Which of the following are true?
- Species survival is as important as global warming.
- An ecological system is as complex as the human brain.
- All current species are accidents.
- Extinctions are happening 1,000 times faster than normal.
- Global warming is worse than the asteroid that hit Yucatán.
- We have exceeded the maximum allowable temperature rise.
- Each new year sets a global heat record.
- We are unacquainted with most of the Earth’s species.
- Life exists almost two miles below the surface of land and the ocean’s bottom.
- Habitat destruction is the most damaging human activity for extinctions.
You probably already guessed that they are all true.
While it is dismaying that so few people understand the seriousness of global warming, it is even worse that almost no one appreciates the approaching apocalypse from biological collapse. Whether we can save ourselves and the living conditions of our beloved planet is uncertain on both counts, global warming and biological collapse. Further, we cannot say which would be worse for us, or even whether we can survive either. Literally.
Edward O. Wilson is one of the most accomplished of our gray eminences in the realm of the science of life. His modestly sized new book, Half-Earth, gives as comprehensive an understanding of the complexity of life on Earth and the dangers to it as you will get without an advanced degree.
The essential message is that the environment is far, far more complex than most of us imagine. We focus on the big animals, and know nothing about the millions of other creatures that are smaller, all the way down to those we cannot see without an electron microscope. Neither do scientists know them all. Probably most of the many millions of organisms there must be have not been discovered, and all we can say for certain is that they are being destroyed by extinction much faster than we can even discover them, let alone describe them in any detail.
As environmentalists have said for many decades now, life is like a web, and disturbance of any part of the web will be felt in other parts. If there is an extinction, which is something happening 1,000 times faster than normal, all the organisms that depend for survival on that creature or plant or micro-organism will die. Those that depend on the next one that died will also die, and so on. We cannot say that the loss of a microscopic organism will not spell the destruction of an entire ecological system.
Wilson ranks the dangers to biological existence thus: habitat destruction (which includes climate change), invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overhunting. We have gone well beyond the safe limits in each case. Whether we can recover sufficiently to survive—literally survive—depends on whether we can hold global warming to a level we can tolerate, and eventually reverse, and whether we can adequately protect existing life on Earth. It doesn’t look promising in either case.
What Wilson proposes is to set aside half of the planet to protect life. He does not mean that we should literally divide the planet in two. What he proposes is perfectly reasonable, that we should protect species diversity in every speck of land we can, as long as all these specks and large chunks add up to half the planet. Neither does he mean this land must set aside as a nature preserve where people don’t go. People will live everywhere, as they do now, but much greater care would be taken to preserve the land in order for the life on it to survive, including us. Protect it from chemical poisons, from careless exploitation, from dumped waste products. Keep it close to the way it was before people arrived. It’s imminently doable, but it’s not at all easy.
All the people of the world must wake up to the grave danger that we court—if it isn’t already too late. It seems oddly counter-intuitive that it is the very rich who fail to understand this danger. These are the ones who became rich by exploiting the very things that have put us all in peril, particularly fossil fuels, whose burning generates greenhouse gasses. It was the novelist Upton Sinclair who pointed out that it is nearly impossible to convince a man of something if his livelihood depends on his not understanding it. But what would Sinclair have to say when someone’s survival depends on understanding it?
Alas, we are faced with precisely those conditions, and it appears that the poor most often understand it very well, while the rich deny the obvious, and prevent us from taking action.
Could it be the end of the world, the End Days that fundamentalists of various religions perpetually warn us about? In a word, no. What it could be is the end of human existence in a century or three, along with millions of other forms of life, due to our own limitations of intelligence and cooperation. The end of most living creatures is what happened at the Fifth Extinction, the previous one to now, when a sizable chunk of asteroid splashed down in the Yucatán at some 20 kilometers per second. Earth didn’t vanish, or blow up, but 70% of life was wiped out, including the dinosaurs. It took tens of millions of years for new forms of life, including our own, to become established.
Earth will eventually become toast, after billions more years. The sun will run out of fuel, become a red giant, and burn everything to a crisp. Meantime, wouldn’t it be rather nice if we didn’t bring about our own extinction because of stupidity? If we want this, we’re going to have to begin immediately to act smarter and more cooperative than we have thus far. We must begin by taking the decision making power away from the people who profit at everyone’s peril.