For the week of March 24, 1999  thru March 30, 1999  

Race to the threshold of extinction

"Threshold" has two meanings. The first is the point of crossing into a room or house, a point of entry into a new beginning. The other meaning, is "the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested."

For example, the freezing temperature of water (0 degrees Celsius, 32 degrees Fahrenheit), is a natural threshold. Water remains liquid at 33 degrees Fahrenheit, and then significant and dramatic changes occur when the temperature drops just that one unpretentious degree, no different in its measuring self than all the other individual degrees above and below, except it marks the threshold of water changing form.

There is a race to the threshold going on in the world. It is a race where the stakes are neither glory, fame, fortune or a large trophy, but, instead, the life and health of the planet and all its inhabitants.

Thresholds in ecology are usually (and properly) viewed as demarcations to disaster for some strand of the web of life on the planet. For instance, a species crosses the threshold to extinction before each member of that species is gone; the point is reached when the magnitude of all the forces that led to its diminishment exceeds its collective ability to survive, though a few individual of the species hang on a bit longer.

The last surviving members of a species that has passed the threshold to extinction bring to loneliness a dimension that even time cannot alleviate. It is obvious that the Pacific salmon of Idaho are very close to the threshold of extinction, though some of them still live.

Whether the salmon of Idaho are over the threshold or just approaching it is unclear at this writing, but it will be irrevocably determined soon by the fate of four dams on the lower Snake River.

If the dams stay, the salmon are already over the threshold to extinction. Gone for eternity.

If the dams are breached, the salmon have a chance.

The salmon of Idaho, as any independent biologist-- a possibly endangered species--will tell you, are an integral part of the web of life, the flora, fauna (literally the birds and the bees, as well as bears, insects and reptiles) and marine biology of Idaho.

If the salmon go, all life is diminished in Idaho and elsewhere, and, to pursue the metaphor of the natural threshold of the freezing temperature of water (not to be confused with the actuality of global warming, another threshold), it’s about 33 degrees Fahrenheit in the life of Idaho salmon right now.

If the salmon go, it will be a colder, poor, more sterile and less beautiful world, and their disappearance will push other species closer to their threshold.

If the salmon cross the threshold to extinction, they will not go alone. A bit of each of us will go with them. If they stay, they do not stay alone. The Pacific salmon of Idaho are just one indicator of the precarious health of the biotic community of life on earth, but their threshold affects other thresholds, yours and mine included.

In ecology the "sustainable yield threshold" is a term often used to denote the point of collapse of an ecosystem. Sustainability, in human terms, is the ability to fill our needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Since this is a human definition, it is crucial to recognize that humans are neither alone in nor masters of the earth, but, rather, are an integral part of the one ecosystem that sustains us all. Any damage to the one ecosystem is not sustainable.

Sustainable activities by humans use materials in continuous cycles; use continuously reliable sources of energy; and come mainly from the qualities of being human, for example, creativity, communication, coordination, appreciation, spiritual and intellectual development.

Human activities are not sustainable when they require continual inputs of non-renewable resources; use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal; cause cumulative degradation of the environment; require resources in quantities that could never be available for people everywhere; and which lead to the extinction of other life forms.

One need not have the intellectual power of the proverbial rocket scientist to use these definitions of sustainability and non-sustainability to figure out that if enough sustainable yield thresholds are reached, the biotic community of earth will unravel and collapse. The Pacific salmon of Idaho are an integral part of the ecosystem of Idaho. If they cross the threshold to extinction, the biology of Idaho moves one small (natural) threshold closer to its own sustainable yield threshold.

There are a few knowledgeable and hopeful people who believe that a different sort of threshold is close at hand, a threshold Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute calls "a sweeping change in the way we respond to environmental threats—a social threshold that, once crossed, could change our outlook as profoundly as the one that in 1989 and 1990 led to a political restructuring in Eastern Europe. The overall effect could be the most profound economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution itself. If so, it will affect every facet of human existence, not only reversing the environmental declines with which we now struggle, but also bringing us a better life."

Two thresholds: One for the extinction of the Pacific salmon of Idaho (among other creatures), the other to reversing environmental declines and bringing us a better life.

The race is on, and we are in it.


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