We should forever bear in mind that the beautiful world our species inherited took the planet 3.8 billion years to build. The intricacy of its species we know only in part, and the way they work together to create a sustainable balance we have only recently begun to grasp. Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world. Our own ultimate future depends upon that understanding. We have come a very long way through the barbaric period in which we still live, and now I believe we’ve learned enough to adopt a transcendent moral precept concerning the rest of life. It is simple and easy to say: Do no further harm to the biosphere.
In his 2016 book, “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life" . . .
It is past time to broaden the discussion of the human future and connect it to the rest of life. . . . With the human condition changing so swiftly, we are losing or degrading to uselessness ever more quickly the millions of species that have run the world independently of us and free of cost. If humanity continues its suicidal ways to change the global climate, eliminate ecosystems, and exhaust Earth’s natural resources, our (human) species will very soon find itself forced into making a choice. . . . It is as follows: Shall we be. . . keeping our genetically based human nature while tapering off the activities inimical to ourselves and the rest of the biosphere? Or shall we use our new technology to accommodate the changes important solely to our own species, while letting the rest of life slip away? We have only a short time to decide.
Science currently has identified over 2 million species of living organisms on Earth, with anticipation that at least another 6 million (and probably many more) species remain to be discovered and identified. Best known are the vertebrate animals (62,839 species known) and vascular plants. Least known are the many more invertebrate animals, lower plants, bacteria and other microorganisms. Collectively and together they make our incredibly complex and wonderful living biosphere function.
On top of our deadly assault on our Earth’s living biosphere--through the destruction of natural habitats, pollution via exorbitant use of pesticides and other chemicals, killing of megafauna--climate change and acidification of oceans now pose game-changing risks, shifting all aspects of the rhythms of the environment away from those necessary for wildlife survival and reproduction. The clear lesson of biodiversity research is that the diversity of species, arrayed in countless ecosystems on the land and in the sea, is under threat . . . .Almost all of the last domains of the natural living environment are under some degree of threat, but they can be saved for future generations if those alive today have the will to act on their behalf.
Human health and welfare is dependent on the health of the Earth’s biosphere. Greater and broadened public environmental education is desperately needed. Wilson notes, It has been my impression that those most uncaring and prone to be dismissive of the wildlands and the magnificent biodiversity these lands still shelter are quite often the same people who have had the least personal experience with either. I think it relevant to quote the great explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt on this subject, as (still) true: "The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world." Wilson condemns those who call for a human-focused and centered approach to conservation, asserting that it is essentially anti-conservation and based on ignorance and false assumptions.
Wilson identifies several facts and principles about global biodiversity to keep in mind while trying to save it: that the human-caused agents of extinction are synergistic and compounding. Tropical environments possess much greater biodiversity than temperate environments, and in both numbers of species and their vulnerability. And the geographic range of species in tropical zones are more restricted than in temperate areas of the earth. So eliminating similar amounts of natural habitats does far more damage to biodiversity in old-growth rain forests than in, say, old-growth coniferous forests in the northern latitudes.
Humans in this new Anthropocene era have been largely responsible for accelerating the pace of species extinction by 1000 times the natural rate before humans spread globally. The great Sixth Extinction is in process. (Wilson states that very roughly the average life span of most species is a million years, and, Keep in mind that every species, including us, is therefore a champion in a club of champions. We all are best of the best, descendants of species that have never turned wrong in the maze (of life), never lost. Not yet. This history of (every) species is an epic.) Wilson in turn champions the work and dedication of scientific naturalists, trying to identify and understand the great diversity of Earth’s living creatures. If ecology and conservation biology are ever able to conserve Earth’s biodiversity, it will be done not by theory and high-altitude overflights of ecosystems, not by studies of molecular and cellular biology, but by taxonomic boots on the ground. Let great credit continue flowing to those who explore . . . to those dwindling few who study everything else.
Wilson draws us to the monumental work of conservation biologists currently compiling the Biodiversity Heritage Library (which will surpass 500 million pages), the Map of Life, the GenBank, and the Encyclopedia of Life (which now describes over 1.4 million species).
He concludes with a call for a great awakening to the situation and peril (see quote at the beginninf of this post, and an appeal to set aside half the surface of the Earth as inviolable nature reserves (i.e., expanding beyond the present 15% of earth’s land and 10% of territorial waters presently protected).
Do we humans have the capacity and will to save our Earth’s biodiversity and our biosphere life support system? We may soon see. --Chuck Roe, SCP President
Note: For more insights, reflections, and information, visit the E.O. Wilson Foundation website