Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The real elephant in (or disappearing from) the room

The first rule of biodiversity is, you don't talk about biodiversity.

This is your life and it is ending one species at a time.

Yes, ok, so Edward Norton was recently(ish) appointed UN goodwill ambassador for biodiversity and this gives the possibility of all kinds of Fight Club quips. Fight Club remains one of my all time favourite films, but unlike his character in the film that redefined IKEA, this time Norton seems to have worked out who he is and what he wants to say. He has written a Guardian piece worth reading.

I've said many times before that climate change is not the greatest moral challenge of our time. Indeed, I don't even believe it is the greatest ecological challenge (and not just because putting in the basket labelled "environment" can make it seem like a luxury cause for the rich). Out of all the ecological crises we face, some are more pressing than others. Yet there are (at least) three ways to measure threats: how soon they will really begin to hurt, how much hurt they might do, and how long they will continue to hurt. In other words, their proximity, scale and duration.

From what I've read, biodiversity loss "wins" as the real elephant in (or disappearing from) the room. Perhaps not on proximity - other issues may well cut into human well-being sooner - but in terms of both scale and duration biodiversity losses have all kinds of potentially enormous (and largely unknown) knock-on effects. Most biologists agree that we are currently at the opening of the sixth great extinction event, that, viewed in retrospect, the present era will likely be visible as on a par or worse than most of the cataclysmic biological events on geological timescales. Humanity has become a force of nature.

And it is not just extinctions, but the loss of genetic diversity with species and of the functions that species decimated but not yet extinct no longer play in the web of life.

Haven't species always gone extinct? It's true; we don't see many dinosaurs around today. Indeed, based on fossil records, only about ten percent of all the species to have existed are still around today. Yet the current rate of loss is likely to be between one hundred and one thousand times the background natural rate, and all the primary drivers of these trends are linked to human activities: land use changes, habitat destruction, pollutants, logging, over-exploitation, invasive species and anthropogenic climate change.

Why do we care? Once again, if our undoing of God's creation isn't enough to make us sit up and take notice, there remains naked self-interest. Biodiversity loss has been likened to flying in a plane and watching the rivets pop out, one by one. Each one may not cause the failure of the plane, but cumulatively, things will get far less stable once enough rivets are lost.

And yet public awareness of biodiversity is poor. Campaigns in the past have focussed on individual charismatic megafauna. But while whale or rhinos might steal the headlines, the real losses are occurring all over the complex webs of interdependence that hold ecosystems (and the services they provide human society) together.

Currently underway in Japan is a major international Convention on Biological Diversity. A previous convention in 2002 set targets for 2010 that have been missed by a wide margin, according to a major biodiversity report published earlier this year.

Disappointingly, Australia hasn't really bothered to take the present meeting seriously, sending neither PM nor even environment minister, though over 100 heads of state or environment ministers from around the world will be present during the final days of the convention.

This too is part of our world today. Unless we begin to understand the effects our idolatries have on our planet as well as our souls, then we will remain enslaved to self-destructive patterns of life.

18 comments:

byron smith said...

One in five vertebrates face extinction, according to new study.

gbroughto said...

Australian PMs and/or Environment ministers are probably preoccupied with the proximity and scale of their own species...

gbroughto said...

... extinction

byron smith said...

Yes, but according to recent polls they are continuing to lose more votes to the Greens. Not bothering to show up at one of the most important ecological conventions of this decade is unlikely to win back many of those votes.

byron smith said...

Nagoya showing depressing parallels with Copenhagen. By the way, once again, the US stands aloof.

Eclipse Now said...

I'm with you on this one. Almost everything else we do can be reversed, but once they're gone they're gone.

I was just listening to Alan Weisman at the Long Now Foundation podcast. He wrote "The world without us"

He was talking about how the DMZ in Korea is a fantastic wildlife park that has saved many species from extinction.

Chernobyl also has wildlife coming back. If I had my way, we'd land-mine / slightly irradiate many more important biodiversity hotspots, because with the recalcitrance demonstrated by the politicians you discuss above, I'm thinking that's the only way to save some of it!

byron smith said...

Land-mining the Amazon to keep the illegal loggers away? Fascinating idea, though given that other animals would be large enough to set off the charges, perhaps a little counterproductive... ;-)

byron smith said...

CP: “there are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record”.

byron smith said...

Of course, there are some winners from our actions: jellyfish, rats, mosquitoes, mould, bacteria, cockroaches and slime.

byron smith said...

The sixth mass extinction event: are we there yet? Not in terms of absolute numbers, but we're going at a faster rate than our best estimates of previous ones.

byron smith said...

Mongabay: Are extinction rates overestimated? So argues a recently published paper, but it has already come under heavy fire.

byron smith said...

New study suggests climate change may be even worse for biodiversity than previously thought.

byron smith said...

SciAm: Not a normal killing.

"The World Wildlife Fund declared the Javan rhino to be extinct in Vietnam in September. The Western black rhino was declared extinct in the wild in November. The Sumatran rhino is almost certainly now extinct in Thailand. Between January and October 2010, South Africa lost 230 rhinos to poaching—on average, one every 30 hours. Last year, South Africa lost a record 443 rhinos. In Asia, tigers are in a worse state than ever; fewer than 3,500 now live in the wild, occupying less than 7 percent of their historic range."

byron smith said...

PhysOrg: Loss of predators in Northern Hemisphere affecting ecosystem health.

byron smith said...

CP: The instrumental value of biodiversity.

byron smith said...

Biodiversity decline is not limited to species extinctions, but includes the loss of genetic diversity within species, such as that witnessed in most crops over the last century. Here are ten common ones.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Costs of moving all threatened species up one category in the red list would be £50b per year, or half of what is thrown away on bankers' bonuses.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: 96 critically endangered Australian species.