WILSON’S BOTTLENECK

14 08 2005

Renowned biologist Edmund O. Wilson estimates that the “combined biomass” (that means weight of the human population of the earth) is one hundred times greater than that of any other large species that has ever lived on Earth, though it’s possible that we are outweighed by the dung beetles. But, I digress…In order to sustain ourselves, Wilson says, we are sucking up about 40% of the planet’s production of biomass, outcompeting other species to the extent that one fifth of all bird species, a third to two fifths of all mammals, fish, and amphibians, and fully HALF of all plant species are threatened with extinction—crowded out by US—human beings. I just read that a record one third of the planet’s land surface is now under cultivation of some kind. Where can the wild things go?

I hope I don’t have to tell you that this is not a healthy situation. Species are already disappearing at a rate at least a thousand times more frequent than what seems to be normal background extinction. We seem to be in the early-midstages of a mass extinction, the kind of event that has only occurred perhaps five other times in the entire 2.1 billion year history of life on the planet.

The last great extinction, in the late Cretaceous period, which cleared out the dinosaurs and made way for the likes of us, or at least our monkey-faced ancestors, took place 65 million years ago. eliminated 85% of all species on the planet, and was evidently caused by a relatively small asteroid–only about six miles across.. there are a lot of those still out there, folks. But, I digress…The Permian extinction, which eliminated 95% of all species on the planet (amazing luck for our ancestors to get through that!) about 250 million years ago, is linked with widespread vulcanism, and the previous three extinctions all seem connected with glaciation. But this current mass extinction is being propelled by humanity’s success in appropriating the world’s resources for our own use. This extinction is being created by an animal that think of itself as intelligent, compassionate, and possessed of free will. It’s enough to make you wonder.

The question that remains to be answered is, “are we fraying the web of life to such an extent that it will no longer support us? Will this mass extinction culminate in our extinction?”

For some of us, most notably those living in sub-Saharan Africa, the answer already appears to be “yes.” For those of us who live in the comfort of North America or Europe, we can at best say, “not so far.”

Think about it for a minute, though. Those who seem to be the most indifferent to this almost inconceivable crisis are the ones who don’t think twice about their Mexican lettuce, Argentine beef, Chinese clothing, Canadian building materials, Japanese cars, and Saudi Arabian energy sources. They seem to think that America’s overwhelming military and technological superiority will always be there to help them live in the style to which they have become accustomed. They have no problem with fighting a pre-emptive war for oil, because deep in their hearts they know that might makes right, and since they have the might, they must be right. In any case, they have the most to lose, so they are committed to winning at any cost. Why not pre-emptive strikes on China and India, to cut their population down so they won’t use so much of that oil we want so badly?

But nobody wins if the Natural World loses. The natural world is not just a passive repository of great scenery and resources for us to exploit. The natural world is what creates the air we breathe, the soil that feeds us, and the temperature conditions in which we can survive. The natural world purifies our wastes and provides the water we drink and use for agriculture. The natural world “just grows” the grasses and trees that provide fodder for our animals, food, fuel, lumber and paper for us, and –yes, I’m repeating myself–the air we breathe. Sure, we plant crops, but “we” don’t grow them—nature does. And we don’t know what threshold will have to be crossed before these basic natural systems will fail. We may not know until we’ve crossed them. And by then it may be too late.

This is why we, as Greens, are not exactly “leftwingers.” We are actually rock-ribbed conservatives. We would like to conserve water, soil, and air, conserve petroleum, because we recognize that the human race is currently using these things up faster—in the case of oil, far, far faster—than they can be replenished. Everybody acts like petroleum is as common and replenishable as water, but it’s not. For all practical purposes, there is only so much of it, and when it’s gone there won’t be any more, and the end of petroleum in our economy isn’t just about a looming scarcity of vehicle fuel and heating oil, it’s about all the millions of things we make out of plastic not being cheap any more, it’s about fertilizers and pesticides that mass agriculture depends on being prohibitively expensive, it really is about the end of the American lifestyle we have all come to be so dependent on—or is it addicted to?

Surely we all know by now what needs to be done to prevent the coming crash—or at least mollify its impact. There are things we can do personally: We in the developed world need to back off the path of conspicuous consumption, eat food that is in season and grown close to home, learn to share with each other and appreciate each other’s company and talents. There are things we need to do institutionally: find ways to transfer appropriate technology and wealth to those who are severely impoverished, so that they can enjoy a graceful and sustainable standard of living. A little electricity, pure water, and access to health care and family planning would go a long way to ease the lives of billions. There are things we need to do politically: end the paradigm that favors the continued accumulation of wealth by the already wealthy and that favors violence as a solution to disputes. Suppose we said that corporations should no longer have standing as persons, that nobody needs to earn more than, say, a hundred thousand dollars a year, and that the best way to get rid of the threat of weapons of mass destruction would be for America and China—followed by the rest of the world’s governments– to quit manufacturing them and decomission their armed forces?

If we can just take a few steps towards sanity, the rewards will be great enough to keep our feet on that path. One step at a time…..

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