But first, we are killing other animals. The recent news that the last male northern white rhinoceros died in Kenya has spread around the world. Who cares? For most people, the rhino is a freakish zoo animal, interesting but unimportant. After white hunters killed most of the rhinos in Africa and southern Asia, the remaining herds have been decimated by poachers seeking their horns, supposedly useful as medicine. At least 6000 rhinos have been killed in Africa over the past ten years.
Extinction is a natural process – witness the dinosaurs. Scientists say that one to five species die off naturally every year. But the Center for Biological Diversity estimates that we are losing dozens of species every day, thousands of times the natural rate. At that pace, by 2050, a third to a half of all species could be gone.
Our attention is attracted by the extinction of mammals, especially primates most closely related to humans. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global authority on conserving the natural world, estimates that half of the earth’s primate species are at risk of extinction. Of the 5500 known species of mammals, one-fifth are endangered, especially some marine mammals, including whales and porpoises.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has a long name and an important function. It connects the world’s governments to offer advice on the state of biodiversity. Its conference last week brought together scientists from 100 countries who have been studying the decline of biodiversity and what to do about it. Their reports are frightening.
Since Europeans arrived in America, about one-third of plant and animal species in the Western hemisphere have become extinct. Another quarter are at risk of extinction. Elsa Nickel from the German Environmental Ministry said, “Biological diversity is no longer an exotic idea for environmental activists, who want to save a few orangutans in the rain forest.”
The causes are well known: deforestation, water and air pollution, unsustainable consumption of resources, climate change, decline of coral reefs. Here’s another – convenience. Our advanced society conveniently removes the garbage that our wasteful lives produce and sends it out of our sight. Where does it go? A lot ends up in the biggest garbage dump on earth, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Ocean researchers have been aware of a giant floating garbage dump in the Pacific Ocean for a long time. Recently they realized it was much bigger than they had thought – an estimated 87,000 tons of floating debris, covering an area four times the size of California. Half of the mass of human junk in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets. Plastics made up about three-quarters of the diet of sea turtles caught near the Patch. “It’s like a ticking time bomb,” said Joost Dubois, a spokesman for the Ocean Cleanup Foundation.
Plastic has been replacing natural materials, which disappear harmlessly into the environment. Fishing nets are increasingly made of plastic because they last longer, which becomes a danger when they are abandoned in the water. More plastic was produced in the last ten years than ever before, about 320 million tons a year. Most of that mass eventually finds its way into landfill or the oceans. Better living through chemistry? Only temporarily.
When I was in graduate school in 1973, a friend and I distracted ourselves from studying by watching the film “Soylent Green”. The melodramatic plot centered on the attempt by a future policeman in 2022, played by Charlton Heston, to solve a murder in New York City, when pollution and global warming have led to food rationing. Surviving several assassination attempts, Heston figures out that the Soylent Green wafers that people are eating are made from human bodies, the only source of protein abundant enough to feed an overpopulated world.
The human race will survive well beyond 2022, but for how long? What will the earth be like 50 years from now, when my children are in their 80s? Despite remarkable advances in science, the earth is much worse off than it was 50 years ago – much more pollution, many more threatened species, disappearing forests and jungles.
Half-hearted efforts at recycling are not enough. Without significant changes in the way we interact with our natural environment, the human future looks frightening. The unwillingness of many in our society to confront the facts of shrinking biodiversity represents cowardice, selfishness, and stupidity. Among 18 countries surveyed by National Geographic, Americans are the most disbelieving about the science of climate change.
We have to change what we eat, how we travel, how we farm, how we consume. That’s especially true for Americans. We stand out in the world for our profligate consumption of resources and our production of garbage. With 5% of the world’s population, we use one quarter of the world’s coal and oil, and we create half of the world’s solid waste.
The only way to figure out what to do is to follow the lead of scientists. They have done their job of warning us that we are ruining our own future. Now we have to stop killing our planet and killing ourselves.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 27, 2018