In one sense it’s a terrific time to be human. We’re here to meet our biggest challenge so far – bigger than bipedal locomotion; bigger than the domestication of plants and animals; bigger than the invention of the wheel. We’re here to confront our own biology, the essential nature that tells us to keep reproducing and expanding. If you could view the entirety of human experience from the dawn of our evolution to the present, if you could pick the human century you’d like to witness first-hand, you might choose this one. I think I would. I would want to watch us tackle this problem.
The suffering, if we don’t get it right, will not be humanity’s alone. Already we’ve destroyed thousands of species. In just the last few years Africa’s Western Black Rhinoceros, Europe’s Pyrenean Ibex, Costa Rica’s Golden Toad and North America’s Pearly Mussel have, so far as we can tell, passed into oblivion as humanity has destroyed their habitats. The scientists of the World Conservation Union estimate that 99 percent of recent extinctions and currently threatened species have been or will be destroyed by human activities. Conservation International reports that, as of the middle of 2008, a plant or animal species was becoming extinct every 20 minutes.
Extinction is normal, of course. The vast majority of species that ever lived seem to have disappeared somewhere along the line. What’s not normal is the rate of extinction. The rate of extinctions has been accelerating since the beginning of the 20th century and we’re responsible.
It’s no great tragedy that any particular species becomes extinct, unless of course it’s us. Generally, it has been part of nature’s way and each extinction opens opportunities for other species.
The greater tragedy is the fact that we’re taking a healthy, resilient and rich natural habitat – the only planet we know where life thrives – and degrading its ability to support life. New species can’t evolve fast enough to replace the diversity we’re destroying, even if we hadn’t made the habitat inhospitable. We’ve inherited the best planet in the known universe, only to squander it. And if we don’t change course soon, the planet could very well end up unfit for human habitation or at the very least damned uncomfortable.