If you’re worried about the present extinction crisis, you can stop now. It’s over. We lost. That’s the conclusion of MIT professor Stephen Meyer in his trenchant analysis, “The End of the Wild”, published in 2006 by Boston Review Books. He writes, “Nothing – not national or international laws, global bioreserves, local sustainability schemes or even ‘wildlands’ fantasies – can change the current course.”
The wild is gone, we have destroyed it. In the process we have created an environment where weedy species can thrive. Weedy species are adaptive generalists like raccoons, coyotes, rats and deer. They are to be distinguished from “relic” species, like African elephants and giant pandas, whose numbers are declining due to human encroachment, and “ghost” species, who are doomed to extinction either because they can’t adapt quickly enough to human changes in their environment or from over-hunting and over-fishing. Examples of ghost species include African lions, whose numbers have plunged from greater than 200,000 in 1980 to under 20,000 today mostly because of perceived threats to livestock, and large fish such as tuna and swordfish.
Meyers identifies the main causes of the crisis as landscape transformation, pollution and over-consumption. Though we’ve enacted legislation (such as the Endangered Species Act) and created reserves, these actions, he argues, are too little too late. They are not changing the outcome that we are losing species and the wild.
So what’s to be done?
First, Meyers contends, we have to abandon business as usual. The future biosphere under the present scheme of benign neglect will not be human-friendly: we would see the collapse of additional fish stocks, ecosystems would lose the functions we depend on, there would be an increase in pests, parasites and disease-causing organisms and, worst of all, we would lose all the species that are psychologically important to us – the quality of life on Earth would plummet.
Second, in order to understand the crisis, we must realize that the end of the wild is about us, not about “the environment.” Our own cultural norms, values and priorities are now being tested. Meyers reminds us that though it’s easy to blame corporations, it’s still about us and our demands for “instant-on appliances, out-of-season vegetables and ten mpg armored transports to move groceries home.” This is why we’re drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
He advocates an ecological identity that “underscores the connection between how we live and what happens around us.” Though we’re beginning to see the wild as providing us with natural resources and the genetic links between ourselves and other species on the tree of life, we need to see moral linkages and the realities of a shared existence and shared fate. Presumably, Meyers admits, this ethical transformation will take centuries.
In the meantime, he argues, we have a moral obligation to take steps to reduce the impact of the heavy hand of human selection. He urges research into understanding how the remaining wild functions, protecting the landscape to preserve ecosystem functions and more intensive management, through, for example, additional legislation. These efforts allow us to examine our role as the planet’s stewards. After all, Meyers asks, “What is the essence of our own morality if it fails to encompass most of the life on Earth.”
Meyers' book is a concise diagnosis of one of the main problems of our time. Buy it here.