X STANDS FOR EXTINCT

by Whit Gibbons

April 12, 2015

"X is EXTINCT; he thinks everything bad. That was not invented, when he was a lad."

So reads the ditty for the letter X in "Old Fashioned Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes." Except for X and U (the unicorn), the letters of the alphabet in this bizarre little book are represented by real animals. Apparently, the authors, none of whom appear to have been a goose, could not think of any animal to represent the letter X.

I came across the book recently in my basement. Having heard that some parents today censor Mother Goose because they consider the stories a bit too violent for children, I decided to take a look at this edition published nearly a century ago. Indeed, Jack and Jill did fall down the hill, and the sparrow did kill cock robin. But, hey, those things happen. Then I looked at the drawing of X, a hollow eyed, grinning creature wearing a topcoat and vest. Its scary face resembles the skull of an evil, large beaked bird with teeth.

I remember not caring much for the animal pictures in this book as a child and being, in fact, a little frightened. Upon reflection I wonder if reading a book that makes one a little frightened of EXTINCT might perhaps have been a good idea. Growing up with concern, or even dread, about having more EXTINCTs around is not such a bad thing - then or now.

Most people today are aware that the extinction rate of plants and animals worldwide has increased to a level unprecedented in human history. Everyone should feel a little uneasy about the prospects of future extinctions. When we lose a species, we decrease the world's biological diversity. High biological diversity broadens the base of raw materials and biological products we depend on for existence. No reasonable person today should deny that plants and animals, some yet to be discovered, provide the source for new foods and medicines. Also, the biodiversity inherent in natural systems enhances the pleasure and emotional health of many of us.

Anyone who supports current activities that can lead to the demise of another species is rationalizing what extinction means. Old-fashioned extinctions, such as Tyrannosaurus rex and the other dinosaurs and the giant ferns of the Carboniferous Period, are not something to feel guilty about. Our ancestors had nothing to do with the disappearance of any of these creatures millions of years ago. But a little closer to home are the modern extinctions, those clearly caused by humans elimination of the giant birds known as moas in New Zealand; the loss of the dodo on the island of Mauritius; the extinction of passenger pigeons here at home. We can regret these losses and maybe harbor a little ancestral guilt, but we must accept them as a done deal from which we can now only learn.

Commercial extinction, however, is something we can and should do something about. The marine fisheries situation alone should convince us, especially people who once took eating Atlantic codfish for granted. They are not eating much of it these days. Codfish and many other ocean fish have gone commercially extinct or are headed in that direction. One reason is that more attention was paid to quick profits and politics than to environmental predictions. A problem with fisheries management, as with many other environmental issues, is that economic interests and political rhetoric too often prevail over predictions by research ecologists that foretell of potentially catastrophic results. We should reverse this situation and pay attention to scientists rather than politicians who are representing special interest groups. Even The Wall Street Journal at one time blamed the reduction in codfish on "years of overfishing and mismanagement."

Today's species face many threats, which we and our political representatives should be concerned about. We should be frightened by the face of extinction and teach our children to fear it too. Nonetheless I'm not recommending they read the old Mother Goose book.

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