What is your legacy, dear traveller?

December 9, 2014

In memory of Babycat, a beautiful and very intelligent one year old cat lady, killed by an idiot who drove by my house in his fancy coupe at much too high speed.

It is December but temperatures are still moderate. This will again be the warmest year in documented (meteorological) history. Many animals which normally at this time would started hibernating or would have retreated to their hideouts in the forest are still active. In fall the animals are preparing for winter and they are desperately searching for food, which means that many have to pass roads and many are killed by carless drivers.

By careless drivers or by sadistic drivers.

A study in Ontario, Canada in 1996 found many reptiles killed on portions of the road where vehicle tires don’t usually pass over, which led to the inference that some drivers intentionally run over reptiles. To verify this hypothesis, research in 2007 found that 2.7 percent of drivers intentionally hit reptile decoys masquerading as snakes and turtles. Several drivers were observed even speeding up and positioning their vehicles to hit the reptiles. Male drivers hit the reptile decoys more often than female drivers.

A few weeks ago I saw four dead hedgehogs on the road, a big one and three smaller ones. This was clearly a mother and her three children. I assume that the mother crossed the road and was killed and her children followed her and gathered around her body confused and disturbed just to be killed by the next car. It was a part of the road where one has to drive slowly and where one can easily see any approaching animals.

I was furious, incensed, and deeply saddened.

Well, I have killed animals too. I drive as careful as possible and I never have killed a cat or a hedgehog but once a pheasant flew across my way unexpectedly from bushes beside the road and was killed by the car. Two times little birds crashed against my windscreen. Luckily I don’t have to commute or use the car commercially, I use it only if there is no other way to fulfill a task. I drove only 6,000 kilometers in the two years since I bought the car.

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In the last days I have again seen various dead animals on the road and that prompted me to look up an old text  in order to publish it in an updated version on the blog. When I read the text I first felt, that it was too harsh and bitter, but when I collected some pictures about roadkill I was again deeply saddened, I was shocked and completely knocked off my feet — the text suddenly seemed to be appropriate.

Therefore, here is the text, updated but unredacted and unsanitized.

What is your legacy, dear traveller?

Driving on the road for a longer time can be quite boring. All kind of things will come into your mind, scenes from your workplace, memories of your childhood, thoughts about your private life. You will be reflecting, musing, speculating, contemplating, considering, Every thought will lead you to another thought and the pictures in your mind will constantly change like in a slideshow. You cannot do much against the steady flow of association, the “brain chatter” — except if you have some experience in meditation.

Maybe you will also occasionally think about the meaning of it all, the quintessential meaning of your life. You will think about your goals and your expectations. You will think about your legacy.

When you are driving on the road, dear traveller, you only have to look to the roadside, to find out about your legacy. As you are driving along, the landscape will pass by like a film and you can easily imagine to sit in a comfortable chair in a movie theater instead of sitting in the driver seat of your car. You will see buildings, fences, some bushes, billboards, and signs. You will pass crossings, bridges, overpasses, and tunnels.

But the objects mentioned before are not what will define your legacy, Your legacy will be defined by things which are much more prevalent, things that aren’t supposed to be part of the landscape along the road, but nevertheless are and always will be.

When you are driving on the road, dear traveller, you will quite often see garbage, that other drivers have thrown away. You will see aluminum cans, plastic bottles, juice cartons, empty cigarette packs, cups, wrappers and bags, tissue paper and cardboard boxes, and various other discarted items. 

And you will often see dead animals. You will see dead cats, dogs, hedgehogs, rabbits, deer, squirrels, birds. Occasionally you will see squashed lizards, frogs, and toads, but as these species are declining rapidly, dead lizards, frogs, and toads are now a rather rare occurrence.

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Normally you will not pay attention to the waste and the animal cadavers that are laying on the roadside. The pictures of litter and dead animals are annoying and disgusting, so you will try to overlook them, filter them out in your mind and not think too much about it. This is not your problem!

You never killed an animal with your car? What about the butterflies and beetles and bees, that you have to scrape off the windscreen? Didn’t you occasionally find some feathers on your car grill? Are you sure, that you never squashed a frog or a hedgehog without even noticing it?

So what? Lets get over it and have fun riding the highways and byways.

Q: Why did the hedgehog cross the road?
A: To see his flatmate.

There’s nothing wrong to laugh about an innocent joke.

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Canadian writer Timothy Findley wrote about the experience of seeing killed animals on highways during travels: “The dead by the road, or on it, testify to the presence of man. Their little gestures of pain — paws, wings and tails — are the saddest, the loneliest, most forlorn postures of the dead I can imagine. When we have stopped killing animals as though they were so much refuse, we will stop killing one another. But the highways show our indifference to death, so long as it is someone else’s. It is an attitude of the human mind I do not grasp.”

