The problem today, unlike in 1919, is that habitual local conservation is effective only within ecosystems where some kind of consistency and equilibrium already exists – if equilibrium can really be applied to nature. Animals live in concert with the complex interplay of seasons, a rhythm of rainy periods and spring floods, of water temperature, of the blooming of buds, of the hatching of flies and of fry, or of the migration of fish. If the foundation itself fails, if weather systems collapse, if the average temperature rises or ocean acidity increases, there is little individuals can do. If puffins or guillemots are protected, they will still decline over a few decades if there is no food for them – until at last they’re gone, just like the great auk. No point holding up one particular hunter as the culprit; the root cause lies elsewhere. All these attacks on the works of creation are beginning to have unpleasant consequences.
According to a 2019 United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment, just under a million animal species are in danger of extinction. The report was put together by a hundred fifty scientists from fifty countries. Their conclusion means that, if we put together the rapidly increasing destruction of habitats, industrial and agricultural pollution, overfishing and overexploitation, plus the effects of climate change, we have a real chance of the total collapse of entire ecosystems. All these elements cut so close to the Earth, so manifestly impinge on the future of humankind itself, that the report’s authors call for immediate action.37
Global warming can be seen as a total shift in nature, with the foundational conditions for entire ecosystems shifting simultaneously. The world’s ecosystems are pushing away from the Equator toward the poles and up mountains, fleeing rising temperatures at speeds of greater than one meter a day: southern fish species have moved up to seventy kilometers over the past decade while tropical organisms are increasingly moving north, bringing tropical diseases with them. On the Icelandic coast we have seen the mackerel come up from the south and the capelin disappear. Certain animals and plants can move and have moved, but complex ecosystems cannot be shifting locations in a single human lifetime, even if individual species do.
To understand the significance of a two-degree rise for plants and animals, we can look closely at our own bodies. For a human being, life would be unbearable if you always had a temperature of thirty-nine degrees Celsius, just two degrees above the norm. This describes in great simplicity pretty much what would happen if the earth warms by two degrees. Species adapted to particular conditions would suddenly feel hot, tired, and weak. Some would die. Others expend all their energy defending themselves against the heat; as a result, they can stop proliferating. Two degrees Celsius would be the average temperature increase across earth; more local changes could even exceed six degrees, which would overthrow the very basis of the biota. Some species would migrate, but more often than not an ecosystem collapses like a house of cards once the timing of bird migration, of hatching and budding, and of flowering goes out of sync. Sometimes, animals are already at the ends of the world and have nowhere else to go. If a species’ ideal region is Iceland’s northern coast, it’s easier said than done to move farther north, where there’s nothing but rough seas.
The animals are Earth’s fruit; they grow like apples on trees. If a tree withers, it bears no fruit. It is useless to protect or preserve the apples while the tree is being chopped down or its roots gnawed at. As Árni Einarsson, a specialist on the protection of Lake Mývatn, said: “I have spent my life defending the flora and fauna of Lake Mývatn by nurturing the birds and midges, but then someone comes and changes the climate itself. And so the risk is that everything was in vain.”
When Grandpa Björn and Peggy were born, there were people alive who’d lived in the time of the great auk. Back then, the shame of the killing of the last auks was on the conscience of Ketill’s descendants, and on the descendants of his companions. The hunters did not know for certain that those were the last birds. The world often makes more sense in hindsight than when people are in the middle of things. If we look at scientists’ predictions and don’t do something radical right now, similar judgments will be made by the future about this sixth extinction. Our existence will be shrouded in shame. Our entire story will likely be heavy with meaning because of the consequences. We knew what was happening. We were all Ketill.