Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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The end of life on Earth?

Apocalyptic statements always sound crazy and talking about the end of life on Earth at this juncture in its history will, for many people, seem like an overly pessimistic assessment of the perils we face.

Temperatures rise, extreme weather events become more frequent, species dwindle or disappear, forests burn, glaciers melt — no doubt the situation is dire, but surely not so bad that we are witnessing the destruction of life itself.

For that to happen, wouldn’t Earth have to be struck by an even larger comet than the one that brought about the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction? After all, that didn’t eradicate life — although three-quarters of all plant and animal species were lost.

The end of life in its totality is perhaps most likely not going to be a sudden event. Instead, it will be foretold through an array of systemic symptoms of decline — indications that the foundations of life are breaking down in much the way that a terminal illness can often be diagnosed before someone feels ill.

We are a fickle creature when it comes to our concern about the welfare of other creatures on this planet — our bias tends to be guided by size. But even though the latest grim news involves birds rather than mammals, the sheer scale of loss is staggering.

Carl Zimmer writes:

The skies are emptying out.

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970, scientists reported on Thursday. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the most exhaustive and ambitious attempt yet to learn what is happening to avian populations. The results have shocked researchers and conservation organizations.

In a statement on Thursday, David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, called the findings “a full-blown crisis.”

Experts have long known that some bird species have become vulnerable to extinction. But the new study, based on a broad survey of more than 500 species, reveals steep losses even among such traditionally abundant birds as robins and sparrows.

There are likely many causes, the most important of which include habitat loss and wider use of pesticides. “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s prophetic book in 1962 about the harms caused by pesticides, takes its title from the unnatural quiet settling on a world that has lost its birds:

“On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound.”

Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, said that new findings signal something larger at work: “This is the loss of nature.” [Continue reading…]

Most people live in cities and to the extent that they value nature, tend to view it as part of a recreational environment — a refuge away from their everyday world, except for those for whom the urban world apparently caters to their every need.

Nature might be pleasing, but is it essential?

Whether we see it as such depends not only on how far removed nature might appear from the environment we inhabit but more significantly on the extent we have experienced in its greatest depths, what it means to be alive. Which is to say, whether we have understood in the most visceral way that our own small lives are inseparable from life in its totality — that we have no more autonomy from the body of life than do the individual cells that in aggregation and interaction make up bodies we claim as our own.

Suppose, however, that through technological ingenuity we could craft the means by which humans could continue living on this planet in the absence of nature. In that scenario would we have secured the continuation of life — at least our own?

Or would we have reduced ourselves to an organic constituent in a global machine?

It’s possible that life is not already in terminal decline, but the compelling indications that it could be should be a cause of planetary alarm — alarm not just among research scientists but across the whole of humanity.

Close to three billion birds lost in a lifetime on this continent and how many more billions lost on the others?

If it’s not already too late, when are we going to wake up to the fact that this cannot continue without reaching irreversibly catastrophic consequences?

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