This year for Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th, Writers Rebel are bringing together 20 writers from around the globe including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Elizabeth Kolbert, Ben Okri, Homero Aridjis and others to each tell the story of one animal. Please join us for this free landmark event. Below, Writers Rebel member Alex Lockwood writes about the need to share the stories of those animals most threatened with extinction.
Shifting Baseline Syndrome is the phenomenon by which each new generation accepts the reduced, the fewer, the denuded, the gone. It is a concept 25 years old this year, introduced in 1995 by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly to explain how each new generation of scientists, unaware of how full the seas had been before, “accepts as a baseline the population size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers.” This acceptance led, for these scientists, to “a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance” of species.
Do you remember the giant murmurations over Brighton pier? The glittering of starlings? The schools of mackerel? The season of May flies, June bugs?
In the absence of past information or experience with historical conditions, write scientists Masashi Soga and Kevin Gaston, members of each new generation accept the situation in which they were raised as being ‘normal’. Shifting Baseline Syndrome is increasingly recognized as one of the central obstacles to addressing today’s climate and ecological emergencies.
Did you live through the winter of 1963? When was your last cold winter?
The shifting baseline is like last week’s Irish bog slip, a glacial frack, “creeping” and slow, but actually, when it arrives, oh so quick. Change happens suddenly. The timeline is not geological. It is anthroposcenic. A persistent downgrading of what is perceived as normal. For every sequential generation, as other scientists put it, it leads to “under-estimation of the true magnitude of long-term environmental change on a global scale.”
If you do not remember, who does? Which elders tell you what animals were there?
Which is one of the reasons why numbers do not move us as they should. The numbers (32,000 species—or 32,001 if you include humans) (a quarter of all species assessed by the IUCN) (billions of individual animals, insects) at threat of extinction—but they do not move us. (Since 1970, over 60% of the planet’s animals killed by human activity.) The shifting baseline muddles our brains; it registers for us, wretchedly for other animals, as more perceptual than mathematic.
A generational amnesia.
Instead of numbers at scale, our experience of the world we live in matters most to understanding. Our brains cannot compute the vast losses; we turn instead to bodily encounters with other beings. We need our fingers in wet fur. Our ears to the morning chorus. Or as one social media post put it, “standing out in the shitty rain for seven hours hoping to see more than a duck” is what connects us to the world. To the insects, trees, flowers, birds, mammals.
“They are falling from the sky, and I cannot bear it.” Massachusetts birdwatcher, Silent Spring, 1962
Numbers run together into a mass, amassing weight, but not shape. It is the undercurrent of the shifting baseline that it is a syndrome (from the Greek sun-, “together”, and dramein, “to run”) that even when there are less, fewer, almost, none, when the percentages are so great (80% of the Tasmanian Devil) we still see them as outlines, little more than shadows (96.8% of tigers in the last 20 years). Then gone.
Would you recognise the flight of the mouse-eared bat? Do you know the song of the Old World Warbler? Who will tell their story?
There is no immunity from extinction in the herd. Science can offer us only so much. So, we tell stories to remember. Writers have always made attempts to help readers connect with an animal’s experience, and perhaps help us learn about our behaviour towards them. From Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty to Hazel and Bigwig in Watership Down to Lydia Millet’s extraordinary Love in Infant Monkeys to antipodean writer Laura Jean McKay’s new novel The Animals in That Country. (McKay imagines a scenario in which a pandemic—how did she know?—enables people to communicate with animals.) With fewer animals left it is the tales we tell, that writers imagine, that bring us back to the pawprints, the spraint, the wet nose, the bird of paradise, paradise.
I wait to take a photo but the Starlings aren’t here. They’re gone.
How can one tackle the climate and animal emergencies we face, and tackle them creatively, with so much unmooring us? In a time of pandemic? Created, let us not forget, by our encroachment into wild habitats; our industrialisation of animals in the food system; our pressures on wild food stocks so great that free living animals become weak and susceptible to viruses that they would otherwise be able to fight off. The coronavirus jumps from animal (perhaps a pangolin) to animal (perhaps a bat) to human (perhaps me) to animal (perhaps a mink) to human (perhaps you) to—. and the next pandemic will be worse. It probably already is.
