramic

The scale, rate, and diversity of the loss that’s underway really stumped me when I was planning this mosaic. No matter what angle I tried, it all seemed so impersonal and abstract. But then I remembered this broken ceramic loon I had in my studio. It had been my grandma’s, but took an unfortunate tumble when she was moving. When my mom asked me if I wanted it, I was honestly a little doubtful that I’d ever find a use for it. But I took it because it was my grandma’s and I just couldn’t bring myself to say no. Well, fast forward three years and suddenly it was the perfect material for this mosaic.

Of course, when you think about extinction, you probably don’t think about loons. Images of cute, charismatic, and exotic animals are more likely to pop into your mind. Think tigers, rhinos, polar bears. But loons? Those are everyday animals. And they’re quintessentially Canadian: a symbol of camping trips and summers spent at the cottage. Their haunting calls are almost a part of Canada’s soul. Heck, they’re even on our money! But did you know that the number of loon chicks produced each year has been falling for the past 30 years, thanks in large part to mercury pollution and acid precipitation? Not good. All of this made them the perfect way to bring this issue home (at least for Canadians) and make the enormous loss of global biodiversity that we’re experiencing personal and intimate.

I built the loon explosion (which was meant to echo the idea of “annihilation”) by working my way from the loon’s head to its tail. This meant that the eyes were the first two pieces to go in, and they followed me the entire time I was working. It was very unnerving. I hope you find them as creepy as I do. The loon is hemmed in by concrete, which is an allusion to the rampant habitat destruction that’s fuelling the current biological annihilation.

The title of this piece—”In The Red”—has a few layers to it. First, it’s a nod to the International Union for Concerned Scientists’ Red List of Threatened Species, which is the leading source of information on species at risk across the world. Second, by using an expression for being in debt, it references the incredible value of the ecosystem services (and also just the intrinsic value of the nature’s richness and diversity) that we benefit from and are at risk of losing. And finally, it’s also about those haunting red eyes.

The degraded shells are leftover from the piece I did about ocean acidification a few years ago, and seemed a perfect small touch for this piece.

This mosaic really pushed me emotionally. Maybe it was because I was also listening to Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” as I worked. Maybe it was the profound sense of loss and guilt. Maybe it was the eyes. Whatever it was, it got to me and I’m still in a bit of a funk. I’m trying to use that to fuel me and help me push for the “transformational changes” (aka overthrowing the system) that the IPBES report says are necessary if we want to turn this ship around. What does that look like? Well, it’s reforming nearly every aspect of our society to be kinder to nature (and in turn, to be kinder to ourselves). This includes our laws, our trade policies, our institutions, our values, and our economies, to name just a few. For example, it means shifting our view of development away from continuous economic growth and GDP (i.e., more stuff!) toward happiness and well-being. It’s a huge undertaking and it needs to happen ASAP, but we can’t shy away from the challenge. Our lives depend on it. So look into that loon’s eyes, harness the uneasiness, sadness, loss, guilt, rage, or whatever else you might feel, and channel it. I’ll be right there with you, fighting for our existence.

Don’t look away


Excellent article and art piece, indeed it is very haunting Thank you for making such a relevant and powerful piece of art!. I hope people listen and make the changes needed to survive.

Over 40 years ago I started using the metaphor of extinction being like bolts on a plane, sure you can lose a bolt (species) here and there and the plane will keep flying, but if you continue to strip the bolts off, eventually you will take the last one holding a wing on. I think we are very near that point now. When the oceans, or even the bees go, we will be right behind them.

Let me know what you think!

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