August 19, 2014 | 7
When I started what was then called “Extinction Blog” on August 19, 2004, I didn’t know what it would become, let alone who I would be a decade later.
To be honest, I didn’t set out to write about such a heady topic. My early days in journalism focused on technology and the arts, not on the environment. But looking back on it, the transition makes sense.
You see, I think that I have always cared about endangered species and environmental issues. How could I not? I grew up during the years when bald eagles and other birds faced the threat of extinction due to the agricultural pesticide DDT. My childhood was full of haunting news such as the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown, the toxic waste tragedy at Love Canal and other eco-disasters. I spent my college years attending Earth Day celebrations in Washington, D.C., writing about the original United Nations ban on elephant ivory, exploring the Smithsonian’s National Zoo every chance that I got and walking three miles to a glorious old movie house to see Gorillas in the Mist, the feature film based on the work of famed field researcher Dian Fossey. The injustice of her murder and what was happening to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda tore at my heart.
It still does.
I think it was probably gorillas and other primates that got me to care, starting when I was a kid. Reading the Tarzan novels and comic books in my early teens didn’t teach me that gorillas were endangered, but I did learn to appreciate them as intelligent, amazing wildlife. Later, I learned quite a bit about the plight of these rare apes in, oddly enough, articles about special-effects makeup artist Rick Baker, who created amazing animatronic creatures for movies such as Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes and (again) Gorillas in the Mist. After seeing those films I remember watching the gorillas and orangutans at the National Zoo and experiencing my first realization that they might not be around forever.
I wrote three short posts the day that “Extinction Blog” launched. Although I count them amongst that 1,200 number, I admit that they aren’t exactly articles. They’re each just a headline, a snarky sentence or two and a link. (Hell, today they’d barely be considered tweets.) The first two posts weren’t even about endangered species. One was about invasive ants in Australia. The second was a link to a call to eat less meat as a way to protect the environment.
But the third—wow, that one haunts me. That post covered the news that the population of northern white rhinos in the wild had declined to between 17 and 22 individuals. As I wrote earlier this year, the northern white rhino is now extinct in the wild. The captive population is down to the last seven animals, only four of which live in Africa. The likelihood of them ever breeding again is almost nonexistent.
Someday soon, no doubt, I will write about the species’s extinction.
I have lost track of how many extinctions I have written about over the years. The first was probably the western black rhino, which I revisited last year. Others I can’t forget include the Formosan clouded leopard, the Javan rhino of Vietnam and a bird called the Alaotra grebe. There have been many others, along with countless species that today are on the razor’s edge of extinction.
There will be more to come.
“Extinction Blog” started as a hobby, but in 2006 I decided to make it something more. I briefly transitioned “Extinction Blog” from LiveJournal (remember that blogging platform?) to a service called Typepad, where I started writing longer, more in-depth stories (but still pretty short, all things considered). Later that year I made an even bigger transition for myself, moving from New Jersey to Maine to be near my partner Colleen’s parents while her father was dying.
As difficult as that first year in Maine proved to be—and it was tougher than I ever could have imagined—it also became the key to everything that followed. The move to New England allowed me to step away from a full-time marketing and editorial job and become a freelance writer. As I started this new career path, I showed “Extinction Blog” to a few magazine editors as a sample of my writing. One of those editors, Kiera Butler at Plenty magazine, asked me to start writing the blog for them.
Other environmental journalism assignments on a wide range of topics soon followed. Climate change, toxins, clean energy, green living. Hundreds of articles flew out of my keyboard. I quickly realized that I had found the calling that I never knew I had missed before.
In early 2009 Plenty went to the great magazine graveyard in the sky. By that time, the blog had become the most important part of my working life. The sad news that Plenty was going under devastated me. I feared that “Extinction Blog” was itself about to go extinct.
Luckily, that wasn’t to be the case. A few days after Plenty’s demise I spoke with editors Ivan Oransky and David Biello here at Scientific American, who invited me to become the magazine’s first non-staff blogger. A quick rebranding later and “Extinction Countdown” was born. And it got better. The SA editors (including Phil Yam and Robin Lloyd after Ivan moved on) encouraged me to go deeper, to produce more original content and to embrace my original mission: to tell the stories that no one else was telling.
More than 600 articles later, “Extinction Countdown” still going strong.
People ask me how I can stand to write about endangered species all the time. I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not easy. I don’t exactly show up in my home office every morning with a skip in my step and smile on my face.
But I don’t let the bleakness of my chosen subject matter stop me or slow me down. For one thing, these are stories that need to be told, and I feel honored to have the opportunity tell them. For another, even a subject as dark and depressing as extinction—something that is largely our fault—has a counterbalance. In this case it is all of the incredible people around the world who study these rare species and work to conserve them. They may be working against almost insurmountable odds, but then again, in many ways, aren’t we all?
I just made another transition, probably my biggest one yet. If everything goes according to plan, we will have arrived in our new home in Portland, Ore., the day before this anniversary post appears. Obviously I’m writing this in the days before the move, but I am already thinking of what will come in the weeks and months and years to follow. And there will be many years to come.
Ten years of “Extinction Countdown.” It hardly seems possible. I want to thank all of you for reading and Scientific American for giving these stories a home. We’ve done a lot of good together in the past decade, and I look forward to continuing to tell the stories that need to be told.