Monday, 15 October 2007

Blog Action Day

Since today is blog action day I've been racking my brain trying to think of something to write. To be honest, I've found myself thinking that I should have waited a couple days before creating this blog.

Why so hard? I guess it's too difficult to summarise the problem. Plus, as an ecologist, it would be nice to think I had an answer, but I don't.

What I've decided to do is focus on what I think are the three main threats to the environment:
  1. Pollution.
  2. Climate change.
  3. Large-scale species extinction.
Worries about pollution have been around for about as long as civilisation I guess, but it still hasn't gone away. Fortunately, in the West at least, we're now pretty good at keeping on top of the problem - for every new pollutant we seem to be able to find a way of dealing with it, when enough money is thrown at it. We're even starting to think seriously about dealing with greenhouse gases, even though we don't know whether it's too late or not. If we're clever enough to create the problem we ought to be clever enough to fix it, though perhaps we need a little incentive first.

Climate change is probably the most prominent environmental catastrophes on the horizon. Obviously, this is caused by pollution, but I've listed it separately as it seems probable that eliminating pollution will not solve the problem of climate change on its own. Most evidence suggests that climate change is already upon us and will happen anyway. But let's not get too depressed: we've done some remarkable things throughout history and this problem is simply a matter of physics and chemistry. One imagines that it can be fixed, though there is very little incentive for governments to do this until it starts winning votes.

The third threat is the most serious of all. We've known for decades that we are responsible for one of the six major mass extinction events that this planet has ever experienced. The vectors for this are varied, and include pollution and climate change, as well as habitat destruction, population growth and exploitation.

I'm not convinced that we're doing much about it though. Sure, the panda's still with us and the tiger has just about managed to hang on (but who knows for how much longer). We've stopped whaling, nearly. We literally brought the Mauritius kestrel back from the brink. We perhaps feel that we've learnt from our experience with the dodo.

However, as with so many things, it is the little things that really matter - in this case 'the little things that run the world', to quote E.O. Wilson. Whilst we may feel like we do enough to protect the furred and the feathered, even the scaly and cold-blooded, we do ignore everything else. I'm not just talking about arthropods, but bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc., the things we know very little about.

'Well', you might ask, 'that's all very well, but what does it matter if we lose some of these things?' The problem is that we don't know at what point it will matter. We have named perhaps a tenth of all the species on the planet, and know precious little about that tenth. We don't know what will happen when one species, ten species, one hundred species are removed from an ecosystem, or what effect the changes to that ecosystem will have on us. We can see what effects losing entire ecosystems has though: increased flooding, extreme climate events and desertification to name a few.

Here's the key point though: when we've lost these species we're sure as hell not going to get them back!

'Ah', you say, 'but we can sample their DNA and bring them back from extinction once technology has moved on.' This is true, but to do this for every species, including those we do not know, would be an impossible task. Even if we were able to bring back every species alive today, we'd have no idea how to put the ecosystems they formed a part of and need to survive back together. Besides, our civilisation would need to survive long enough to do this. Quite frankly, we could ignore this mass extinction to the point where we realise: it's too late - we're screwed.

I've already mentioned him once: a few weeks back I found a video of E.O. Wilson talking about the same thing. He's much better informed than I am, so I strongly recommend it.

I'll leave the environmental solutions for another day, maybe.

No comments: