Chasing the Apocalypse
By Josh Appelbaum (University of Vermont ‘09, Round River Namibia 2008)
Josh graduated from the University of Vermont in 2009 with a BA in English. He now lives on the North Shore of Boston where he works for a sports information web-site. He also writes for a political blog focusing on Millennial issues called The Suffolk Resolves. Josh wrote the following essay during his Round River program in Namibia, as part of the Natural History course.
April 7, 2008
CHASING THE APOCALYPSE
Silently single-filed, we march in delicate unison through a graveyard of jagged rock in search of the mighty black rhino. It is 9:17 AM and already the sweltering African sun pumps furiously over herds of pogo-stick pronking springbok and dusty-red mountain zebra. In the distance, the massive Brandberg Mountain range towers over us like ancient skyscrapers in a Jurassic metropolitan. At our feet, enormous three-toed spoor (tracks) outline our path like postmodern fossils from another world.
Perusing the desolate terrain, Bernd, our professional tracker, points to a heaping pile of fresh scat and quietly barks back at us.
The pirating dung beetles are just beginning to swarm.
Unaware of our impending encounter, a chill of anxious excitement shoots down my aching spine as Bernd stops dead in his tracks, as if he’d seen a ghost. Pointing to the climactic horizon, he slowly turns back to us and smiles wide.
“There’s old Mike,” he whispers softly.
Stealthily scanning the sharp ridge, my awe-struck eyes widen as I catch my first-ever glimpse of the elusive black rhino. One hundred and sixty-nine meters uphill, the 17-year-old dominant bull appears like a larger-than-life, armor plated tank. He is massive with broad, stocky shoulders and a long chiseled face. His long gray horn makes him look noble in the sunlight, almost like the way royalty wears a crown on a sunny day.
Soaking in the amazement as best I can, my short-circuiting brain fast forwards beyond the innate impulse to snap as many pictures as possible, instead focusing on the all-encompassing contemplation of the Big Bang. Looking at Mike in all his glory, jaunting over his terrain without a care in the world, I wonder if the all-mighty, life spawning explosion ever imagined how breathtakingly beautiful its plethora of masterful creations would turn out to be.
Here, in the vast deserts of Namibia, I am one of nine American college students studying abroad with Save the Rhino Trust. Seven thousand miles away from everything I’ve ever known, I am up to my ears in existential awakening. Disconnected from the agonizing purgatory of mindless superficiality, roaring automobiles and bloated consumerism, I’ve traded in my polluted capitalist upbringing for a Round River membership card to a time machine.
I’ve landed in a simpler place, an organic institution devoid of corporate contamination: a place predictably unpredictable and wildly at one with nature. Africa incubates a radical renaissance of the soul.
WALKING THE PATH TO MASS EXTINCTION
Watching Mike browse in a pristine utopia of monstrous Euphorbia damarana, one almost forgets that mankind is currently “living” in the Sixth Great Extinction period, otherwise known as the Holocene Extinction Event. We are the unparalleled creators of a new Manifest Destiny, hell-bent on obliterating every last inch of wilderness in order to fuel our insatiable desire to control and consume.
Injected with selfish greed and a thoughtless addiction to short-term rewards, we have managed to successfully annihilate millions of miles of irreplaceable habitat, overexploit our lands and seas, disintegrate our Ozone layer and pollute our Earth with infinite amounts of toxic waste. Our poisonous trend to pillage our planet dry of all its natural resources has given birth to Global Warming and funded endless wars in the oil-rich Middle East.
According to the World Conservation Union, 1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians and 1 in 3 conifers and gymnosperms are currently at risk of extinction. As Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson predicts, if we do not alter our apocalyptic path now, our insidious lifestyle will leave half of all animals and plant species extinct by the year 2100.
Nearly 60 years later, Aldo Leopold’s 1949 vision of a land ethic in which the role of humans changes “from a conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” seems further from our collective one-track minds than ever. Oblivious to the biological consequences of our unsustainable actions, we are caught on the crest of a wave destined for destruction.
Outside of a small minority of conservation-minded hipsters, our values have been lost in a deep sea of line-blurring technological advancement. Generations ago, our parents and grandparents read books and did arithmetic by hand. Today, we have calculators, personal computers and the internet available at our beckon call, ready to instantly execute any number of trivial demands we ask it to perform.
