I recently read with great interest The Once and Future World by JB MacKinnon (who also wrote the 100 Mile Diet). There has been a growing recognition recently about the importance of spending time in nature for our well-being. Popular books like The Nature Principle by Richard Louv, films like Project Wild Thing (which was recently screened at several festivals in Adelaide) and initiatives like Nature Play in South Australia.
What isn’t discussed so much though is the state of our natural environments and what impact degraded environments have on us. JB MacKinnon explores by this looking at how our world once was, how it is now and what the future could be like.
In this well researched and vividly written book he explores the notion that our ability to adapt and forget has made us somewhat blind to the disappearances of other lifeforms around us. We forget that we were in the very recent past surrounded by not only much greater diversity of creatures but also greater numbers. In fact all around the world we are seeing alarmingly high rates of species going extinct in what scientists are now calling the Sixth Mass Extinction. The last mass extinction being when the dinosaurs died out – an event thought to be caused by an massive asteroid hitting Earth. This time is it us humans that are driving this “great dying”.
So why should we care? Does it matter for instance that 40 years ago there were 200,000 lions in the wild and now there are only 32,000 and at the current rate of decline lions will be extinct in just another 40 years; or that all the world’s biggest fish – tuna, cod, swordfish, sharks and so on, have reduced to an estimated 10% of past abundance and these severe reductions in numbers is seen across most of the big animal species. Our nearest relatives, the great apes (Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bonobos and Orangutans) are all headed towards extinction in the next couple of decades unless we make some drastic changes.
I would hate to think of my niece and nephew growing up to a world where Tigers, Tasmanian Devils, Giraffes and Elephants only exist in pictures. Such a world would be so much poorer for the loss the wildness and wonder these creature embody. But if this does not bother you then maybe this will. When asked the question in a recent interview “Why do you care?”, Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the The Sixth Extinction, pointed out i that the dominant creature of the time does not survive a mass extinction (think of the dinosaurs).In this case we as mammals are the dominant creature. Or to put is more poetically:
“Not caring about the biodiversity is like not caring that you are sawing off the branch of the tree you are standing on” – Paul Ehrlich
While we can’t necessarily pick a point in history at which to turn the clock back to in terms of biodiversity we can perhaps start moving towards a world with greater diversity and numbers of species – “a wilder world” as J B MacKinnon calls it. Of course this will mean looking at issues like land use, human population size and how we can better share the land we live on with other species.
Can you imagine a world where bandicoots, bettongs and wallabies forage for food and quolls stalk their prey in a neighbourhood park? What sort of world would you like to live in and pass on to future generation? Further reading:
I highly recommend the online article Back to Nature by George Monbiot (published by BBC). It is a beautifully presented and eloquent call for the rewilding of our world.
A good summary of our biodiversity crisis is http://time.com/3035872/sixth-great-extinction/
International Union for Conservation of Nature is a good source of information on endangered species and conservation programs.