Monday, January 11, 2010

2010: UN Year of International Biodiversity

This week, we begin the UN Year of International Biodiversity. The true wealth of our planet - life, in its varied, mysterious, awesome, and miraculous forms - is under a much bigger threat than ever in the geological record. There have been five great extinctions in the Earth's past, including the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T for short) one 65 m years ago, which wiped out most of the dinosaurs (most, if you believe that some became birds). Scientists now believe that we could be heading for the sixth great extinction. The rate at which species are vanishing is far greater than in any precious time. (See this article in the Guardian today for an overview of the current crisis, and why this Year is important.) It is particularly sad to see the reaction of so-called educated people (who supposedly should know better) when confronted with the knowledge that species are disappearing right before our eyes, in some cases, or quite invisibly - long before anyone could give them a name and status. The utilitarians say, "What do I care if some beetle goes extinct, unless it's a cure for something?" The fatalists say, "There have been extinctions before, and life came back, eventually." (Yes, but you'd have to wait a few million years!) While others say that extinction is a normal part of speciation, the process by which genetic changes in one species lead to the creation of a new, distinct life form. The species comes into being and, sooner or later, it goes away. (That is why we no longer see cave bears or pterodactyls.) Jared Diamond, physiologist turned paleontologist and anthropologist, and author of such must-reads as Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse, says in an earlier book, The Third Chimpanzee:
Dismissing the exinction crisis on the grounds that exinction is natural would be like dismissing genocide on the grounds that death is the natural fate of all humans.
It is a crisis. And while some of the losses may indeed be "natural" (I will not hazard a proper definition of that here), most are the direct consequence of the actions of most adaptable and single-minded species on the planet, Homo sapiens. Our need to simplify the environment before we can inhabit it has led to deforestation, drained swamps, irrigated deserts, cleared mountains, introduced species of plants (e.g., crops or gardens) and animals (livestock, pets), and urbanization. If our numbers had remained small - the total human population didn't reach one billion until around the year 1800! - these "adjustments" would hardly show. But we have grown to an unsustainable size, and spread into almost every nook and cranny, changing as we go. The rest of the millions of species with which we share this finite space, and on which we depend, have to accommodate us. Adapt or perish. When are enough people going to wake up and see the connections?

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