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Where's Yertle?

The Grim Truth Behind Our Beloved Children’s Books

My toddler loves books like “But Not the Hippopotamus,” “Babar the Elephant,” and “Yertle the Turtle.” But the world he’s inheriting is losing these animals at an astonishing rate.

A baby elephant looks toward the camera, with her mothers legs visible in the background.
WAHYUDI/AFP/Getty Images
A 1-day-old female Sumatran elephant stands near her mother at the Elephant Flying Squad camp in the Tesso Nilo National Park in Pelalawan, Sumatra. Sumatran elephants are considered critically endangered.

My son spends a lot of his day in the imagined company of animals. He insists on bringing his favorite toys to bed, so stuffed animals—the usual bear, but also an anteater, a humpback whale, two lions, and a moose—are the last things he sees before he falls asleep at night and the first things to greet him when he gets up in the morning.

Upon waking, his next move is to force his way into our room holding the first of the dozen or so books my wife and I will read to him over the course of any given day. These books inevitably revolve around animals, as well, as all great children’s books seem to. There’s But Not the Hippopotamus and Fiona the Fruit Bat; Babar the Elephant and Library Lion; Slow Loris and Rainbow Fish; Yertle the Turtle and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and the list goes on and on—an unending, illustrated catalog of all the astonishing, marvelous beasts inhabiting our world.

If an alien came to earth and browsed my toddler’s room, it would undoubtedly conclude our planet is filled with these wild creatures. I’m sure my son is making the same assumption, as he works to piece together what he sees, hears, and touches to form an understanding of the world around him. Flipping through the pages of his books, playing with his menagerie of toys, and engaging in endless dialogue with himself about what various animals say and do, I can only imagine that a picture has naturally formed in his mind of the earth as a place of nearly boundless ecological vitality.

But that picture no longer reflects our actual planet. A 2021 report found that human civilization has already destroyed most life on earth, with a 68 percent drop in mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian populations since 1970. Another recent study of global biomass levels found that of all the mammals on earth today, an astonishing 96 percent are either humans (36 percent) or our livestock (60 percent), while just 4 percent are wild mammals—a degree of devastation that’s particularly hard to fathom when you consider the hellish existence of most of our cattle and pigs, whose brief and anguished lives now make up the vast majority of the lived experience of mammals on our planet.

I often wonder how I will explain this reality to my son. How I’ll tell him that every day as we’ve sat and read together, I’ve been feeding him lies—visions of a world brimming with tigers, gorillas, rhinos, and other beings that, outside the pages of his books and baskets of his toys, we’ve pushed to the thinnest margins of existence. Take tigers. They’re one of our most deeply ingrained symbols of power, yet today there are less than 4,000 wild tigers left on the planet. That’s a lower population than the smallest town in my state.

The same is true of countless iconic species. Fewer than 2,000 giant pandas exist in the wild, only 1,000 mountain gorillas are alive today, and just 75 Javan rhinos remain on earth, fewer than the number of kids who can fit on one school bus. This devastation also extends far beyond charismatic megafauna. In different times, we could expect around one to five species to go extinct per year; right now we’re losing them at 1,000 to 10,000 times that.

It’s easy to go numb in the face of these numbers. But each extinction is a profound tragedy in and of itself. When we lose a species, the world loses the set of unique—and often brilliant—solutions to life’s greatest challenges that this species has perfected over the course of tens or in many cases hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary experimentation. Every time we push a species to extinction, we burn down a Library of Alexandria, condemning future generations to a world that is darker, uglier, and frailer than it was before. And it’s happening dozens of times each day. Humanity has already burned down multiple Libraries of Alexandria since my son woke up this morning, and we’ll burn down many more before he goes to sleep tonight.

