I saw my first Remembrance Poppy last week. It was big, faded and taped to the inside of a cottage window. It had obviously seen several years’ reuse, and it called to mind the time I collected up poppies discarded by my classmates after Remembrance Sunday, not from an urge to conserve, but in a spirit of adolescent provocation. I’d decided to wear one throughout the year and daily replaced those yanked from my buttonhole by scandalised teachers and prefects. I’m a little reproached by that memory as I am by that of my schoolboy self annually fidgeting through the two-minutes’ silence marking Armistice. The remembrance statistics are dismally familiar: over 1.25 million UK military personnel killed since 1914; many times that shattered by injury, trauma or both; just one year since 1945 during which a serving member of Britain’s armed forces has not been killed.
Last month reports of a casualty of a different sort of conflict went viral. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef, a vast living structure, bigger than the UK, Holland and Switzerland put together, had died. Though marine biologists later denounced the obituary as premature, none questioned the assessment of Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, that, “We are precipitating the conditions for a mass extinction .. Up near Lizard Island there’s hardly any coral at all. It looks like a war zone.” For years the reef has been under sustained attack on two fronts: from acidification of the ocean, stemming from our relentless pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere, and from declining water quality, caused by run off of nitrogen fertilizers used in intensive agriculture.
And of course corals aren’t the only species besieged by human behaviour. Our erosion of biodiversity has its own dismal and ever expanding set of statistics. Extinction rates are conservatively estimated to be 1,000 times higher than normal; credible research puts the global decline of wildlife at over 50% since 1970; and Megan Hollingsworth of Extinction Witness talks of the human assault on biodiversity as, “a war pushing an estimated 75 to 200 species each day over the sharp edge of extinction.” If it is a war, it’s one that, despite its scale and shocking implications, is largely ignored.
In contrast, the lead up to Remembrance Sunday will bring the military losses of human-on-human conflict into sharp focus. This will include those suffered at the Battle of the Somme, the anniversary of which it is this year. Among the British and Commonwealth men who perished there, a vast number were lost without trace. Though it was impossible to locate their bodies for burial, their 72,000 names are immortalised on the imposing Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. Hollingsworth’s upper estimate for current species extinction per year is a similar 73,000. The vast majority of these species – not individuals, but species – will vanish without any media or public acknowledgement. Nor will governments be commissioning a memorial to them anytime soon.
It was frustration at the collective failure to observe and mourn these colossal losses that in 2010 spurred a coalition of artists and educators to launch Remembrance Day for Lost Species, which now takes place annually on November 30th. If the naming and timing of the initiative looks provocative, it’s not intended to be. Those involved grasp the power of the customs, ceremonies and emblems employed by the Poppy Appeal in memorialising the dead, and see a strong case for a comparable approach to honouring and drawing attention to lost species. Writer Nick Hunt explains Remembrance Day for Lost Species as an opportunity for
“developing rituals for coping with loss as much as it’s about education and awareness. It’s a recognition that telling facts about extinction doesn’t always reach people on an emotional level. We hope Remembrance for Lost Species can jolt people into a different sort of awareness.”
Something needs to. Our species’ talent for denial is a special one. And there is a sense in some quarters that only emotion can help us cross the no mans land between facts and figures, and action. It’s more than 50 years since marine biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the book that exposed the pervasive poisoning from chemical pesticides, and that is often said to have launched the modern environmental movement. The specific peril of DDT may have been largely erased, but there remains a horrible suspicion of inevitability to Carson’s vision of
“a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
Thinking back to that boy who struggled through a mere two-minutes’ silence, I really hope we humans find a way to truly feel what it is we are doing to our planet; that through our feeling, we act to spare our own offspring a much deeper, far more dreadful silence. In the coming days as the nation pays respect to those who fell in battle, I will also be looking to a future which embraces Remembrance for Lost Species with conviction, a time when whole communities process, lay wreaths, recite poems or enact other rituals out of respect for the species we have killed, and as a mark of our commitment to add no others to the roll; a time when no one will be reproached for wearing a Remembrance for Lost Species badge all year round.
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