Foreword: Racing to Extinction

Published early 2024. Read the foreword to see why it is really worth reading the whole book.

The writing has been on the wall for generations, and in each generation, voices were lifted in an attempt to direct the attention of the general public and those in power to the consequences of continuing to ignore the writing on the wall.

The Romantic poets saw and felt the horrors of early-stage Industrialisation and its dysfunctional social order because they had hearts and their eyes were not blinded by the contemplation of money and profit. They lifted up their voices in lament, as did some of their visual artist colleagues, like J. M. W. Turner, and poets coming after, including Walt Whitman and e. e. cummings.

Charles Dickens lifted up his voice at the cut-throat cruelty of his own society, which was at that point also busy colonising the rest of the world, exporting its cruelty abroad. His Magwitch speaks for all abused children, trampled citizens, and hunted men in history.

Indigenous people like Chiksika lifted up their voices in protest against the destruction that their foreign oppressors were wreaking on their and our Mother. They still lift up their voices today when industry comes to what is left of their traditional lands to, e.g., frack for gas, lay oil pipelines, annihilate wildlife and habitat for lithium mines, and bulldoze sacred sites like Australia’s Juukan Gorge or Nevada’s Thacker Pass. Few in mainstream society hear them, and even fewer care.

Concerned scientists and other citizens have been lifting up their voices in warning for centuries about the way we are treating this planet. They have spoken out about habitat destruction, human overshoot, pollution—and are mostly met with indifference or disdain by mainstream society, especially the upper echelons that have grown rich and powerful from their exploitation and abuse of nature and their fellow humans.

The Earth’s biosphere is disintegrating, with the vast majority of humans either in great ignorance or in denial. The dominant, toxic culture that sees our brother and sister species—and our brother and sister humans—as resources to be consumed and capital to be exploited has grown into a physically voracious, planetwide machine that is destroying ecosystems, meaningful human communities, and human and nonhuman lives day and night and at ever-accelerating rates.

The machine was once smaller, powered by oxen, horses, donkeys, human slaves, the burning of the bodies of trees. The first empires rode on its back, including the famous Roman Empire, to conquer and steal, to rape and pillage, amongst other human and nonhuman communities, in order to enrich themselves at others’ expense. The faces kept on changing, but the plot remained the same. With the Industrial Revolution, the machine became driven by engines and wage slaves, and soon most of the engines ran on fossil fuels, and with the energy thus unleashed, the destruction skyrocketed.

Many people now understand that the burning of the planet’s fossil carbons causes carbon dioxide to accumulate in the atmosphere, with consequent planetary warming and climate change. Few see that the opposite side of this equation—the ability of plants on this Earth to sequester carbon—has also been severely disrupted by the continued human-orchestrated destruction of global ecosystems. The combined effect is that the climate is now leaving the stable Holocene period and entering uncharted territory.

The destruction of the planet’s web of life is a screaming-ambulance-siren problem not merely because it is the other main driver of our climate crisis but in and of itself. Nobody should have to point out that it is appalling to lose a single species to human activity, let alone the current reality of over 150 species a day. Nobody should be numb to such a biological apocalypse, to such wholesale killing caused not by somebody else over there but by each and every one of us living in the toxic, genocidal, ecocidal machine we call civilisation.

Civilisation has always in practice meant urbanisation. People living in cities have to import their food and other necessities (and luxuries) from outside the city, traditionally from its hinterland, and since globalisation, from all over the planet, at even greater ecological expense. When the population of the city grows, when people want more stuff, or when the hinterland necessarily degrades—and usually, all three apply simultaneously—the city needs to either increase the intensity of extraction of its existing hinterland, which will further degrade it ecologically and often exacerbate social injustice, or acquire more hinterland. The latter means dispossessing other people and/or wiping out more wildlife habitat—in short, genocide and ecocide.

Ecosystem destruction looks like this: deforestation, logging, clearing for the usual reasons of agriculture, suburban expansion, mining, road building and industrial projects including power transmission lines and “green” solar and wind farms; also human-induced land degradation/desertification and the ongoing toxification of the planet by industrial and household chemicals and plastic pollution. These are human crimes against life on Earth, and they are baked into the system in which most of us are currently organised, each of us little cogs in the destructive machine of contemporary consumer society.

We who are heirs to this destructive culture should be repenting in sackcloth and ashes at the carnage and desecration we are causing on this planet and doing our level best to dismantle our destructive machine and reintegrate with the natural world we have spat upon and trodden under our feet for so long, instead of pretending that tinkering around the edges of the machine is a sufficient response. Our level best includes voluntarily limiting family size to counter our vast population overshoot, wiping out social inequality and the hierarchies behind it, drastically reducing average personal consumption, dismantling our large-scale industrial infrastructure, ending the profligate waste of consumerism and globalisation, phasing out humans feedlots, returning to simpler smaller-scale technologies, making healthy supportive communities, engaging hands-on with ecologically sound revegetation efforts and with growing our own food in permaculture systems, and striving for local self-sufficiency.

