I shifted my car into neutral and drifted off I-80 in western Nebraska and into my hometown for a weekend visit. As he has done to thousands of travelers to enter North Platte, Neb., since 1963, a stern-faced Buffalo Bill glared down at me with a rifle in his hands from a 50-foot billboard. Behind him stands the famous Fort Cody, an imposing wooden building with plaster grizzly bears and mannequins guarding its doors. Inside is the story of the Wild West and its most famous celebrity, William F. Cody. 

Earning the nickname “Buffalo Bill” after killing approximately 4,000 bison in eight months, the hunter became an instrumental tool in the U.S. government’s mission to starve the area’s Native American tribes, who depended on the vast herds that once roamed the Great Plains. In his later years, he began the famous “Wild West Show” at his ranch on the outskirts of town, garnering worldwide, A-list celebrity status. European royalty and famous Westerners like Annie Oakley came here to dine with the world’s most famous man and hunt the now critically-endangered North American Bison. 

I went to his ranch, now a state park, later that night and admired the small herd of bison kept fenced up for events and tourist appeal. I looked out at the open fields behind them, scattered with grazing cattle, and couldn’t help but feel pity for the magnificent animals, lying in the mud in front of me in their small enclosure. Every North American Bison can trace its lineage back to the final 300 that escaped extinction the last of 60 million that once roamed the Great Plains. Their tragic story is often recited as another regrettable American mistake of our past, but its lessons about extinction, and narrow escape from it, are more relevant today than ever.

Fifteen thousand University of Michigan students and faculty marched through the streets on April 22, 1970, in the first celebration of a new holiday called Earth Day. Following in the footsteps of pioneers like Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, the new environmental movement immediately had to confront a never-ending and exponentially growing list of long-existing issues. While the success of these battles is difficult to measure, it’s safe to say that the movement has been a general failure. 

Major issues like ocean acidification, deforestation, the collapse of biodiversity and over-use of resources have not yet been solved while newer threats like climate change, overfishing and politicization of environmental issues have been met with less than sufficient resistance. The result is the apocalyptic United States we now live in, where national disasters have forced Americans in California or Iowa or the Gulf Coast from their homes as climate refugees. 

Since the pandemic began, my newsfeed has been filled with an increasing number of terrifying studies and headlines that show just how bad things have truly become. Back in June, The New York Times released a report stating that over 500 species will likely go extinct in the next 20 years, a number of extinctions that would naturally occur over 16,000 years if not for the environmental issues impacting Earth. Since the 1970s alone, over 70% of the world’s animal populations have been wiped out, leaving more than a million species confronting extinction.

These levels of biodiversity loss haven’t been seen since a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and are a sign that humanity’s efforts to grow sustainably have failed disastrously. The COVID-19 pandemic, which is itself the hypothesized result of poaching and wildlife trafficking, is perhaps the greatest example of what complications will continue to arise as we delete nature from existence. 

Since March, this disaster has killed over 200,000 Americans and made the world an increasingly dangerous and stressful place to live. One, often over-exaggerated, silver-lining throughout all of this has been the worldwide drop in emissions and pollution due to national lockdowns. It was the first time in nearly a century, and the only time since the environmental movement began, that the world experienced a decrease in human activity and greenhouse gas emissions. Humanity received a rare opportunity to watch nature have a brief moment to breathe. 

Now, as the world has been set back into motion, these benefits can seem like a distant memory, but they shouldn’t be treated as flukes of the pandemic. The changes needed to stop and reverse our current mass extinction will require a lot more than those COVID-19 forced upon us. Banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars, drastically altering our diets and subsistence farming are some of the few things that must be encouraged if we want to spare a million species from extinction and save millions of people who would otherwise be killed by the effects of a crumbling environment. The evidence is clear that we have built a flawed society that must be massively overhauled to deal with the realities of our world. 

With the largest nations in the world simultaneously deciding and legislating on how to recover, grow and develop to stimulate their economies, the pandemic could be the catalyst for this restructuring. Pioneering environmentalists must regroup, re-strategize and re-learn how to achieve environmental stability in a post-pandemic world. If we learn how to sufficiently influence policy, economics and psychology to encourage sustainable practices, then we might be able to avoid the various crises that currently await us. With many scientists warning that major changes must occur within the next 20 years, this may be our last chance. With more motivated, educated and talented people fighting for our environment than ever before, I am hopeful and terrified in equal measure. 

While Buffalo Bill went to great heights to inflict great environmental damage, almost every moment of our modern-day lives comes at the expense of another living thing. This lifestyle is one that has copied practices like his and emulated them on a mass scale, with an environmental footprint higher than any imaginable a century ago. Environmental ruin is not inescapable, but only if society uses this current moment of reckoning and inflection to confront it. Now, with the world at a crossroads, the environmental movement has the potential to solve these problems once and for all. 

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu

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