Psychic Numbing: Keeping Hope Alive in a World of Extinctions
"In June of 1976, as an undergrad, I drove all night to New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park, arriving shortly before first light. Whip-poor-wills filled the pre-dawn with their name while I awaited two people and a cardboard box. We boated to a marsh island where my companions finally opened the box and I locked eyes with three slightly bewildered, downy young birds. They were peregrine falcons, part of the first captive-bred peregrine cohort scheduled for release in a grand attempt to reverse their species’ DDT-induced disappearance across the United States. DDT and related pesticides had been banned four years earlier, making the environment less fatal for these and many birds. We placed the chicks in a specially erected tower. My job: tend them during their weeks till fledging. None of us knew whether re-wilding would work out. Or whether I would.
Things have gotten better, and things have gotten worse. A United Nations panel last year released a summary of an upcoming report, roughly extrapolating — based on the proportion of species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed as “threatened” or “endangered” — that a million species face extinction in this century. A million deaths, Stalin reputedly said, is just statistics. Even Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” This emotional overwhelm, this paralyzing tsunami to the soul, has been termed “psychic numbing.” Mother Teresa had added, though, “If I look at the one, I will.”
If conservation and the environmental movement are remiss in anything, it is the inability to remember that mass statistics obscure real tragedies, and numbers numb us. Each species, individually, has scant voice to vocalize its tragic opera. But as troubles rise in chorus, they sing the woes of living things large and humble, no matter whether they darken skies or rustle grass or keep their peace among underwater boulders. Everywhere, trouble rumbles."