The big crunch
“Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now.” –Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology, Duke University
Quick, name an animal that has gone extinct. Most of us probably think of dinosaurs first; but science has absolved humans of all blame in that tragic event, as we weren’t even around yet. How about something that we’ve exterminated since our relatively recent appearance in our planet’s 4.5 billion years of evolution? Dodos? Passenger pigeons? Tasmanian tigers? Maybe even wooly mammoths? How about something quite recent—maybe Africa’s northern white rhinoceros or the Pinta Island giant tortoises? (Rest in peace, Lonesome George…) Closer to home, do you know we even wiped out America’s beautiful native parakeet, the Carolina parakeet? And these are just large or showy animals. Who weeps over the loss of an insect or a plant?
Speaking of Lonesome George… I had the awesome opportunity to meet this last representative of his subspecies during a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) class trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2006. Our class text for the trip was Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s "The Future of Life." Wilson writes that “The extinctions ongoing worldwide promise to be at least as great as the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the age of dinosaurs.” Indeed, so massive is our erasing of the blackboard of life that we rank alongside meteors in the magnitude of our destruction... to five such world-killing events in our planet’s history, we are now adding a sixth, wrought entirely by human hands.
In his book "Biophilia," Wilson comments: “The worst thing that will probably happen—in fact is already well underway—is not energy depletion, economic collapse, conventional war, or the expansion of totalitarian governments. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired in a few generations. The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
Biologist Paul Ehrlich warns us that forgiveness may be the least of our worries. “Few problems are less recognized, but more important than, the accelerating disappearance of the earth’s biological resources. In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched.”