Saturday, April 7, 2012

Facing up to the Extinction Crisis

This is the time of year I start going a little crazy. It has nothing to do with doing my taxes, which I did remarkably early this year, or any crazy weather phenomena. It has everything to do with our upcoming Ecofest (signup starts on Monday) and whether we’re going to finally start taking the crisis in species loss seriously enough to do something about it.

As I research topics to blog about, including news items this week like Whole Foods finally agreeing to stop selling overfished species, pesticides being linked to honeybee decline (bees pollinate one third of the food we eat such as tomatoes, beans, apples and strawberries, so their decline has a huge effect on our food supply), and the Koch brothers, starring in the new documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed (stay tuned for a screening on campus), funding climate change denialism (I’m late to the party here, Greenpeace reported this in 2010), I keep coming back to endangered and extinct species.

It’s a bewildering crisis, with the dubious distinction that many of the species that populated our picture books when we were kids and ultimately fired our imaginations and dreams are suffering enormous declines due to habitat loss, pollution, introduction of invasive species, over-exploitation and climate change. These are all human-induced causes yet we live our lives as if this is someone else’s problem. Ultimately, we are impoverishing not only our wellbeing, because we rely on ecosystem services (with the ecosystem’s resident species) for clean water and filtering the air, we are impoverishing our imaginations and the imaginations of future generations by allowing so many species under our stewardship to go extinct. In addition, apart from whatever benefit we may enjoy from sharing the planet with so many diverse species, each species has its own inherent right to exist.

What drives me crazy is how little attention we’re paying to it. Clean/alternative/green energy has been soaking up more than its fair share of the environmental news pie but the reality is that if we were to develop an eco-friendly fuel to power our homes, cars, businesses and so on today we would still have the problem of over-consumption of natural resources, deforestation and the main drivers of species loss. We need to show more imagination in understanding and solving our environmental problems. 

(I think what also drives me a little crazy is that we don't yet have a proper way to grieve for the species that we know we've lost. Since I heard the story of the golden toad on a trip to Costa Rica, I've been haunted by it: brilliantly colored males seen mating with females in temporary pools in the mountains of Monteverde for a few weeks in the spring... discovered in the 1960's, not seen outside the mating period, hundreds seen in the late 1980's, then only a few, then one year, only one golden toad searching in vain for a mate.)

This week in the New York Times, Thomas Lovejoy reported on the Planet Under Pressure conference in London. The upshot is that we’re failing to act with the scale and urgency needed. We spend our days worrying about the financial system, when really, we should be devoting our energies to understanding the workings of earth’s biological systems and making sure that they remain fully functioning. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “the number one rule of intelligent tinkering is saving all the parts”.

As always, the first step is to educate ourselves. Here at BU, you can check out the screening of the documentary Call of Life, at Rich Hall this Sunday at 7pm or at the Core House on Monday night (also at 7pm). We’ll provide the eco-friendly pizza. 

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