I am going to tell you about an event, held earlier in October, which focused attention on Malta’s indigenous Wild Tulip. It is a very rare and a very endangered flower with golden leaves, lined at the tips in fiery red. It is left in seclusion because, by an ironic twist of fate, the one field where it still grows is used by hunters rather than farmers.
During the event we heard experts tell us a good deal about the need for conservation. They spoke about the inconsistency of local efforts, the great gaps in accurate research, and the struggle to overcome urbanisation in a country which is, if we’re honest, more like a sprawling city-state.
Simone Cutajar, a tireless activist for environmental wellbeing whom I’m privileged to call a collaborator, then asked a question that effectively silenced the room. This question has stuck with me and I’m going to share it with you.
“There are so many species of flora and fauna in need of our help that conservationists have some very difficult decisions to make. How do we choose what to save and what not to save?”
The resonance of Simone’s question is immense.
Unpacking it would take more time and more wisdom than I have to offer, so I’d merely like to propose a few reflections. I think it is a question that strikes at the heart of our humanity. In fact, it challenges us to consider the very thing that makes us self-aware, with the wondrous ability and the daunting responsibility to consider the making of such choices in the first place.
It’s also the question at the heart of the guardianship which our species feels compelled to extend over the world, an authority that has, unfortunately, been expressed in too many coercive and violent ways across the course of our development. One has only to remember the ubiquity of industrial pollution, the destruction of woodlands, or the poisoning of the sea to find examples of just how badly things have gone. Not to mention the devastation of war.
But still, we feel a pull deep within us to participate, somehow and for some reason, in saving other beings. To stand in solidarity by becoming participants, in an active sense, in their salvation.
Such an attitude may sound proud, to the point of delusion, on the part of our species. We seem to have enough difficulty as we take care of ourselves. Yet there is something to be said for the desire that calls us to consider, and hope-fully to act, on behalf of other lives — both human and non-human.
Now, where does that leave those species we cannot save? Those creatures, fellow inhabitants of this planet, whose participation in the mystery of life it is beyond us to sustain when our resources run out, our enthusiasm falls flat, and our expertise fails.
Do we have some kind of responsibility to honour their loss? It is clear, to me, that the disappearance of such creatures (and let’s recognise that extinction means just that — utter, endless absence) leaves a deep wound in the nature of things. The disappearance of what Pope Francis calls, in his first encyclical, the “thousands of species who will no longer give glory to God by their very existence.”
In the presence of infinite love, it seems that to exist is enough. But even this simple proposition is something we cannot rely on. The Living Planet Index claims that we are set to lose some two-thirds of wild animals (which does not include plant life) by 2020. That’s mass extinction, in four more short years.
I think “lose” isn’t quite the right word, though. After all, we are not passive bystanders. We are not powerlessly watching this happen. That’s the whole point of asking “How do we choose?”
We know, on some level, that we are the ones making a choice.
In too many ways, you and I are daily contributors to this great process of annihilation. Our lives demand such an excess of consumption and so little conscious care for other life that the situation sometimes feels overwhelming. A bit desperate.
Perhaps this is why we need to be reminded that we can, if we choose to do so, make a powerful difference in the world. We need to listen to the people who ask us difficult but essential questions. We must understand that conservationists aren’t merely asking us to think about dolphins, and tigers, and tulips.
They are asking us to consider, and learn how to treasure, the very thing that makes us human.