The material consequences of these losses are nightmarish. Biodiversity provides the raw resources we need to survive; by destroying it we are eroding our livelihoods, our food security, and the basic resilience of human civilization. But over the last two years, as I’ve observed my son respond with such innate, unbridled delight to the animals around him, I’ve come to appreciate that mass extinction doesn’t just threaten our economic and social systems. After all, we are animals—animals that evolved in the most biologically rich period in the earth’s history—and we have always relied on the creatures around us, not just for our physical survival but also for our spiritual well-being.

Just consider our species’ first great feats of symbolic representation: the cave paintings our ancestors crafted tens of thousands of years ago. These ancient masterpieces have been found on every continent but Antartica, and yet, despite the vast geographic and temporal range of the human populations that created them, every example we’ve discovered features the same subject: animals. Our ancestors painted bears, bison, deer, horses, lions, rhinos, and other Paleolithic beasts far more than they painted human figures; as paleoarcheologist Jean Clottes has written, “The essential role played by animals evidently explains the small number of representations of human beings. In the Paleolithic world, humans were not at the centre of the stage.”

When I read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to my son, then, the two of us are carrying forward humanity’s original observance. When he roars like a lion or trumpets his chubby arm like an elephant’s trunk, he’s continuing our oldest love affair.

But today, for the first time in our species’ history, that affair is in existential danger. And someday I will have to tell my son the truth—that the world he’s imagined and which his books and toys have portrayed has very little to do with the world he is inheriting. That the people running our rapacious economic order are in the final stages of bulldozing all the vitality and wonder and great diversity of life he’s spent his childhood dreaming of.

I genuinely don’t know how I will deliver this reality check to my son, or how he will respond. Perhaps he’ll be heartbroken. Perhaps he’ll be furious. But what really scares me is the thought that he might lose hope. That’s also the response I know I’m least equipped to address.

Given the depth of the world’s wounds, losing hope is not an irrational reaction. When I was growing up in the 1990s and coming to grips with the scale of our species’ planetary impact, it was at least possible to imagine that, as fast as we were rolling downhill, we might still be able to change course before hitting the actual cliff’s edge of runaway mass extinction. Today, though, humanity has already passed the last off-ramp for a vast number of species, and it’s a lot harder to imagine how we get back to stable ground. So what do we tell our kids?

I don’t know the answer. And I’ve still got a few years to work on it, before my son starts asking. But I know I’ll have to come up with something in the not too distant future. Here are the words I’ve gathered for him so far.

Asa. The future is not predetermined. It is our actions now, or lack thereof, that will decide how much of the life you love survives the coming years, and how much gets lost forever. It’s too late to save everything that deserves saving. But we can still change the trajectory we’re on.

It’s not the sunniest message. But it has the benefit of being true. Things are bad, but they could get much, much worse. And we only avert those worst-case scenarios by fighting—organizing together to resist climate change and ecological destruction, investing collectively in the protection and restoration of earth’s ecosystems, and taking individual steps in our own lives, like ending our consumption of meat. (Despite the striking public resistance to this reality, several studies have detailed the central role meat production plays in converting species-rich habitats into desolate grazeland; as one environmental physicist put it, “You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot.”)

Engaging in this battle is a heavy burden. And that’s why, despite the heartbreak that is coming his way, I’m grateful for the books and toys and childhood visions that have given my son a sense of the natural world that could be. Committing yourself to a lifelong struggle for a livable planet requires appreciating what’s at stake in the biodiversity crisis rocking this breathtaking and fragile home of ours. And what’s at stake is, simply put, everything. From our Paleolithic ancestors thousands of years ago to my toddler today, it’s clear that we humans need to be part of a greater family of life; that we were not meant to be here on our own.

The world we are creating—a world without the manatees, monkeys, or moose populating my son’s bookshelves and toy boxes—is a much lonelier place than the one we were born into, or the one we promised to our children. But I will not accept a barren future for my son. And I don’t think he’ll accept it, either, as he carries another book over to me and climbs into my lap, to flip through the pages and gaze with fascination at a world we are losing—a world we have, in many ways, already lost—but whose remaining wonders we must fight, together, to save.