My eye caught a news article the other day which should have been pretty big news, but wasn’t. It seems that we are losing our global biodiversity at an alarming rate. This phenomenon has a name, it is the Holocene Extinction. Apparently it is the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s geologic history, and we are behind it. Ever since our distant ancestors discovered that wooly mammoths made for tasty treats, we have left a trail of barbecues behind in our march to global ecological dominance.
Well, we have dominated the planet. With some eight billion members, our species sits firmly entrenched across the food chains of Planet Earth. This has come at a price- nearly all the megafauna are gone, and the other small animals are under pressure from habitat loss.
You can clearly see this where I live. It is routine to see a number of different species dead at the side of the road, their forests are bisected by high speed avenues through the woods. Where car and wildlife meet, roadkill happens. A lot. On a daily basis, one can see dead groundhogs, raccoons, possums, chipmunks, foxes, turtles, chipmunks, and whitetail deer. I’ve never seen a statistic for roadkill, but I’ll bet it easily exceeds the numbers lost to hunting, trapping, disease or natural predation.
A memory that sticks with me is the night I was driving my daughter to a band concert. We were traveling along a steep, curvy road on the side of a hill. It was pitch black. I saw movement in the road ahead, as we drew closer I realized that it was a deer that had been struck by someone, her legs and back had been broken. She was going to die, there was no doubt. Painfully, slowly. I couldn’t stop and finish her off because of how dangerous that section of road was. All we could do was look.
And that’s one instance out of thousands.
Come to think of it, I’ve been to few places on Earth that were truly wild. Out of the 43 countries I’ve visited, the hand of man was omnipresent. Even the national parks weren’t wild. In fact, those were some of the worst places. Yellowstone? Long convoys of tourists forming traffic jams to photograph a few tiny herds of bison, where those herds were once millions strong. The Smoky Mountains? LOL, worse crowds snapping pictures of token elk.
I think of countries I’ve visited. A few examples. Egypt, with its teeming masses concentrated along the Nile. At first I thought the mountains in the Sinai were snow-capped, it turned out to be drifts of plastic trash. Holland and Germany- perfectly manicured pasture and forest. Wild? Not at all. Islands in the Caribbean; beautiful beaches awash in medical waste with desperate poverty hidden outside of gated resorts. Afghanistan- a land as remote as any on the planet. Stripped bare until you get to truly impassible mountain regions. The United States? Nearly all of the Eastern virgin forest gone.
There is a long litany of things we’ve lost. The passenger pigeon. The chestnut tree. The Irish Elk. This list could extend for thousands of pages. I’ll spare you that, you surely get the idea.
What is to be done?
I don’t know. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to set aside some more land for habitat. Also, we need to do more with aquaculture as opposed to wild harvests in the sea. And the development of the rain forests is crazy; those last bits of virgin forest are literally the lungs of our planet. Denuding them for short term economic gain makes no sense.
There is a solution which dovetails nicely into the theme of this website. Extrasolar exploration and colonization. Unfortunately, I don’t see us sending waves of colonists into interstellar space within my lifetime, but it would be an elegant solution. All of our eggs would no longer be in one basket, and we’d reduce the population pressure on Earth. And let’s face it, humans will not fail to exploit anything. So we may as well spread out some.
Maybe the next time we land upon virgin ground we’d treat it with more care, having learned the lesson of what happens when you ruthlessly exploit the one planet you are given. I’ve read in places that capitalism is to blame for all of our ecological woes. Surely this is partially true, one need think no further than the near-extinction of Eastern US waterfowl at the turn of the 20th century. It seems that plumes of feathers were the height of fashion, so market hunters went out and shot millions of migratory birds. Strict hunting regulations and a change in fashion saved our geese, but it was a close-run thing.
However, communism bears plenty of ecological fault as well. Simply reference the Chernobyl disaster, massive strip mining in Eastern Europe, and the Aral Sea. These are but a few examples. Look, and you’ll find them everywhere, like termites in a damp basement. Whether socialist or capitalist, people are still people.
I was trained as a geologist at the university. One of the first things I learned is that “if you don’t grow it, you have to mine it.” There is no such thing as a free lunch.
We are running out of wild resources. The sixth extinction is upon us. We have been blessed with intelligence, it’s time to start really applying it toward this problem. Because it is a problem, and it affects us one and all.
Who wants to go for a walk in the woods and see no animals?
Not I, and probably not you, either.