Our 21st Century brains are visually geared to stare at television screens and lap-tops, devices that provide endless entertainment and ask nothing in return. Even our language has been transformed by modernization: hijacked by convenience, turned into a division of coded gibberish. Cell phones, text-messaging and e-mailing have turned our once preferred methods of communication into impersonal, quick-fixes. We abbreviate everything. Instead of taking the extra ten seconds to type “Talk to you later” we choose to send “TTYL” instead- and then move on to the next thing on our never ending to-do list. Addicted to making fact decisions that pay off instantly, our personal connection to something larger, an eternal sense of collectiveness personified by land, has become obsolete.
The foundation of our economy has lost its value as well. Today, money is no longer a reward of substance that we can quantify through touch – the sweat of hard work producing a crisp, worn dollar bill in your hand: the fruit of your labor. Instead, it is a digital code on a computer screen in a bank account that we instantly accept ownership of yet have no physical connection to. The same assumption-based attitude allows us to readily accept whatever is on our dinner plate or in our gas tank as the norm. We are oblivious to the source of our possessions and the chain of costly events that led them to our grasp.
This is the core of the real great extinction upon us: the extinction of awareness.
THE NAMIBIAN BLUEPRINT
More than a century and a half ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” A temporary nomad in a place vibrantly alive, I realize the power of his words while staring at Mike’s silhouette on the Namibian horizon. Suddenly it all makes sense.
The wilderness keeps us grounded. It keeps up sane in an insane world by letting us know exactly where we stand in the food chain. It is the great equalizer. It is a place of heightened awareness that infuses us with adrenaline. Our eternal vulnerability in the wilderness preserves our humanity.
In Namibia, the preservation of rhino serves as a model to the rest of the world on how to effectively protect wildlife while also satisfying the intrinsic economic desires of the people. Unlike many other African countries, the Namibian government – not private landowners – own the rhinos. Charismatic megafauana like Mike are protected 24/7 by Save the Rhino Trust and can only be hunted (rarely) with a special permit issued directly from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
The people are slowly realizing that graceful giants like Mike are key attractions for ecotourism, which in turn produces much-needed revenue for Namibia as well as benefit and preserve the sustainability of its biodiversity. Communal conservancies are beginning to understand that being complicit in the illegal sale of rhino horn, demanded by the Far East, is no longer a sustainable process. By protecting the rhinos, they can generate far more revenue from the ecotourism that it provides.
But even ecotourism has its drawbacks. Highly sensitive to screaming airplanes and independent 4×4 guided excursions brought about by increased ecotourism, rhinos like Mike are having their home ranges invaded, which threatens the long-term viability of the species. These incidents, which are known as Human Induced Disturbances (HIDs), cause the rhinos to be displaced and also develop high levels of stress that can cause fatal gastrointestinal and cardiovascular diseases.
In Namibia, this issue is especially significant due to the harsh reality that displaced desert rhinos have no alternative habitat to flee to. Combined with the skewed 3:1 male-to-female ratio and sad fact that females and calves are most susceptible to displacement, HIDs are a growing concern that Save the Rhino Trust must work to combat each day.
IN SEARCH OF A LAND ETHIC
Maybe by the year 2100 half of all the plants and animals will be reduced to museum exhibits alongside the woolly mammoth, saber tooth tiger and the dodo. By then, if our current trajectory holds true, we will have bled the Earth dry of all its resources. Global Warming will have melted the ice caps, putting all our coastal cities like Boston and Miami and New York City completely underwater.
Or maybe – faced with our destruction – we will finally be forced to live within our means, conscious of all the living creatures around us and respectful to the land we inhabit. Only then will we truly develop a land ethic worthy of Leopold’s vision.
To me, that vision is personified in Namibia, where clocks are meaningless, bucket showers are a luxury, run-ins with rhinos like Mike are religious experiences and campfires are more entertaining than flat-screen TVs.
Regardless of which path we choose, life will go on after humans have run their course, just as it has for the last billion years or so. But if we do bring about our demise, let’s hope millions of years from now a new dominant species will stumble upon the apocalyptic ruins of today’s 21st-century, first world culture and be provided a blueprint for how not to rule the world.
Or maybe the futuristic explorers will get lucky and excavate the pristinely preserved fossils of Namibia – uncovering the blueprint for how to conserve it.