Bruce Beehler, an ornithologist and naturalist, is the author of 12 books, the most recent being “Natural Encounters: Biking, Hiking, and Birding Through the Seasons.”
Early one morning not long ago, I rose from a chair on my porch in Bethesda to gaze at a row of tall trees that borders the back of our yard. The insistent kuk kuk kuk of a pileated woodpecker had drawn my attention away from the morning newspaper and cup of tea. Suddenly, a flash of black, red and white exploded from the greenery as the big, crested woodpecker swooped across our yard and into a neighbor’s tall oak. My heart leapt at the sight of this gorgeous wild creature — joy seeping into my limbic system, giving me an agreeable rush. This was the wonder of nature at our doorstep.
About an hour later, my daughter Cary, inside the house, was reviewing the news feed on her smartphone. Coming upon an article that postulated a wholesale decline of the Earth’s insect fauna, she shouted to me to come into the room so she could read me the dire take-home points of this scientific assessment. The end of our bees, butterflies, ants and dragonflies could spell a devastating extinction crisis. Her face showed alarm, and she mourned being a helpless witness to what looked like another potential step toward the downward spiral of our planet’s biosphere.
The drumbeat of news about climate change and ecological degradation is deeply demoralizing. The Earth is indeed in bad shape, and the trends aren’t encouraging. (July, it turns out, was the hottest month recorded since data collection began.)
Yet the big problem with bad news about the environment is that it too easily leads to resignation and then passivity. Consider Paul Kingsnorth, the former British environmental activist who suggests that the magnitude of the “ecocide” we face means that we have to come to terms with the reality that there is no hope. “We are not going to stop this from happening,” he told the New York Times a few years ago. A group of academics and activists recently published a book with an emblematic title: “Mourning Nature.” Small wonder that a series of recent polls have detected many Americans declaring that they’re experiencing “eco-anxiety.” If nature is already too far gone, why go to the trouble of trying to save it?
But it is perhaps a mistaken apprehension to believe that today is an especially dark time — that we are gazing into the abyss. In fact, most every point in history is perceived by those living it as a moment of crisis. One need only think back to September 1962, when Rachel Carson told us of the national pesticide scourge in her book “Silent Spring ”; or to March 1979, when the No. 2 reactor at Three Mile Island partially melted down; or to April 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon well blew in the inky depths of the Gulf of Mexico. These are just three of the scores of crises that have shocked environmentally conscious readers over the past half-century or so.
And all of them were genuine. But let’s recall that for every dark story, there is a forgotten or overlooked good news story. In September 1962 the bald eagle had declined to fewer than 500 pairs in the Lower 48 states for the reasons stated by Carson. When I was growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, I could only dream of seeing one there. By contrast, today the count of bald eagles in the Lower 48 tops 9,700 pairs, and I see eagles soaring over our neighborhood in suburban Washington on a monthly basis. Bad things happened to bald eagles (DDT, poaching, loss of foraging habitat), and then good things happened (the Endangered Species Act, a successful species recovery plan, improved river quality, rebounding inland fisheries).
We must take to heart these environmental triumphs and not just fixate on the bad news. Let’s celebrate the recovery of our eastern forests, which after two centuries of decimation have regrown to cloak hundreds of millions of acres of unproductive agricultural land. The air of New York City is substantially better today than it was in the 1950s. The water in the Potomac today is much cleaner than it was in 1947, when Louis Halle wrote his classic nature book “Spring in Washington.” Some seriously good things have happened to our environment over the past half-century — because human beings took conscious and purposeful action to establish legal and regulatory incentives that changed society’s behavior.
Are bad things happening to our environment today? Yes, of course. Is climate change a substantial and growing threat? Certainly. Will the Earth’s biosphere as we know it survive? One thing is for sure: We need to believe so to be able to function at full capacity as concerned citizens.
We should all spend more time outside to breathe in the fresh air, salute the songs of birds and trills of toads, and savor nature. The fact is, the antidote to the depressing true stories purveyed by the news is the joyful abundance of thriving nature all around us. Nature isn’t dead; even our backyards tell us so, if we’re willing to pay attention.
Only smart collective action, led by courageous people working with intelligent and well-funded organizations and agencies, can mount the necessary effort to keep our Earth from peril. We have won these sorts of battles before, and we can win them again, even if the threats seem larger than ever. With an inoculation of the magic elixir of bountiful nature, we can engage with spirit on behalf of our wildlife and forests, our bays and seas, and our one and only atmosphere. Despair is not an option.