Friday, April 6, 2007


My butterflies are gone.

Do you remember them? They used to greet me every morning when I took this shortcut through the bush on my way to school.

My butterflies are gone, their habitat scorched to nothing by fire set to clear the bush. I understand the need to clear the undergrowth; it stimulates fresh growth, including amongst the trees that occupy the space. But it’s a shame my butterflies have had to flutter off to another place.

When I saw what had happened this morning, I couldn’t help but muse on what we humans do to the planet in our pursuit of personal well-being. Each one of us looks for space to plant our feet, space to live, space to support ourselves, space to support our families and friends.

How much space do we need?

Well, I guess that depends on how much we can afford. Rich people like to have lots of it; poor people are sometimes lucky to have the space they find themselves in at any point in time. Rich people surround themselves with luxurious spaces that poor people can only dream about.

What do we do when everyone has the wealth to buy themselves a sizeable piece of the planet’s pie? What do we do when billions of Chinese and Indians and South Americans and South East Asians can all afford houses and cars and shopping malls and six lane highways, just like the Americans and the Europeans and other rich folks?

What do we do when they all want the same space as us? How many people can the planet sustain when each person has the kind of impact on the planet that I do?

David Quammen, a sociobiologist graduate of Yale and Oxford universities, said this in his beautiful book “The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions”:

"Let's start indoors. Let's start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, total them up--and find that, lo, there's still nearly 216 square feet of recognizably carpet like stuff. But what does it amount to? Have we got thirty-six nice Persian throw rugs? No. All we're left with is three dozen ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart."

What a frightening analogy for what humans are doing to the planet earth! We're inexorably dividing it up into smaller and smaller sections, smaller and smaller habitats, squeezing out the larger species other than ourselves because they need a larger space to survive and we're taking it away from them.

We're getting to the point where the larger species can survive only in zoos.

There seems to be no way of stopping it, no end to the steady depletion and destruction of this our earthly domain.

I sometimes think that we humans are a kind of cancer. We invade our own place, our own space, slowly overwhelming it, till it’s incapable of going on--till it dies.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

Maybe the best thing that could happen to the planet is that we just go ahead and render it uninhabitable, like a bush fire that destroys most everything in its path--except for the life that survives to live another day.

I hope my butterflies are still there after we're all dead and gone.

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