08 April 2011

Homo sapiens and the sixth great extinction

What kind of creature are we, we Homo sapiens?

According to a recent study by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, we may be among the half dozen most destructive forces ever to assault life on the planet Earth. Since life began on our planet, there have been five great extinctions, defined as events when over 75 per cent of species disappear. By applying new statistical methods to a new generation of fossil databases, the Berkley scientists tested the hypothesis that human activity is causing a sixth great extinction. The results indicate that the current rate of extinctions is far above normal and if it continues we are indeed on the road to another great extinction.

The scientists warn that, if anything, the study may grossly underestimate the number of species that will disappear. To date, we have pushed species into extinctions through hunting, overfishing, deforestation and other means, but global warming is only beginning to have an effect and could greatly add to the devastation. All this is not entirely new. Suspicion that we are causing a sixth extinction has been around for years. The Berkeley study simply provides more scientific reinforcement.

So I ask again, what kind of creature are we? An intelligent, moral creature or a mass murderer of species? If we were the former, even the possibility we are also the latter would horrify us. Yet it seems to be hardly more than a peripheral issue with us.

Not that concern doesn't exist. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme established the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993 with the signatures of 168 nations. The Convention establishes three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources. Parties to the convention are required to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and report on measures taken for the implementation of the provisions of the convention.

So meetings are held, studies are done and plans are formulated, yet species continue to disappear and political leaders rarely allow the word "biodiversity" to cross their lips. Where is their concern, or even their consciousness, about the devastation their economic policies—our economic policies—are wreaking upon our fellow species? They—we—ought to be horrified.

True, we are a murderous species. We have, after all, been slaughtering members of our own species for economic and other purposes, even to the point of driving whole groups into extinction, since we first walked the Earth, so why should we be expected to behave any better toward those we consider our inferiors? Is this, then, our defining characteristic? Will it be our legacy? Does it override our intelligence and our morality? If not, where is the outrage?legacy

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