As much as we tend to frame the struggle to combat climate change as hippies versus Captain Planet villains, most damage to the environment is accidental or inflicted for complicated reasons that involve dozens of disparate economic and cultural factors. But then there are the disasters where even that Captain Planet bad guy whose whole schtick was being made out of radiation would’ve said, “That’s fucked up.” For example …
This is Steller’s sea cow, one of nature’s most adorable doofuses:
They became known to modern civilization when Georg Wilhelm Steller discovered them in 1741. By 1768, they were extinct. What the hell happened in between? Larger than a killer whale, the sea cow was one of the few giant creatures to survive past the Pleistocene, unlike mastodons and saber-toothed cats. Likely once ranging throughout the Pacific, by Steller’s time, they were confined to the waters around the Commander Islands off of Russia, which is an unusually badass name for an unremarkable set of small Arctic islands.
Steller was a naturalist, but he accidentally encountered the animals while on an expedition that had become lost and ravaged by scurvy. They’d run aground and assumed they could walk to Siberia (if you’re ever longing for the comfort and safety of Siberia, something has gone horribly wrong), but Steller soon realized they were on an island that had likely been untouched by humans. Then he spotted the sea cows.
Steller had two reactions to discovering the behemoths. The first was that they were majestic wonders of nature, and the second was that they were stupid and delicious. One of the 10-ton beasts could feed the crew for a month, and apparently they made for some damn fine eating. Their reaction to being harpooned was to sort of float there and take it, with other sea cows ineptly trying to mount a defense, and even making themselves vulnerable by returning to visit the corpses of their mates.
The explorers were eating to survive, but Steller envisioned a future in which hunters could come to the island and live off the cows, while harvesting both their fat and valuable pelts from the island’s countless otters. And that’s pretty much exactly what happened, with fur hunters driving the sea cows to extinction. They were already in rough shape, with only an estimated 1,500 still alive at the time of their discovery. The nonstop harpoonings of the poor placid bozos didn’t exactly help, but the real problem might have been the mass otter hunting, which lowered the number of sea urchins being eaten, which let the urchins consume more kelp, which starved the cows of their main food source.
This annihilation wasn’t callous indifference. Steller and most of his contemporaries believed that nature was inexhaustible, and would keep spitting otters and sea cows at them no matter how many were slaughtered. So if there’s an upside to this story, it’s that this case made everyone re-examine that belief in a real hurry. The concept of extinction became a part of natural science, and the sea cows have also contributed to an understanding of how over-hunting can affect species. So could someone go ahead and Jurassic Park these pitiful bastards back into existence, please?
If the sea cow was a tragedy, the story of the great auk is a dark comedy. A flightless bird that once likely numbered in the millions, they were hunted by Native Americans and eaten by 10th-century Icelandic settlers in a manner not unlike how an exhausted parent goes out and grabs a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store today. They were quick in the water, but vulnerable when they tottered onto land to breed. By the early 16th century, European sailors, craving fresh meat after the long voyage to Newfoundland, would herd hundreds of them onto their boats before digging in.
Then the auk began to be used for more than food. Their feathers were perfect for pillows and mattresses (one sailor distastefully noted that a common tactic was to pluck the best feathers off before leaving the bird to “perish at his leisure”), their meat could be used as fishing bait, and if you found yourself without wood, you could just light up an auk or two and let their body oils produce a flame for you. That is not a joke.
Only a handful of islands suited the auks’ mating needs, and by the late 1700s, those islands were being decimated. Going to the ill-named Funk Island and plucking birds all summer to fuel the ceaseless demands of the feather industry was the 18th-century equivalent of working at the local water park. In 1718, Funk Island was described as so overrun by auks that you couldn’t put your foot between them. By 1810, the place was barren.
There were efforts to save the auk. A petition led to a 1775 law that made taking an auk’s eggs or killing it for its feathers punishable by, uh, being beaten in public (certainly puts ideas like a carbon tax in perspective). But it was still legal to kill them for their meat, and in a dark irony, their growing rarity made rich collectors willing to pay as much for a specimen as a skilled worker would make in a year. Who wouldn’t risk a public flogging if you could cover 12 months of bills in a few days’ work?
But there are two incidents that truly stand out in the annals of stupidity. In 1840, sailors snagged an auk from an island off Scotland, only to superstitiously stone it to death four days later amid a terrible storm, no doubt prompting a sailor to drunkenly slur “More like the not so great auk!” before offering up high-fives. It was the last auk seen in Great Britain, and by 1844, the auks were down to one lonely colony off the coast of Iceland.
One day, three men rowed out there, captured and strangled a pair of auks, left their cracked egg behind, and sold the bodies to a dealer. And that was the last time anyone ever saw a living great auk. Their demise inspired stronger conservation efforts for other endangered species — which feels like a sentence that 22nd-century Cracked is going to write about whatever animal goes extinct over the next five years.
