The Galapagos Islands and the Stench of Death E-mail
Saturday, 19 November 2011 00:00  |  Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary

Galapagos Iguana photo by Eric ChanLet me tell you about a trip I took to the Galapagos Islands. This trip was not exactly what I had anticipated. Not close. The journey is over a decade old now, but I can still remember the stink.

See, when I visited the Galapagos Islands, the origin of the Origin of Species, they stunk of death, of rot and decay and bad things to come.

The year I was there was an El Niño year. And El Niño year means the ocean temperatures rise. Very slightly. A drop in the bucket really. All it takes is a drop.

The reason the Galapagos smelled of death is because the archipelago was covered in carcasses. These islands boast the world’s only swimming iguanas and because the ocean was a few degrees warmer than normal the fish these iguana feed on did not follow their normal migration patterns. They did not make it to the Galapagos. So the iguanas were starving to death.

The seals were starving, too. Seals were how I first got interested in the environment. When I was a very small child, I had a stuffed animal seal. It was my first love. And you never forget your first love.

In the Galapagos I learned a fact about seals that I still find startling: seals are descendents of a now-vanished species of long-tailed bears. These bears, like the assortment of other land mammals that later became dolphins and whales, returned to the ocean. Something had made the land uninhabitable. Something—most likely a shortage of food—forced them back to the water.

Seals came from bears, which came from—going all the way back now—a tiny shrew-like mammal that, through cleverness or luck or both, survived the age of the dinosaur. There were millions of intermediate stages to get from shrew to seal, a million minor miracles, a million links in a very long chain. We call this chain evolution. And what I experienced in the Galapagos—the death and the stink— was almost another link in that chain.

Almost, but not quite.

Twenty-three El Niños were recorded in the last century according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The four strongest have struck since 1980. I was in the Galapagos in 1998, at the time the warmest year on record in 150 years.

Scientists are now sure that this excessive warming was the result of human intervention. We have words for that warming now, thanks to men like James Hansen, and these too are links in a chain—a chain of evidence.

That chain of evidence points back to only one place: to us. We killed those seals and iguanas, as we have killed so many others before. The current species extinction rate is a thousand times greater than ever before. One of four living creatures on this planet will not survive this century.

Since a generation lasts roughly 25 years, four generations will pass before that life is gone from this world. I think population is at the heart of many of these problems, so I have no children. Nor will I ever have any. But others will. And their great, great grandchildren will find themselves in a significantly sparser world.

This introduction is for them as much as for anyone reading it today. It’s so that when they look around and don’t see snow leopards and polar bears and all the rest, when they feel impoverished, perhaps lonely—it will most certainly be a much lonelier world then—they’ll know who to blame.

Blame all who were alive when this went down. Blame us. Blame me. Who am I? In this, I’m the same as everyone else. I’m the one responsible.

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Comments (2)add
Written by Will A. , November 19, 2011
Stern words, but brave ones. It's time to be brave and face the reality of what's happening -- what is being *done* -- to our planet.
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Written by kenneth sten , February 25, 2009
Very good and very true i too have first hand have seen the decline of many speces of sea creatures. More people should take this problem to heart.
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