Environmental Complacency and the Rise of Distraction; or, How I Learned to Embrace Worrying and Love Movies

I love movies. I mean, I REALLY love movies. I love quoting them, bonding over them with strangers, and reliving movie-watching experiences with close friends. I especially love movies with a great soundtrack. I love the way great movies make me feel. As an environmental scientist, I also appreciate the levity of a good comedy and the power of multimedia to convey an intense message. I often insert movie quotes randomly into daily conversations (usually because an interaction reminds me of a movie scene) and I’m always entertained if someone else recognizes an obscure movie reference. During fieldwork in bear country, I yell quotes loudly to deter curious wildlife and for a chuckle on a particularly challenging day in the field. So, reader, let’s see if you’re better versed on popular culture than the bears I’ve deterred—here we go!

"I have a plan!" Screenshot from the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

“I have a plan!” Screenshot from the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Hands up if you’ve been personally affected by the extinction of the passenger pigeon today. Not many? Hmmm…

After reading and discussing an excerpt of John Riley’s The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History (2013) on species extinction and extirpation (local extinction) in a recent lab meeting, I was transported to days past when passenger pigeons blanketed the sky like thunderheads rolling in. The section of the book we read goes on to include a litany of species in the Great Lakes region—primarily within fisheries—that have gone extinct over the last 500 years or so. As a scientist reading this text, I wasn’t too terribly surprised by these facts.

“I like to break a mental sweat too.” Screenshot from the film Dodgeball.

“I like to break a mental sweat too.” Screenshot from the film Dodgeball.

Admittedly, these facts are quite depressing. But I was more struck by how I felt at the end of the text. I thought to myself…who really cares?

That sounds worse than I intended it.

"I immediately regret this decision." Screenshot from the film Anchorman.

“I immediately regret this decision.” Screenshot from the film Anchorman.

Truly, I really want to know who actually cares? Who cares, besides biologists, natural historians, ecologists, or people in fields that study environmental change over time? I’m an ecologist who can acknowledge these facts, understand they took place, realize their connectedness to other environmental impacts, and recognize the necessity of studying Earth’s past to understand the vast unknowns of the future. And yet, am I—or others—personally affected on a daily basis by the loss of a single, specific species? I’m not so sure. But maybe that in itself is important.

The fact is that many people—especially in the United States—are living in a virtual reality. We are so disconnected from the environment, our (unsustainable) resource-based lives are so subsidized by a number of public and private interests, and as a consequence we are extremely detached from the profoundly disturbing changes occurring in the environment around us. We can still go to the grocery store and buy our weekly food (only made possible by pollinators—another set of species not doing well, by the way), drive our cars to far reaches of the country (oil and gasoline will also be something of the past one day), or settle in to watch a movie at the end of the day (electricity courtesy of natural gas in many states). Yet, how is the vast amount of species that have gone extinct affecting our everyday lives?

“Well dude, we just don’t know.” Screenshot from the film The Big Lebowski.

“Well dude, we just don’t know.” Screenshot from the film The Big Lebowski.

The fact is that the loss of species like the passenger pigeon does affect our daily lives, for reasons I’ll detail below. One of the issues is, there’s a time lag. In ecological terms, this can be thought of as an “extinction debt”: a species will continue to be negatively impacted—and eventually go extinct—even after the acute events causing the extinction have ceased. Many argue that humans are facing a global, massive extinction debt. Because we are so removed from the ecosystems supporting our daily lives – we’re very good at creating these virtual realities—we can’t quite grasp the extent of it. Not yet. Many contend that we are currently in one of these time lags, meaning our actions haven’t actually caught up to us yet. “When a significant amount of species go extinct in an insignificant amount of geologic time, that’s a problem,” a geologist friend of mine recently remarked. Indeed, humans aren’t insulated or isolated from species extinction or extirpation, after all. Riley also reminds us that science cannot be conducted fast enough to keep up with the rate at which species are being lost.

So, after learning about massive extinctions of the past and present (as well as impending extinctions of the future) and as a resident on the cusp of the wave of dramatic environmental change that’s bound to crash on human society at some point sooner or later—you might ask yourself: what is there to do?

“Sure, but, the end was really, very sudden.” Screenshot from the film Fletch.

“Sure, but, the end was really, very sudden.” Screenshot from the film Fletch.

There is no right answer. As a scientist working on these types of issues, I often feel like I don’t know what to do. Yet, it’s good to revisit this question. Here are some Top 5 ideas I came up with (I love Top 5). You probably have others.