Time for a Recount. Critically Endangered.
Cape Flats Frog. 1 of 32,000.
The pandemic has crystallised the difficulty we face. But it was with us anyway, with eddies and surges and breaks under the climate and animal emergencies. The great sixth extinction of species; but no longer a loss; with each new reset of the baseline, our experience of what is out there creeps down on us. We are all running together inside the crises, human and animal, lost and numberless. We are caught in the syndrome, shifting, baselining, not even asking how many? how many were there?
Northern Moss Frog. 2 of 32,000.
Williams’ Bright Eyed Frog. 3 of 32,000.
Red-legged Fire-Millipede. 4 of 32,000.
How should we write, and read, about our fellow beings, those vulnerable, like us, to extinction and heat death in a warming world? “We mustn’t shirk from knowing how animals are being treated,” writes Joanna Lilley in the collection Writing for Animals. “We must not look away. … When I stand for hours in galleries of extinct animals, sometimes I don’t think I can do it anymore. But bearing witness gives me a place to stand and look, and a defendable reason for standing and looking.”
Española Giant Tortoise. 5 of 32,000
They are dying and I cannot bear it.
Where are the starlings?
Scientists tell us the key to these memories is intergenerational learning. The perceptions of older generations who can tell us “how abundant the skies! When I was a young woman… a younger man…” Of the murmurations. The flocks. The fields full of flies. “Even though older participants had a longer time over which to remember,” the scientists write, “they recall past conditions that are more consistent with the biological dataset.” Including the passing down of the stories they remember having been told by their elders.
The stories we tell of how many there were, and who they were—
it is these we need to keep telling. Who will tell their story?
On Monday 30th November, Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2020, we will listen to their stories, told by some of the world’s leading writers. Please join us. We could select only a few. But this is not a new baseline. It is a remembering of what has been lost, and a clarion call for who we can still save. Here then, is our cast:
Vaquita Porpoise, smallest marine mammal, each of you the 12 remaining
says Homero Aridjis, I will tell your story.
Tasmanian Devil, decimated by cancer and climate
says Margaret Atwood, I will tell your story.
Pangolin, you most trafficked animal in the world
says Wu Ming-Yi, I will tell your story.
Tiger, hunted to near extinction for your skin and bone
says Ben Okri, I will tell your story.
Puffin, you who have declined by as much as 42% over the last five years
says Emma Thompson, I will tell your story.
Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee, bombus affinis! but only 0.1% left
says Lily Cole, I will tell your story.
Snow Leopard, most elusive, most hunted, only 4,000 of you
says Judy Ling Wong, I will tell your story.
Chimpanzee, our closest kin, hunkered down in threatened forests
says Sangu Iyer, I will tell your story.
Sumatran Rhino, no more than 80 who remain
says Elizabeth Kolbert, I will tell your story.
Elephant, great matriarch, elder, last of the extinct afrotherians
says Prerna Singh Bindra, I will tell your story.
Irrawaddy Dolphin, 92 of you all, ocean gods who loved the river
says Amitav Ghosh, I will tell your story.
Black Tailed Monkey, mischievous heart of a sanctuary also at threat
says Laura Coleman, I will tell your story.
Giraffe, less than 100,000 of you to grace the plains
says Emily Walker, I will tell your story.
Orangutan, old man of the burning forest
says Lydia Millet, I will tell your story.
Northern Quoll, njanmak to the Mayali, poisoned and entrapped
says Laura Jean McKay, I will tell your story.
Eastern Gorilla, largest living primate, critically endangered
says Bianca Jagger, I will tell your story.
Marine turtle, seven species, six who are almost gone
says Nana Oforiatta Ayim,
I will tell your story.
Please join us on Monday 30th November 7pm GMT for the free On the Brink, compéred by The Urban Birder David Lindo, BBC Springwatch’s Gillian Burke, the Natural History Museum’s entomology expert Dr Erica McAlister, and Mya-Rose Craig, aka BirdgirlUK.
For more information about Lost Species Day, visit Remembrance Day for Lost Species.