Chris Maser

The California condor once graced the sky of southern California, riding the thermals on its ten-foot wingspan. The sky is now (1992) empty of this majestic bird.

Personnel of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have captured the last condor to give it a stay of extinction, but at the cost of its dignity. And what about our dignity? Is not our dignity linked with that of every living thing that shares the planet with us? How can our dignity be intact when we unilaterally choose to erase even one form of life from the earth? Extinction is forever, and the species we make extinct have no voice in that decision.

It is difficult for me to write about the condor because I am also writing about myself, and society as a whole. Like me, the condor is far more than simply one of God's creatures—however you choose to define "God." Both the condor and I also represent ecological functions without which the world would be impoverished. True, someone else may be able to take over my functional role as an individual, but what creature can take over that of the last condor? And we are more than simply creatures that perform ecological functions; we represent the health of the ecosystem—of the global commons—I as an individual in a much smaller way than the last condor.

If the condor becomes extinct, its ecological function becomes extinct, and both the condor and its function become extinct because the habitat required to keep the condor alive has become extinct, through its alteration to serve the economic gains of society at the cost of the condor's existence. This means that a whole portion of the ecosystem, of which the condor was once a part, must now shift to accommodate the condor's annihilation. Do we know what this means in terms of the ecosystem—and thus the commons? No!

What about the hundreds of species that industrialized nations, such as the United States, Japan, and China, among others, are making extinct around the world through the motive of "profit over all," which inevitably leads to the destruction of habitats? How will the ecosystem respond on a global basis to these cumulative losses? What repercussions will human society face as the global commons adjusts to their absence? How much of the world must we humans destroy before we learn that we are not, after all, the masters of Nature, but rather exist at Her forbearance?

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, understood the feeling of extinction. He could remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, said Frankl, but they offered sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a human being but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms, the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.1 Can the California condor choose its own way behind its prison bars, or is that right also usurped through human arrogance?

Frankl quoted a fellow prisoner, who said, "There is only one thing that I dread:  not to be worthy of my sufferings."2 The condor, by its nature, is worthy of its suffering. The question is:  what have we, as a society, learned from its suffering?

We have relegated the condor to death row in partial payment for our iniquities and transgressions. Then, to salve our social conscience, we have plucked it from the sky and put it behind bars, and we continue to destroy its habitat. Now we will spend money on breeding programs and perhaps purchase a small reservation on which to free a few individuals, should they survive.

Would it not be more honest simply to restore the remaining condors to the dignity of freedom, to watch them become extinct in the majesty of the sky, and to accept responsibility for our human failings? How else can we grow in consciousness of the effects we cause with our greed than to watch the sky slowly become empty of a child of millennia, a creature that took from the beginning of our planet to perfect, to watch the sky become empty by an act of humans, not of God?

In fact, our human activities are causing the most rapid loss of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. This rate of extinction accounts for one percent of all animal species each and very year—or one in four species over the past 35 years, according to a new report issued by the World Wildlife Fund. Moreover, the Living Planet Index, which tracks nearly 4,000 populations of wildlife, demonstrates an overall decline in population trends of 27 percent between 1970 and 2005.3

If we, as a society, were called before the throne of judgment today, how would we answer the questions of each species' intrinsic value in the Universal balance, of the trusteeship we each inherited as custodians of our home planet for those who follow? I don't know, but I think a good place to start is to restore the condors to their birthright, the freedom and dignity of the sky. Then, perhaps, our consciousness will be raised a little, and their suffering and ours will have value. And should the condors survive, their survival might lead to a time in history when human society and condors can live together in conscious harmony. But the question remains:  Who makes this decision? What motive is it based on—and for how long?

Questions about morality, human society, and the environment are becoming more urgent in their need to be recognized, asked, and faced, because, when all is said and done, we will find that the integrity of an issue lies embodied in the questions we ask—questions that illuminate some of the many faces of extinction. After all, the questions we ask are but the outer reflections of the inner harboring of our souls—our individual notions of the commons as the birthright of every living creature, including us.


  1. Victor Frankl. Man's search for meaning. Pocket Books, New York, NY 1963.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Steve Newman. Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet. http://www.earthweek.com/index.html (accessed on June 2, 2009).

This essay is excerpted in part from my 1992 book, "Global Imperative:  Harmonizing Culture and Nature." Stillpoint Publishing, Walpole, NH. 267 pp.

©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.

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