Earth Day Awareness: Interview With Jeff Campbell

A forest trail

Michael Maupin

Every year, we celebrate Earth Day on April 22. It's an opportunity to show our appreciation for the environment and learn how to protect it. Jeff Campbell, author of the Last of the Giants: The Rise and Fall of the Earth’s Most Dominant Species, shares his knowledge of Earth Day.

What is Earth Day and how is it helpful in raising awareness?

Earth Day started in 1970, and the first one is credited with helping spark the modern environmental movement. In the 1960s, we were just waking up to the terrible impact of industrial pollution on our lives. Today, we take many of the environmental victories from that period for granted. We expect to have clean water to drink and clean air to breath, and it’s a scandal when we don’t. 

The Endangered Species Act was also passed during this period. One thing that Earth Day helped wake us up to was our impact on wild animals. By the 1970s, the bald eagle was nearly extinct in America, and the eagle’s recovery is one of the great success stories in conservation. But the truth is, wild animals are suffering even more today than they were then. We are experiencing a truly global extinction crisis, which is largely due to the impact of us on our planet. Our impacts on animals involve much more than just pollution, and the problems are harder to fix. Yet we need to treat the protection and repair of wilderness as just as essential as having clean water and air. If ecosystems can’t sustain wild animals, then the day will eventually come when ecosystems can’t sustain us.

Are there things people can do on Earth Day to help our planet? 

I think Earth Day is a wonderful excuse to celebrate our amazing planet, and to once again contemplate that famous photo of Earth as a big blue marble hanging in the darkness of space. It’s a moment to be grateful for life, for our lives and for life itself, which is a mystery and a miracle. To me, that’s enough, and if that were a daily habit, then the question of what we need to do to care for our world and to act compassionately toward all living creatures will answer itself. There are dozens, hundreds of actions that we can take in our daily lives, and most boil down to the wilderness ethic: step lightly and leave no trace behind.

What can people learn from animals?

Well, I can’t speak for others, but one of the deep lessons that I’ve learned from researching these last two books is how much alike most animals are, particularly large social mammals, and how much all creatures depend on one another. This is true on both individual and species levels. Animals are often smarter than we think, and capable of more than we realize; sharing our lives with animals is a blessing and a benefit that we depend on. And this seems to be the way nature designed it. All life is interdependent, and that includes us. When ecosystems are healthy and sustainable, they support a full array of all types of creatures, from the biggest to the smallest. Conversely, the other thing I’ve learned is that we ignore these connections and affinities at our peril.

What can we learn as humans from studying past species?

We can learn from our mistakes, for one thing. One point I try to make in Last of the Giants is that, at least within the last 500 years, extinction stories and endangered species stories are really the same story at different points in time. Or at least, they will become the same story if we don’t do anything differently. If, say, we like having tigers and rhinos and elephants in our world, and we want them to avoid becoming another extinction story like the aurochs or the moa, then we have to change. We have to proactively fix what’s broken. We have to recognize our impact, figure out what wild animals need to survive on their own, and then get out of their way. The recipe for preserving species is actually very simple--what they need mostly is space and freedom from human interference--but providing that for wild animals is extremely complex in our modern world.

Is this a topic you've written about before? Is this your first book?

This is my second nonfiction book for young adults. My first was Daisy to the Rescue, which told fifty stories of animals saving human lives as a way to explore animal intelligence and the human-animal bond. One of the central messages in that book is that we should treat all animals with compassion and caring, in part because animals of all kinds show the remarkable ability to care for and have compassion for us--by literally rescuing us from death. In a similar way, by telling the stories of these incredible but lost and endangered species in Last of the Giants, I hope readers will feel compassion for wild animals and recognize the need for conservation. A single dog can save a single life, but preserving wolves, bears, elephants, tigers, and more will help save our biosphere and all our lives.

That said, I really became drawn to the issue of conservation when I was a travel writer for Lonely Planet. I coauthored guides to Hawaii, Florida, the Southwest, and California, all places of immense natural beauty that wrestle with serious problems of environmental degradation. My job as a travel writer was helping guide people in how to enjoy the most beautiful places in America without hurting them further, and that really instilled a deep environmental ethic in me.

Are there other books you'd suggest for individuals interested in science?

Too many to list, really. Both Jared Diamond and Stephen Jay Gould helped spark my early interest in natural history, and I’d recommend anything by either of them. Similarly, Jane Goodall’s writings are unfailingly inspiring, and her book Hope for Animals and Their World had a strong influence on Last of the Giants. In terms of conservation, I recommend Marc Bekoff’s Rewilding Our Hearts, while perhaps the most important new book is Edward Wilson’s Half Earth.

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