It’s just a really, really big step
“The Earth’s fifth mass extinction 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs. Today’s sixth mass extinction, which is currently underway, is caused by humans. Twenty to 50 percent of all species will be extinct or committed to extinction within the next 35 years.”
That’s how Bill Blakemore, a correspondent for ABC, introduced a panel of some of the world’s leading environmental researchers at the World Science Festival earlier this month. This particular event, dubbed “Stewards of Earth: Hope for our Planet,” examined how humans have failed at their task of being the only species on the planet coherent enough to care for it—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence and the first female scientist to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said what concerns her the most about the current conditions of the oceans is human complacency.
“People don’t understand that our lives depend on maintaining the planet pretty much the way it was when we humans came along 10,000 years ago,” Earle explains. “The world is not what it used to be. In the last ten years the pace [of change on Earth] is picking up. We have the technological capacity to destroy and unravel the systems that have taken all of previous history to make. We’re changing the nature of nature.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The world is a trillion ton system. There are environmental consequences to the loss of biodiversity.[/quote]
Ever since we started industrialized trawling (a fishing method that involves dragging a net across the seafloor) in the 1960s, humans have removed 20 million tons of wildlife from the world’s oceans. We hear a lot about the damage done to our land-based animals, but Earle says that doesn’t even come close to the ways in which we’ve decimated sea habitats. “We’re clearcutting the ocean,” she says, adding that thanks to satellites, GPS, and sonar, “Fish no longer have a place to hide. Ninety percent of the big fish have been extracted from the world’s global ocean.”
Because of this Earle says she no longer eats fish. “I used to. Not anymore. I know too much.”
Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute and author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, echoed Earle’s statements, noting how strange it is that humans don’t have the same level of compassion for fish and ocean animals that they do for their land-based cousins. “If we want to exploit fish we just say they’re unconscious and can’t feel pain. But they have pain receptors. They feel panic, alarm, stress, and shock.”
There’s also the common—and false—assumption that the ocean is a place of great abundance. But as Safina points out, that attitude is a relic of world that existed before massive fishing programs, when the ocean was an entirely different place. “Things that were abundant [in the past] are scarce,” he says. “We’re watching really, really big systems falling apart. The scale is different now.”
And it’s the decline of those large systems that is especially troubling. Shahid Naeem, an ecologist on the panel who serves as Director of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability at Columbia University, says that humans aren’t great at wrapping their brains around the scale of the issue, which is perhaps part of the reason why we have let the planet decline so far.
“The problem that we’re facing is that our Earth systems are changing dramatically,” he says. “That requires a holistic thinking that’s hard to do. I always think about all 8.7 million species at one time. We can accommodate all those different interests from systems level to individual species level, but we need to start thinking about atmosphere and ocean chemistry as well. Then we’ll get the kind of thinking we need.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We have the technological capacity to destroy and unravel the systems that have taken all of previous history to make. We’re changing the nature of nature.[/quote]
Put simply: Everything on Earth affects everything else on Earth. But we’re so used to thinking about the environment in small sections—save the rainforests, save the whales, save us from rising sea levels—that we don’t consider the complexity and interconnectedness of how we live our lives. Even science itself struggles to overcome the broadness of our interconnected ecological reality.
“The world is a trillion ton system,” said Shahid. “There are environmental consequences to the loss of biodiversity.” And a big reason there’s no whole-Earth blueprint of geological and ecological systems, he says, is because scientists love to specialize and focus on specific areas of research. People don’t typically pursue a field of research with the intention of wanting to know everything about everything. Thinking bigger—like, way bigger—is obviously a difficult task, but the scientists agreed it’s not impossible. Humans understand a whole series of complex ideas in their daily lives—the global economy, massive social networks, even the universe itself—so they believe in our capacity to digest the whole scope of our living world, too.
But Safina makes clear that even though we don’t know everything about how Earth’s systems interact with each other as a trillion-ton symbiotic wonder, we do know what NOT to do, and that is wait. “There’s no reason to delay,” he says. “We’re creating problems faster then we can fix them. We know mostly why we’re creating the problems even though we don’t know much about the systems,”
The good news is there is a solution to solving the problem of ocean devastation (as well as the loss of biodiversity on land), but it is something that many complacent humans might not want to take on. “Giving nature a break is the smartest thing we can do,” says Earle. And it’s a proven tactic. In many cases, parts of the world where humans have done severe damage to the ecosystem have sprung back once we went away and left those places alone. And that is a fact scientists use to remind us that when we talk about saving the Earth we’re actually talking about saving the human race. Once we’re gone, Earth will be just fine.
Fortunately, Earle has a very simple, if difficult, directive we can follow to help the planet bounce back, and it comes by way of biologist E.O. Wilson, who says that, “At least half the Earth should be left alone.” And Earle elaborates, “Let the Earth do her thing. Respect the ocean as if your life depends on it, because it does. The most important thing we should extract from nature is our existence. That’s the greatest value. If you like to breathe you will listen up.”