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Rethinking Extinction


A little more than a hundred years ago, a bird named Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her death was remarkable in the annals of extinction not only because we know its precise date — September 1, 1914 — but also because only decades earlier the passenger pigeon had been the most abundant bird on earth. Martha’s demise helped to transform American beliefs about our relationship with nature, and the bird became an icon in the environmental movement, which was emerging just as she died.

Among the many billions of passenger pigeons who predeceased Martha was her cage mate, George, who died in 1910. The pair were named after Martha and George Washington. In the century that separated the first First Lady from the last passenger pigeon, the American economy went through a profound transformation. The country’s population increased more than tenfold, and average income more than quadrupled. Only 6 percent of Americans lived in cities when Martha Washington died, in 1802. In 1914, the number was closer to 50 percent. The passenger pigeon’s extinction was bound up with these changes, and what happened to the bird tells us much about what happened — and is still happening — to us.

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teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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