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Scientists say we may be at the beginning of the Earth's sixth mass extinction event

Why do we ignore behaviour that not only sends plants and animals to extinction but, ultimately, condemns humanity to life in a wasted world, asks Robert Hollingworth.

IN AUGUST, Radio National aired the last in the series Animal People, which discussed the plight of many mammals facing extinction.

Presenter Sarah L’Estrange addressed American author Elizabeth Kolbert:

“There are only 250 lions left in West Africa, but this doesn’t change your day-to-day life. So what do you lose when animals become extinct?”

For anyone, this is a difficult question and Kolbert seemed to have some trouble with it.

Her lengthy reply concluded:

“It is devastating if we lose these creatures. Personally, I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have tigers…”

We know what she means, but do her words adequately explain why we want to save individual species?

It should follow that Kolbert would not want to live in a world without mammoths, or a world without the Lake Pedder earthworm, which went missing in the 1970s. But she does, as we all do.

So, what’s so special about preserving creatures of uncertain relevance in our rapidly changing world?

I believe it has everything to do with criminality.

The Oxford Dictionaries list two main definitions of ‘crime’:

  1. An action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law.
  2. An action or activity considered to be evil, shameful or wrong.

It’s likely that both apply in this case.

The crime we are committing is the offence against our planet and the laws that we break are the laws of nature. We plunder, pillage and murder and we steal aspects of our children’s future. And perhaps the most concrete evidence of this, the most emphatic affirmation of these broken laws, is the eradication of an entire species.

Who is guilty? All of us.

Each time we waste food or condone unsustainable food practices, each time we use plastic or paper irresponsibly, each time we drive our cars unnecessarily, buy bottled water, plant exotic species, ignore issues of coal power, native forest harvesting – or just turn a blind eye – we are committing subtle but incrementally lethal crimes. And it is only when something approaches extinction – like the Amazon Rainforest or lions in West Africa – that we are suddenly caught out.

But isn’t the natural world always changing?

More than 90 per cent of the organisms that ever lived on earth are now extinct and most of these disappeared suddenly due to catastrophic events. The first of these occurred some 450 million years ago, a length of time hardly imaginable, and a “sudden event” on this time scale can mean millions of years.

Today, many scientists feel a sixth mass extinction is imminent. 

It will not be caused by volcanic eruptions or asteroids, but by human activity and, rather than occurring over hundreds of thousands of years, this new event may take less than a century and erase half the world’s species.

It is happening so fast we can even observe it in our daily lives.

I spend weekends on a secluded property in Central Victoria. It is a residual remnant of native bushland on a granite mountain and, here, I monitor and record just about everything that lives. In the mere space of fifteen years, I have noted the subtle changes that humans alone have wrought. Due to shrinking habitat, introduced species and a drier environment, plant and animal life in this location, is gradually changing. The number and variety of wildflowers has dramatically declined ‒ particularly corm or bulb species such as ground orchids and various native lilies ‒ and at least four species of frog have disappeared completely.

Of course, these creatures still cling on elsewhere, but my little mountain can be seen as a microcosm of a larger, burgeoning scenario.

In Australia, pollution, land clearing and the introduction of foreign species since colonial settlement has resulted in the loss of more than 220 plants and animals. We have the worst mammal extinction rate in the world and all this represents an explicit transgression against our living-breathing planet; a criminal act.

Who pays for these terrestrial crimes? Not us.

With duplicity and crafty evasion we continue to lead our double lives, rarely facing the consequences. Instead, it is our descendants who will suffer for these contraventions, even as they may be set to perpetuate them.

We are supposed to be intelligent. We are supposed to have foresight, wisdom and great technological knowhow. If this is so, why do we still ignore the repercussions of behaviour that not only sabotages the planet’s biodiversity but, ultimately, condemns humanity to life in a wasted world?

Can nature and culture be reconciled? Robert Hollingworth’s new novel tells the story of Shaun Bellamy, an orphaned boy from the bush. He goes to the city where he meets a host of mixed-up souls and is obliged to confront the frenetic modern world full on. The Colour of the Night (Hybrid Publishers, $24.95), is now available in all good bookstores.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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