Earth Day is a global day of awareness and action that changes human behaviour and provokes policy changes. The theme this year is ‘Protect Our Species’.
Our community contributors tell us what is most important to them when it comes to protecting our species.
Camille Delavaux argues that in order to protect species, we first need to know that they exist. She discusses some of the challenges when it comes to being able to discover new species.
From undiscovered to extinct. Tiago Simoes explains what we can learn from mass extinctions of the past to inform our understanding of the modern biodiversity crisis.
Modern conservation began with coffee in Costa Rica says Jeffrey Smith, where coffee farming systems benefit both the environment and the economy.
Kris Wyckhuys considers the drivers determining the recent global decline in insect species and what can be done to remediate them. He begins with a childhood memory from 1984…
Staying in the 1980s, Thomas Smith remembers the first time he visited Africa’s Congo Basin 35 years ago. What’s changed since then? You’ll have to read his post!
Looking to the future, here’s a rather timely and poignant message from Moreno di Marco and Sarah Stephen – quoted from their community post.
“Every contribution is critical if we want to stand a chance at winning the battle against climate change and species extinction”.
You can access all these posts and more here.
Happy Earth Day!
Poster image credit: Mike Arney courtesy of Moreno di Marco (it's a mountain Gorilla)
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I have been reading with interest the different contributions shared to the Nature Research Ecology & Evolution Community on this Earth Day, and while I appreciate reading about the many worthy projects contributors are involved in, all of which are of value given the aim of protecting biodiversity, I still come away with the feeling—the same feeling I have about all the attention (and nonattention) given to Earth Day this year—of something being missing. As someone who taught environmental philosophy for many years, I have always tried to stay in touch with the science of conservation biology, but it wasn’t until the past year or so that I was forced to come face-to-face with our current global situation, in the process of updating a paper; and, indeed, it seems that the most alarming statistics are to be found in the most recent research. I was shocked to read the estimate of Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo (2017; www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1704949114) that “as much as 50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are billions of populations,” for example, but it was the biomass calculations of Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo (2018; www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1711842115)—which seem to show, if my math is correct, that the biomass of all wild land mammals taken together is equal to about 5% of the total human biomass, and makes up less than 2% when our domesticated livestock is put in the picture alongside of us—that I find truly appalling. How could we have allowed things to come to such a pass?
I’m now retired and living with my husband in Costa Rica, still writing but not teaching, and in the face of these figures I’ve started doing more “activist” sorts of things again—one of which has been taking advantage of a website that allows people to write to a number of world figures (https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/heroes_of_nature_poc/?aOZlfbb), which led me to composing a letter to Pope Francis, and re-reading his Laudato Si—which I think puts a finger on the thing that is missing from most current conversations about biodiversity. Coming to such issues from the standpoint of science rather than of faith, I expected to have some disagreements with his views, but I was surprised to find him to be a fellow critic of anthropocentrism. Now, what I mean by anthropocentrism flows closely along the lines of what Eileen Crist recently wrote in Science (2018; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6420/1242), an attitude of “superiority and entitlement,” holding the human being to be, if not metaphysically discontinuous, certainly morally superior to the extent that humans are entitled to use all nonhumans as “resources” and to see their systems of interaction as valuable primarily if not wholly because of their provision of “services” for us humans. That was not the target of Pope Francis’ criticism, unsurprisingly, since he is doctrinally bound to see us human beings as, indeed, the metaphysically superior being. Rather, what he means by anthropocentrism seems to be the more literal one of human-centeredness, in the sense of being virtually completely wrapped up in ourselves—when it comes to what matters, “it’s all about us,” and there is little or no sense of anything being greater than ourselves. What Francis has in mind is, of course, God. That’s not a term I generally use; being of an empirical bent, I see no reason to believe in the necessity of postulating an anthropomorphic entity existing before the universe and somehow bringing it into being. But there’s no denying the testimony of all my senses that there’s an immensely complex Earth existing before me, and a magnificent Biosphere gloriously filled with living beings, of which the human type is but one. So it would seem that, coming from either end of this belief spectrum, it’s NOT just “all about us”—there is something greater than us, a “big thing” that includes but exceeds our single species, something that’s worthy of our respect and even awe.
The question before us is not, I would maintain, whether this anthropogenic extinction event will threaten human civilization—given the challenges facing us over the next thirty years, I don’t see how it couldn't—but rather the extent to which it will knock down the “big thing,” which can be seen reflected in the “phanerozoic diversity” depicted in the contribution by Tiago R. Simões (2019; https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/channels/2025-earth-day-2019/posts/48112-lessons-from-the-deep-past). With the astounding biomass imbalance we’ve already achieved and seemingly little enthusiasm yet for “scaling down and pulling back” on growth in population, infrastructure or affluence related consumption, I see us humans as currently standing on the threshold of any number of tipping points, just considering the massively complicated nature of the global system that feeds us (e.g., Bjerga et al. 2018; https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-food-trade-chokepoints/), let alone what’s coming with climate change. If I were still teaching, I might bring up things like the myth of Icarus, which used to be a part of our shared western culture, but has now apparently ended up as yet another all-about-us drama. What we don’t seem to be able to see is the fact that our economic and political institutions are merely social constructions, built on conceptual frameworks that don’t track biological reality very well at all, and that what supports our lives, ultimately, is biology, not the circulation of symbols in computer banks, which seems to be taken for bedrock ontology these days. If we could see the Biosphere as the big thing, and the conceptual world invented by our single symbol-using species as the small thing, we might also see that we’re behaviorally flexible enough to make some deep changes in our social constructions, and this might even be sufficient to reverse our course into species-suicide. If we’re too late for that, however, it might at least keep us from slashing down the measures of biodiversity so deeply that all the vertebrate cognition that evolved over the last several hundred million years will be erased, although I wouldn’t place a bet on it at this point. We humans really ought to pull our heads up out of our smartphones long enough to ponder Life on Earth.
Bar-On, Y., R. Phillips and R. Milo. (2018). The Biomass Distribution on Earth. PNAS 115 (25): 6506-6511. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1711842115.
Bjerga, A., et al. (2018). Choking on Our Harvest. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-food-trade-chokepoints/
Ceballos, A., P. Ehrlich and R. Dirzo. (2017). Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines. PNAS Early Edition www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1704949114.
Crist, E. (2018). Reimagining the Human. Science 362 (6420): 1242-1244. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6420/1242