According to a report from the US Transportation Department, 1 million to 2 million wild deer, mountain lions, bears, foxes, squirrels, and other wildlife are killed every year by vehicles on the highways,. The department also estimates that 21 protected species (like the desert tortoise) are jeopardized by vehicle collisions.

Worldwide over one billion wild and domesticated animals die on the roads every year. That are only the mammals, it is not possible to estimate the number of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects that are killed by cars.

Wildlife experts in Europe suspect, that road traffic is a significant factor in the decline of species like frogs, toads,  hedgehogs, and European badgers.

Roadkill is considered to significantly contribute to the population decline of many threatened species, including wolves, koalas, and eastern quolls. In Australia the most common species affected by roadkill are brushtail possums and Tasmanian pademelons.

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Roads have also a serious indirect impact on wildlife. Many species develop road aversion, they are disturbed by cars and waste valuable energy in flight. Animals are displaced by roads and cut off from their favorite mating areas. The roads cut the animal habitat into little pieces and cause fragmentation and isolation of species. Many animals are prevented from migrating. The mating calls of birds and frogs are drowned out by car noise — many make their calls in vain.

Dear traveller, you don’t have to kill the animals directly with your car to make the biggest mass extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs a part of your legacy. You don’t have to run them over, it is evenly effective, when you buy stuff that is produced in factories, because the production will use resources and will pollute the biosphere. The mining of resources will cause terrible harm to the environment (mountain top removal, deep water oil drilling, hydraulic fracturing). Most production processes generate poisonous waste, that is either stored in reservoirs (like the toxic sludge from aluminum plants) and landfills, or released into rivers. All industrial production processes need big amounts of energy that is generated partly in caloric power plants.

You don’t have to kill the animals with your car, there are many other methods to contribute to the demise of our fellow animals. You can for instance eat industrial produced food, because industrial agriculture uses fast amounts of fossil fuels and pollutes the environment with pesticides and fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium). Fertilizer run-off and waste from animal factories causes eutrophication in lakes and coastal zones of oceans. Methane emissions from crop fields and animal factories contribute to climate change.

According to a widely discussed comprehensive study by the Zoological Society of London, the number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years. Every time a new study is published, the decline is found to be more dramatic. If present trends continue half of all species will be extinct by the end of this century as a result of hunting and fishing, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

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Dear traveller, this is one part of your legacy, the other part is the garbage, that results from our modern lifestyle. Of course, you are a tidy person, who never threw anything out of the window of your car. You put all of your waste into the thrash cans, you also separate the waste and put the metals and the plastic and the paper into recycling bins.

And from there it goes into landfills and incinerators.

The highly contaminated leachate and methane from landfills, the sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants, the filter ash from incinerators goes also somewhere…

Global solid waste generation is expected to double from one billion tons in 2010 to two billion tons by 2025 and 4 billion tons  by 2100.

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is a swirling mass of refuse and collects trash from all over the world. It is the planets biggest landfill. Plastic in the oceans has devastated albatross populations and kills many other marine animals, especially the ones which are filter feeders. 80 percent of ocean trash originates on land, the rest comes from ships, fishing equipment, oil platforms, and spilled shipping containers.

1.2 billion cellphones or smartphones, 260 million computers, and an equivalent amount of tablets are sold every year. The lifespan of computers and cellphones in the rich nations has dropped below two years, but only 14 percent of electronic waste is recycled.

Whatever you do, you will produce waste. Did you eat something today that you bought instead of plugging it from a tree or pulling it out from the earth? Did you flash the toilet today? Did you use a facial tissue? Is this your first car?

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Dear traveller, as you drive along, you will always see garbage and killed animals along the way and you will be constantly reminded about your legacy. It is not a honorable legacy, but you don’t have to worry about being held in disregard and shamed by your descendants, this legacy will not last, it will be erased completely.

The mass extinction of species will upset the ecological balance and diminish food resources. Algal blooms will reduce fish in oceans and lakes, the disappearance of pollinators will reduce the availability of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Deposits of fossil fuels, minerals, and metals will eventually get depleted and drinkable unpolluted water will become even more rare. The nations will wage terrible wars over dwindling resources and over water sources.

When finally the nuclear bombs will fall nearly everything will be whipped out. It will take several hundred thousand years, maybe a million years, to heal the scars of the planet, but eventually plants and some animals will adapt to the high level of radiation, the changed climate and the pollution of the ecosphere by heavy metals, dioxins, and other human induced poisons. And as radiation diminishes and chemical compounds dissolve a new ecosystem will emerge and another species will built a new civilization. And the scientist of this new civilization will study the history of the planet and try to find out the reason for the big catastrophe that nearly whipped out all life and they will hopefully come to the right conclusions and advice their peers to make it better.

And your legacy, dear traveller? 

There will be no legacy — drive on carefree, lighthearted, untroubled, and enjoy your ride.

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