When the forest on the ridge was cut a decade ago, a large number of rare species were extinguished. … Around the world such anonymous extinctions — call them “centinelan extinctions” — are occurring, not open wounds for all to see and rush to stanch but unfelt internal events…
Edward O. Wilson
Lately I have been entertaining myself by reading various books that in one way or another touch on the biodiversity crisis – the 6th Extinction as it were. Most of these deal primarily with endangered charismatic megafauna, e.g., species of rhinoceros, elephants, wild cats, primates, whales etc., with birds thrown in for good measure. Invertebrates and other flora and fauna are left on the sidelines for the most part. It seems to me that it is in my own backyard that I can see changes in abundance, e.g., butterflies that I used to see every spring now seem rare, with a few exceptions. The presence of exotics is certainly obvious if you pay attention. Meanwhile, so-called Centinelan extinctions are probably happening all over the world at an ever increasing rate, including in our own backyard.
While this is happening, one primate species, Homo sapiens, is forever expanding its populations and crowding what little is left of true wilderness. Along with procreating at an exponential pace, humans also promote “desirable” species such as cattle, goats, pigs, cats and dogs, all of which contribute to the assault on biodiversity. Add to those undesirables like rats and mice, and accidentally or intentionally (but foolishly) introduced animals like mongooses, brown tree snake, and cane toads to name just a few, and you’ve got yourself a disaster in the making. What we don’t occupy outright, we impact upon indirectly with our consumerism paired with greed on the one hand and a general lack of environmental awareness and conservation actions on the other. Many who read this (OK, I know it won’t be that many) may be offended by that last statement because you may be quite aware, and you may even be very active in conserving resources. On the whole, however, human beings are ignorant, and most are not actively trying to stem the tide of garbage that is increasingly littering our surroundings. What is worse, the majority appears to care little or not at all as garbage dumps fill up and oceans become clogged by human debris. By the way, I include myself in the categorization of humankind. We differ only in degree of awareness or carelessness – it is not a black and white issue.
Even when we are aware, we tend to forget the hidden impacts of what we do, or perhaps it is these unintended impacts that create a sense of helplessness, and therefore an unwillingness to act. Take wind turbines, for example. They produce a fair bit of CO2 during the construction phase, although that is offset fairly quickly. When placed in the wrong location, or run at some critical times, they directly impact on both birds and bats.
Whether that impact is significant when compared to habitat destruction and other impacts (e.g., window collisions by birds, cat predation etc.) is anybody’s guess. For birds we may have some pretty good data, but what about bats. For many species we don’t know enough about them to adequately estimate population impacts! Add to that a life expectancy that has now been adjusted down from 25 to 12-15 years.
In the two areas of the world where I have spent most of my life, Sweden and British Columbia, Canada, electricity is largely generated as hydroelectric power, and hence it is clean if one assumes that the environmental costs from dam construction, and the consequent impacts on aquatic life can be justified. Once built, this power is more or less sustainable. It also appears that impacts are reversible, at least in moderately sized river systems. But in many parts of the world electricity is generated by burning coal or oil with a fairly low benefit:cost ratio as described in this article. Solar panels and batteries require the use of resources like rare minerals, which also cause impacts. Regardless of the type of energy we use, increasing consumption will have negative impact.
In the end, however, money makes the world go around, and there lies pretty much all of the problem. Business program graduates at universities I am aware of have zero exposure to conservation biology or any biology at all for that matter, and they are unlikely to have a burning interest in anything other than to make our capitalist system work for them. Humans seem to have this urge to control nature, and we frequently do so with little or no understanding of the consequences. Large predators are eliminated, with downstream consequences like exploding deer, small rodent, and tick populations, which in turn lead to increasing disease transmission. When I grew up in southern Sweden, I never saw a tick. Now you can’t go out in the bush in the province where I was born without worrying about ticks and their Borrelia companions. Interestingly, while we are quick to wrestle nature to the ground, we also tend to resent change. Conservation when I was young included the preservation of the ‘cultural landscape’, whereas in BC the focus is almost exclusively on the untouched and unique natural temperate rain forest and its wildlife.
Those of us who are biologists are more or less trapped in the capitalist system, and we have to put up with it for the most part. For example, my pension depends on how the stock market performs – an economic crisis like in 2008 would mean some severe belt-tightening, so it is in my interest that businesses and markets do well. This places me in a clear conflict of interest position, of course. Ironically, projects like oil and gas extraction generate jobs for biologists, particularly in the consulting sector. The fact that biologists are involved at all is of course good, but the conflict should be obvious. Sometimes we may just have to hold our collective noses and hope for a good outcome, at least in our current financial and political reality! But the ultimate cost due to climate change and biodiversity loss may become too high unless we change our ways!
I could drone on forever, but the above is probably more than anyone cares to absorb. As much as I would like to offer some gold nugget to solve the problem, I don’t know what the answer is. I am pretty sure it is not moving to Mars, however! I do know that the current trajectory is unsustainable, and that I will probably not suffer, but younger generations certainly will. In spite of it all, there are positive signs showing that we can change direction. I just hope the message is heard before it is too late for our species.
Pearce-Higgins, J. W., Stephen, L., Douse, A. and Langston, R. H. W. (2012), Greater impacts of wind farms on bird populations during construction than subsequent operation: results of a multi-site and multi-species analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49: 386–394.
Wilson, E.O. (1999) The Diversity of Life. W W Norton & Company Incorporated