Humans have a tremendous impact on the environment, making the topic of species extinction a pressing issue. Human dominance can make us feel like we are invincible. But what about our own extinction? Organised as a part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, a discussion led by the renowned palaeontologist Dr Steve Brusatte, raised some difficult questions. Answering them would require participation from each one of us.
As Steve reminded us in his impassioned introduction, there have been five mass extinctions in the history of the Earth, wherein over 70% of existing species disappeared. Some were caused by geological factors, such a rampant volcano eruption, which not only cover the Earth in a thick layer of lava, but also released massive amounts of chemicals, including methane and carbon dioxide, drastically increasing the temperature on the planet. Another mass extinction that killed a dominant species at the time – the dinosaurs – was caused by an asteroid the size of Edinburgh that collided with the Earth just outside the Yucatan Peninsula. Some mammal species managed to survive and quickly overtook the planet. Today we may be going through the sixth extinction, and we don’t even need an asteroid to wipe us out.
But why do extinctions matter? Jonny Hughes, the CEO of Scottish Wildlife Trust, pointed out the two main reasons: philosophical and practical. Philosophically speaking, as a dominant species, we may have a moral obligation to care for the planet. The opposing view to this is that we are also a part of nature, hence, whatever unnatural and disruptive things we do should be considered natural. Isn’t it the survival of the fittest in action? But here comes the practical aspect. No matter how much we would like to deem ourselves special and independent, we are still highly dependent on the environment and planet’s biodiversity and need to preserve it if only for the selfish reason of our own survival and welfare. This is something that should be clearly understood by both the general public and decision-makers in charge. Sadly, more short-sighted views prevail and socio-economic issues take precedence. How can conservationists convince the public?
Jonny shared his point of view: policymakers, ministers and other people in charge of the dramatic and often poor decisions should be of the prime targets of those who need convincing. The key is to appeal to their selfish and rational motives, not their emotions. However, he said he often feels optimistic about the future, thanks to two trends: urbanisation, i.e. people reduce their impact on nature by clustering in big cities; and changes in agriculture, made possible thanks to technological advancements, which can improve the ways we feed ourselves. Population size is not necessarily the problem, he argued, but rather what is consumed. There are many places with dense populations consuming a fraction of what the West consumes (the US consumes six planets, the UK consumes five). Changing consumption patterns is inevitable to give us and the planet a chance of survival. Glorifying moderation, not abundance, could make a big difference. We can’t control asteroids but we can control our influences on the environment.
As Steve pointed out, it is important to study extinctions at least to remind us that they happen, due to different causes but often because of increases in temperature. The Earth has been through all kinds of events and can heal relatively quickly. The same isn’t necessarily true to its inhabitants.
This article was written by Alina Gukova and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.