Carl Safina gave the keynote address at the “I Am NOT an Animal!” symposium, Feb 24th, 2017, in Atlanta.
In his overview of the state of Planet Earth today, Carl Safina begins by asking the seemingly unrelated question: “Does my dog really love me? Or does she just want a treat?”
Safina, an ecologist, author and MacArthur “genius” award winner, does answer the question (Yes, she does love me). But why, he wonders, are questions like these almost always about us?
A better question regarding our fellow animals, he suggests, would be “Who are you?” It’s a question he’s explored – one that combines rigorous science with unapologetic awe and wonder – in his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.
While we can’t know exactly what it’s like to be an elephant or a crayfish, Safina offers an engaging show-and-tell on how, for example, elephants aren’t worried by people who speak English (they’re tourists), but are spooked when they hear people speaking Maasai (usually farmers who don’t like elephants). Crayfish, too, can suffer anxiety, which can be relieved by anti-anxiety meds.
“Humans are no longer compatible with life on this planet.” In other words, while all animals are different, we share a whole lot in common: the same kinds of organs, brain chemicals and neurons.
That, however, is something that makes us humans quite uncomfortable. We want to think of ourselves as unique, special, exceptional. But the fact is we’re not very different from the other animals in our essential make-up and in the way we think and feel and act and react.
What makes us human, Safina says, is “not any of the things that we think make us human.” It is not that we do anything particularly special, but that we do everything in the extreme. “We are the most creative and the most destructive, and the most compassionate and the cruelest animal ever to have lived.”
It is those negative extremes that are wreaking havoc and chaos on our fellow animals and the planet. Everything on Earth, Safina says, is in mortal danger from us. On some of the most remote Pacific islands, where albatrosses range hundreds of miles over the ocean to bring back a single meal for their chicks, scientists have opened the stomachs of hundreds of birds who have starved to death, and have seen the same thing over and over: bellies filled not with fish but with plastic waste.
“Humans,” he concludes, “are no longer compatible with life on this planet.”
In the discussion that follows, the question arises: So, what can we do about the situation?
Safina proposes that since it’s clearly not possible to get people to have “a broad and generous view of life,” the only possible way to curb the enormity of the destruction is to cut human population. Right now, we’re on course to add another China and another India (I.e. two billion more people) to the human population. But if there’s a glimmer of light, he suggests, it lies in the fact that in countries where women have become full citizens, populations are declining.
Whether they can decline fast enough to reverse the mass extinction that’s now taking place is a question yet to be answered.