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? […]