1. Connect

“Connect to the despair,” I like to say. Recognize that some things aren’t looking too good for the planet, but try (and this is hard) to not let it consume you into lifeless inaction. When I began studying environmental issues, I called this moment of realization my “environmental epiphany”—and you can’t go back.

"You take the red pill." Screenshot from the film The Matrix.

“You take the red pill.” Screenshot from the film The Matrix.

But this awakening will force you to take stock about your life, make decisions that are meaningful to you, and find supportive communities to discuss these insights with.

2. Educate

This applies to yourself and to others. Talk about these realities. Be ready to engage in conversations. Try to not dominate or obsessively dictate these discussions (especially with people that have taken the blue pill), but listen to what others have to say. Remember yourself before you took the red pill? People are being confronted (and perhaps remain in denial) with a scary reality that requires an entire paradigm shift for any hopes of sustainability to be realized.

“This is real.” Screenshot from the film The Three Amigos.

“This is real.” Screenshot from the film The Three Amigos.

This is especially tough when lots of people are forced to solely focus on providing for their families and putting food on the table (another shout out to pollinators!!). Ask thought-provoking questions. Let people think.

3. Believe

Believe in Science. Actually, go beyond that. As a scientist, I tend to cringe at the phrase that “science is a belief” although I understand the sentiment. Saying “climate change is real” implies it’s an opinion—analogous to saying “ghosts are real.” Some people believe in ghosts and some people don’t.

"Back off man, I'm a scientist." Screenshot from the film Ghostbusters.

“Back off man, I’m a scientist.” Screenshot from the film Ghostbusters.

As a scientist, I do not consider science a belief system. Science is a specific process that results in meaningful dialogue with the larger scientific community, followed by more science (remember the scientific method flow chart you learned in high school?). The vast, VAST majority of scientists conclude the rate (note that “rate” is different than “condition”) at which environmental change is occurring is unprecedented—even in geological time. Sure, the planet may withstand these extremely fast rates of change. The species that live on Earth, including humans? Maybe not as resilient. Retool the way you talk about science or engage in scientific dialogue with others. Stay calm. Reference the facts.

4. Decide

Make decisions about how you, as an individual, can make a difference in your daily life or long-term decisions about what will make you happy and fulfilled during your tenure on Earth. Also recognize that these decisions will likely change.

"Life isn't that simple." Screenshot from the film Donnie Darko.

“Life isn’t that simple.” Screenshot from the film Donnie Darko.

Assess your priorities and what you’re feasibly capable of doing, recognizing that your definition of “feasibly capable” will often fluctuate (that’s ok!). Here are 5 things I do in my own life: 1) reduce my consumption of meat and animal products—try it even if just one day a week (e.g., Meatless Mondays); 2) walk/bike/bus whenever possible; 3) buy/eat local food from the farmer’s market or garden some homegrown food; 4) compost food waste in a garden or donate to a community garden; and 5) reuse what I can while recycling what I can’t.

“They say it’s the last crop of okra—ever.” Screenshot from the film Interstellar.

“They say it’s the last crop of okra—ever.” Screenshot from the film Interstellar.

5. Enjoy

There are many real, dire predictions.

“Dude, this *is* an emergency!” Screenshot from the film Dude Where’s My Car.

“Dude, this *is* an emergency!” Screenshot from the film Dude Where’s My Car.

Despite these, it’s absolutely critical—in my opinion—to keep enjoying life. Make it worthwhile so you want to get up in the morning and keep trying to change things. Don’t give up. Go to a local park, walk around your neighborhood, connect with family and friends, indulge in a night out with loved ones, or watch your favorite movie (one of my favorite pastimes, can you tell??). Find something that inspires you that’s totally different than your day-to-day responsibilities. Volunteer. Read a novel. Write a blog rant.

So, how does the passenger pigeon extinction affect your daily life?

“The answer is…the answer is…I don’t know.” Screenshot from the film Reality Bites.

“The answer is…the answer is…I don’t know.” Screenshot from the film Reality Bites.

Maybe it’s reading this post. Maybe it already did affect your daily life and you’re trying to make it connect with the lives of others. Or maybe you’re like me and you’re stuck thinking about it, and need a movie diversion while it ruminates.

Featured image: A diorama showing one millionth of a small passenger pigeon flock (flickr user Curious Expeditions CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Kristin Michels is a PhD candidate in the Department of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on plant community ecology and the historical ecology of forest landscapes. Website. Contact.

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