Cue predictable screaming from the military-industrial complex, the corporate sector, and the politicians and media owned by them. Also from local chambers of commerce and entitled people anywhere—including in the field of science—for whom the status quo, privilege, and personal freedom are not only more important than other people’s health and having fair and functional human community but infinitely more important than reversing the frenzied assault of our species on all remaining wild forms of life—on the very web of life that supports all life on this planet, and from which we are removing more strands 24/7. Cue additional screaming from those in the general population—and in the field of science—who do not understand what we are doing to the biosphere collectively, why this is an atrocity, and how it will come back to bite everyone.

Drastic change should have happened 50, 100, 200 years ago, when the writing was already on the wall and some thinkers and poets in every generation could see it, just as many Indigenous people could see it. This has now become a palliative care exercise. The house of cards Homo colossus has been busy building for centuries is collapsing, and the sixth great extinction that is underway courtesy of our ecocidal activites is poised to sweep us off the stage with it.

It’s funny how we seem to feel immortal when we are young, as if disease and disaster can’t possibly happen to us. Likewise, it’s funny how as a culture we seem to feel immortal, as if no matter how much damage we do to the natural systems that support life on Earth, and no matter how many other species we send to extinction daily, it can’t possibly happen to us. It’s also funny how most people regard the idea of human extinction with an abject horror they are unable to summon for our brother and sister species.

One of the biggest wake-up calls for me personally was finding out as a young scientist and educator that it’s not just the corporate sector, and the politicians who dance to their handclaps in the name of “jobs and growth,”aka ecocide, who are making it systematically almost impossible for concerned citizens to effect large-scale necessary change. It is also that the very agencies charged with the protection of the environment, with the education, health, and welfare of humans, and with justice in society, are complicit in undermining all of these instead.

Lyle Lewis also found this out. He too was a caring young person who genuinely wanted to make a positive difference to wildlife and the health of the biosphere by studying biology and then working for government agencies charged with nature conservation. He spent 30 years working for such agencies, and when I read about the experiences he relates in this book, I nodded from the start to the finish of his recount. I’d seen all the things he described myself, in Australia. Many colleagues I have talked to, who started out as caring young people excited about going in to bat for nature, have also seen these things and have experienced the disgust and despair of witnessing such systemic incompetence, obfuscation, and corruption.

Our stories do not get mainstream press. Most people do not want to hear this. Our voices are routinely silenced. In this book, Lyle speaks for all of us who studied and loved the Earth and wanted to make a difference through our chosen field of study and the bureaucracies allocated to nature conservation by our vastly dysfunctional, nature-divorced society—and found out along the way how that goes down.

Another person who found out how environmental truth-telling goes down with the establishment was Rachel Carson, when she began to question the safety of DDT back in the 1940s. She hit brick walls trying to make her concerns public, but persisted and in 1962 published Silent Spring, with the result that she was hounded by the chemical industry and its shills in government and other positions of power. She was ridiculed for being a “bird and bunny lover” and not having a PhD or an academic position, and with typical establishment misogyny, described as “hysterical” and a “spinster” and unstable and acting beyond her qualifications. Rachel Carson was right about DDT, though, and unlike her pathetic accusers, had decency, integrity, and joined-up thinking.

Truth-telling isn’t just unpopular with the establishment, but also, too often these days, with the public. Nine years before Pope John Paul II publicly admitted and apologised for the Catholic Church’s systemic paedophilia cover-ups, Sinéad O’Connor, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, in 1992 famously tore up a picture of the Pope on US television to draw attention to the widespread sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church. That very picture hung for years in the home of her abuser, yet it was she who became the public’s favourite pariah for making a stand on this issue. People did not want to hear. But she was right. Children were abused, and very few perpetrators, even to this day, were ever held accountable for the abuse and its cover-up—including Australian Archbishop George Pell, who died in the Vatican, safely away from Australian victims.

These are not isolated instances of evil or “misunderstanding”—this is standard operating procedure for our toxic hierarchical systems. This is why few paedophile priest or rapists in high-status positions are brought to justice and their victims are shredded and slandered instead; why decades after alleged gender equality, women are still dealing with inequality, discrimination, disrespect, and sexual violence; why Indigenous people experience inequality, blatant racism, poorer health, lower life expectancies, etc., and their dispossession never ended; why we still have homeless people and working poor while billionaires live it up; why politicians and CEOs have vastly higher salaries than nurses or teachers, even though their roles are no more demanding or important; why a million other injustices exist and persist. No matter how many Parliamentary Inquiries or Royal Commissions are staged and special reports and recommendations are produced, this never fundamentally changes.

They say that when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Likewise, I say, when a system shows you what it is, believe it. The system under which we live in our ostensibly modern, wealthy, democratic societies is rotten to the core, and if you open your eyes and look around without your mainstream-issue rose-tinted spectacles, you see it everywhere. We live in a dire dystopia underneath a veneer cleverly constructed by Screwtape and his marketing department, with lots of soma and unicorn dust splashed around. We are brainwashed and indoctrinated from early childhood, like children born into any cult; it is difficult to break away and see it, and painful, and guaranteed to get you ostracised. We have our Two Minutes Hate orchestrated for us and horizontal hostility avidly fanned by the sociopaths who are meanwhile dominating ordinary citizens from atop their greasy poles, and skimming all the cream off the top for themselves and their ilk.

