Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
If empathy is a fundamental animal trait, as Darwin said, then it’s natural that we should feel empathy for the pika. We feel empathy for polar bears, seals and whales, so why not for our local mountaintop mammals, ochotona princeps?
Imagine that you’re a pika and you know the heat is coming on. Winters are warm, but summers are excruciating. You’ve got sweat pouring out of every pore and you’re not even supposed to sweat. In the past, it was no problem. You climbed higher up the mountain, into the cool.
In this, you followed a long tradition. Your father climbed higher, and so did your grandfather and his grandfather. Each generation since the Industrial Revolution has climbed higher in search of the cool temps you need to survive.
Each climb means establishing new digs under the rocks, carpeted with shag grass and furnished with springy beds of moss. Each move is disruptive and uprooting. With home always a few hundred feet up, you are a social climbing species.
Now it’s time to climb again because the planet is heating up (anything over 78 degrees for you is equivalent to the stew pot), but as you exit the family abode, you look up and see nothing but sky. There’s no place higher. Your generation has topped out. There is a bigger peak across the valley, but getting there would be like flying to Mars.
You look down into the deep valley below, and you realize that your puny little legs couldn’t get you there during your lifetime. And then there’s a river to cross, and coyotes and foxes to avoid. Migrating to the next mountain doesn’t look at all promising.
You decide to stick it out where you are, burrowing ever deeper into the rocks. You decide to live day to day as your species has always done, and you try to ignore those torrid days of summer.
Being a pika isn’t so different from being a human, except that pikas represent the collateral damage of human industry. What we humans don’t appreciate is that climate change is threatening us, too. But that’s not something we like to think about, so we go on living day to day, just like the pikas. We dig deeper or live higher, ignoring the heat.
The Obama administration recently opted not to list the pika as an endangered species, deferring to studies that show there are plenty of pikas spread across the western states. The real reason for not listing the pika, however, is because it would make climate change the culprit, requiring federal action to stop it.
Confronting climate change in an industrial society is futile because government is not going to impinge on economic growth just to save the pika. Saving the pika is up to us, the people. Unfortunately, most of the people have never seen a pika, don’t believe in climate change, and wouldn’t believe humans had anything to do with it if they did.
Our fearless leaders would rather not have to think about taking on climate change because it would distract from the far more pressing matters of the Recession, the Toyota recall, the Westminster Dog Show, the Afghanistan offensive, and the Olympics.
At the Olympics, they were hauling snow with trucks and helicopters to Cypress Mountain because it was too warm for natural or manmade snow. So, the Winter Olympics generates a huge carbon footprint that will further inhibit snow from covering Cypress Mountain.
Back to the pika: You’re standing on your mountaintop, the only one you and your bloodline have ever known. It is a mild February afternoon and dreadfully warm. You’re wondering WTF! The wife is nagging and the kids are crying and you feel more like a lemming than a pika, even though you’re related to the rabbit.
You suddenly wonder if it might be better to just gather the tribe and take a flying leap off yonder cliff to see what the forbidden valley looks like after all these generations. One big step for pikas, one dreadful fall for mankind.
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