Species extinction is one of those problems whose vast scale, in space and time, makes it difficult to comprehend, let alone address globally. As any paleontologist can tell you, species appear and disappear naturally at a gradual rate with no human intervention. And in the 3.5-billion-year history of life on Earth, there have been five abrupt mass extinctions when more than three-quarters of all living species were quickly wiped out. The most recent came 66 million years ago, when an asteroid strike is believed to have killed off the dinosaurs.
If there are intelligent observers 66 million years from now, their scientists may conclude that the sixth mass extinction was caused by us — and that we saw what we were doing but lacked the wisdom and courage to stop ourselves.
The next species to go extinct may be some scruffy weedlike plant or weird little insect you’ve never heard of. But that weed may synthesize a chemical that acts as a magic bullet against certain deadly cancers, or that insect may control the population of some other insect that harbors a plaguelike virus. We’ll never know. They’ll be gone.
A summary of the report by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was released Monday in Paris, culminating years of work by leading environmental scientists around the globe. Its findings will be widely noted and lamented; its recommendations, I fear, widely ignored.
For once, human-induced climate change is not the most egregious cause of a slow-motion global catastrophe. The primary cause of accelerating species loss, according to the report, is rapid change in patterns of land and sea usage. Farming, fishing, logging, mining and other activities are changing — in many cases, deeply scarring — the natural world.
We knew that, of course. Sea captains have told us about the enormous patch of plastic trash floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Satellite photos chart the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rain forest. The report states that more than 85 percent of the world’s wetlands have been eliminated over the past three centuries. The amount of land designated as “urban” has doubled since 1992.
Malthusian predictions that rapid population growth would lead to scarcity and famine have proved spectacularly wrong. The global middle class has ballooned, while the percentage of humans living in extreme poverty has shrunk to levels never dreamed of. But all that economic growth has put an unprecedented strain on the natural world, and scientists can only sketch the ultimate consequences. In effect, we are running a fateful experiment with our one and only planet — and there’s no chance of a do-over.
I have enormous faith in human ingenuity. But it needs to be accompanied by some basic common sense.
One example: Of the world’s 7.5 billion people, nearly 5 billion have mobile phones. The incredible spread of that one technology greatly boosts global connectivity, creativity and happiness — and also creates enormous quantities of manufacturing waste and discardable plastic. We need to keep expanding access to this life-changing technology. But we need to find cleaner, more sustainable ways of doing so.
Whether we’re talking about species loss or climate change, whether we’re considering the smog that shrouds Beijing and New Delhi or the fracking fluids being pumped into the ground in Appalachia, at some point we’re going to realize that development that fails to take sustainability into account is not a step forward. It’s a step into the unknown, and potentially a step toward disaster.
The question isn’t whether we come to this realization and begin to act accordingly, but when. The new U.N. report says that for up to a million species, many of which we haven’t even identified and studied, our enlightenment may come too late. We can only hope there is still time to save the one we call our own.