If you critique a rich democracy that drip-feeds consumerism to its populace, you will be invited to look at the poverty, chaos, and corruption in developing countries and to be grateful for your lot, conveniently without deconstructing why the poverty, chaos, and corruption exist in those countries in the first place. It’s a similar move as some Western parents invoking starving Ethiopians if their children don’t want to finish their plate. It’s cynical manipulation and doesn’t address the problems on either side, let alone actually care.

Rachel Carson lived to see her concerns about the consequences of DDT use on human health and wildlife backed up by subsequent studies and its use in her own country begin to be legislated so that human communities at least could start to defend themselves from aerial spraying. Shortly after her death (in her 50s, from cancer), DDT was largely banned in the US. But it is still being used even today to kill mosquitoes for malaria control, and as a result of past and ongoing use and its long half-life, the entire globe is contaminated with it. DDT is present in the bodies of all humans even before birth, and in the bodies of wildlife everywhere, even on remote islands where it was never directly sprayed.

Of course, DDT is only one of many dangerous and persistent industrial chemicals found in every organism tested anywhere on the planet, and most of them are far less regulated. PFAS, for example, are another “forever chemical” found in common items including raincoats, Teflon cookware, household stain protection sprays, and food packaging and are routinely dumped on burning buildings and wildlands in the form of firefighting foam. PFAS are now ubiquitously found in household dust and rainwater, and contaminating the bodies of humans and wildlife. Fire retardants are another Pandora’s box; they come without warning in your sofas, mattresses, impregnated into children’s pyjamas, etc. Plastics and plasticisers are not the inert, harmless substances they were initially claimed to be, and are now filling up the oceans.

In summary, there are hundreds of thousands of industrial chemicals in use, many of which aren’t harmless, and few of which are usefully regulated. Thousands of new ones are introduced each year. They come to your home in everyday consumer products—furniture, clothing, carpet, cookware, toiletries, tea bags, packaging. They contaminate the planet at the point of manufacture, eventual disposal, and everywhere in-between, and if they have adverse health or ecological effects, the onus is largely on the public to agitate to get them regulated and to make sure their replacements aren’t equally problematic. Meanwhile, every passing day, the planet and its biota become more contaminated with industrial chemicals than ever before.

And Rachel Carson, who loved this Earth, believed people had a right not to be poisoned in their own homes, and dedicated so much of her life to educating the public about nature, ecology, and environmental and public health issues like this, is turning in her grave.

With this book, Lyle Lewis is lifting up his voice on behalf of the Earth he deeply loves, his brother and sister species whom he deeply loves, and all other people who deeply love the Earth and its magnificent, miraculous, beleaguered life forms. He has my love and my gratitude for caring, for wanting to know, for speaking out, for having a heart, for his integrity and his backbone. I thank him for writing this book. I know he wishes his conclusions could have been different.

In the pages that follow, Lyle takes you on his journey grappling with dark times. He takes a square look at the current state of the planet and at the main drivers of the accelerating ecological disintegration on Earth. He discusses human overshoot, the toxification of the biosphere, climate change, biodiversity loss, and related matters, along with aspects of the dominant human culture and human psychology that are creating and enabling our devastation of Planet Earth. The author has a special interest in human evolution and in the ecological consequences of the spread of our hunter-gatherer ancestors out of Africa and all around the world. He believes that we started making trouble for the wider biotic community well before the Agricultural or Industrial Revolutions, and he shows us how.

Lyle also discusses at length the mechanisms and extent of the postcolonial ecological devastation of North America, in which the agencies he worked for were and remain complicit. He then shares insights into processing the trauma and grief of living in a collapsing biosphere—something those of us who have been witnessing it on the ground are all finding difficult.

As eco-realists, rather than techno-optimists or religious believers in upcoming divine intervention, many of us are consciously working through grief over the daily devastation of our brother and sister species and their steady disappearance from this planet. Many of us are also doing our level best to help them hang on in our local areas, by personally protecting and stewarding remaining patches of native ecosystem and planting native species back into devastated areas to make corridors and refuges useful to wildlife.

The song of a single bird is more eloquent and important than all the chatter of the many “important” people staging useless summits, leading countries, selling snake oil, etc. It is a balm to ears that have heard so much emptiness.

So if you ask us why we still bother to do so given our acceptance that we are living through an accelerating mass extinction, one main reason is that the here and now is all we ever had and is still meaningful, for all forms of life. The other is that we are fighting to leave as much biological heritage as we can for nature to do whatever it will do when we fall on our own sword and stop being the worst plague that ever existed—which is sadly what we are, collectively, in spite of the good and beautiful things that humans are also capable of.

In our Titanic’s extensive well-stocked library is a small shelf containing volumes that elucidate with honesty and joined-up thinking the holocaust that modern humans have created for the community of living things on Planet Earth, and which is coming back to bite us.

Lyle Lewis’s Racing to Extinction sits squarely and deservedly on that shelf.

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