Modern whaling in countries like Japan and Norway is a complicated and controversial issue that pits longstanding cultural interests against the endless nuances of conservation efforts, and we are absolutely not qualified to comment on it. We are, however, more than qualified to talk about how intensely dumb Soviet whaling was.
The Soviets had signed a 1946 treaty that regulated the number of whales a country could hunt. And then they went ahead and ignored it, falsifying reports and disguising ships to kill 18 times the whales they had legally agreed to. This included the mass slaughter of endangered species, prompting marine biologists to dub the deception “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”
But the truly baffling part is why they did it. The motive for an environmental crime is usually obvious, because you can make a great profit if you don’t mind telling the future to go fuck itself. But while the Soviets used blubber for oil, the whales were otherwise left to rot, or maybe tossed in a furnace to make bone meal — an already common and convenient byproduct of slaughterhouses and fish canneries. It was like trekking out into the wilderness and shooting polar bears to get access to ice instead of using your freezer.
The Soviet Union, as you may recall if you were enough of a dweeb to pay attention in high school, had a command economy. Moscow bureaucrats decided what would be produced and where it would be allocated, and in the grand scheme of the sprawling Soviet economy, whaling was but another line item. The easiest way to measure an industry’s output was by gross product — in this case, the sheer mass of dead whales — and because this worked well enough for other forms of fishing, it was assumed that whales were no different. Spoilers for marine biology: They kinda are.
But all Soviet fishermen saw were rewards for meeting their quotas and punishments for missing them. Exceed Moscow’s targets and you’d be paid a bonus, praised in the press, and have parades thrown in your honor. Turn up short and you’d be demoted or fired. In one infamous incident, a whaling industry pioneer was lauded with the Order of Lenin one year, then thrown in jail and accused of being a Japanese agent the next.
It was better to risk being an international criminal than to run afoul of the party at home, so whalers met their quotas while rarely putting more than 30% of the whales they hunted to use (Japanese whalers use about 90%). Then those quotas increased, because to the planners, it looked like whalers were doing so great that they might as well aim higher and make the economy even stronger. Because what is an economy but a series of numbers forever spiraling upwards?
Everyone involved either didn’t realize anything was amiss or didn’t want to face the risks of asking questions outside of their purview. The details of this nonsense are known today because some whalers kept secret diaries and hid records they’d been ordered to burn. The Soviets killed about 180,000 more whales then they’d claimed, driving multiple species to the brink of extinction. They only stopped when international conservation efforts became more intense, and by that point they’d essentially run out of whales to kill anyway.
When Jair Bolsonaro — the man Brazil elected after they looked at Trump and said “Anything you can do, we can do worse” — was shown evidence that the Amazon was experiencing record deforestation, he called it “lies.” But to be fair, he was only refuting the biased data of, uh, his own government.
May 2019 saw the Amazon lose 739 square km, the largest monthly loss since satellite tracking began. One month’s data can look worse than the big picture, but Bolsonaro has overseen an overall 40% increase in rainforest loss. And no, the Ents aren’t fighting a Civil War. The Bolsonaro administration is ignoring, if not openly encouraging, ostensibly illegal farming, mining, and logging by not issuing warnings and fines. They’re also cutting regulations, weakening the Ministry of the Environment and all their evil “numbers” and “warnings that the Amazon is kind of important to the entire planet,” as well as harassing the ministry’s workers for trying to do their jobs.
But that’s regular old self-interested corruption. Where Bolsonaro really crossed over into cartoonish supervillainy was when he announced plans to open up the reserves of indigenous people for mining. Those reserves have historically been some of the Amazon’s most carefully protected land. When asked to justify this decision, Bolsonaro said that he was actually protecting indigenous human rights by ensuring that they can work in modern society. Indigenous leaders disagree, and are worried their land is under threat, with one saying, “We will go through another colonization process.” But it’s probably just a coincidence that Bolsonaro is calling on them to live like he wants them to after cutting their healthcare funding.
The Amazon does contain valuable resources, and it’s not impossible to balance extraction and preservation. But this is a government that transferred the regulation of reserves to a ministry dominated by the agribusiness lobby, which is like letting McDonald’s and Coca-Cola plan the USDA’s food guidelines. No one’s going to bother compromising when they only have to disguise the blatant favoritism by promising to not rub their hands together and cackle.
Reforestation is one of the easier and relatively undemanding ways to combat climate change. But gutting the huge carbon sink that is the Amazon sends the planet in the exact opposite direction, and Bolsonaro dismissing all criticism by saying that he’s “fulfilling a mission from God” doesn’t suggest that there will be much sober self-reflection. God couldn’t be reached for comment, but His book seems to have a lot to say about stewardship of the Earth. In the meantime, Bolsonaro’s terrestrial approval ratings have plummeted to 29.4%.