Species extinction: the human touch

In the Bible, God gives humans "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth." In fact the King James translation uses the term fifty-six times between its initial appearance in the first chapter of Genesis, quoted here, and its last appearance in the first chapter of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, in which the writer dedicates human effort to God and offers God "glory and dominion for ever and ever."The term "dominion" is not often used today. Its meaning, even in the biblical tradition, is a bit slippery. But always strongly inferred is great power and domination--exactly the kind of control humans have exercised over all other living things as the dominant species of the holocene epoch, the current geological era, spanning the last 12,000 years. Twelve thousand years, by the way, is little more than the blink of an eye in geologic history, given that, as we mentioned last week, the lifetime of a single species on Planet Earth is typically about ten million years. Humankind is also universally viewed in the scientific community as accountable for what's now being called the "holocene extinction," estimated to be somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times all previous extinction rates. And it strains the imagination to think that this kind of wholesale destruction of other living species could be what God meant when giving humans "dominion . . . over all the earth." There's another reason beyond this theistic perspective why humans should be concerned about current extinctions: because in a fundamental way they can be viewed as the "canary in the coal mine" for Planet Earth. The significance of this old mining practice could not be more appropriate to humankind. If we care about our responsibility to what theistic believers would call "God's creation," or alternatively what public figures might describe as our legacy to our grandchildren, then we humans need to be concerned about what we're doing to our planet. So how is that concern being exercised? At this moment the International Union for Conservation of Nature is in the midst of its quadrennial World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Korea. The IUCN, as we've mentioned before, maintains and publishes the "Red List of Endangered Species," widely viewed as the definitive source for extinction data. The agenda for the IUCN's 2012 WCC, in progress now through September 15, includes 146 "motions," or agenda actions, dealing with issues threatening the earth's environment. Motion 15 specifically addresses species extinction, noting that "humans are currently causing the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and that if present trends continue one-half of all living species on Earth will be extinct within 100 years, as a result of habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and climate change; further noting that the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) engages 75 non-governmental biodiversity conservation organizations working to prevent species extinctions by identifying and safeguarding the places where species evaluated to be Endangered or Critically Endangered under IUCN Red List criteria are restricted to single remaining sites; taking into account that AZE has so far identified 920 globally highly threatened species confined to some 587 single sites, and that loss of any of these sites, to habitat degradation or other threats, would precipitate final extinction events, at least in the wild; concerned that just one-third of the sites are known to have legal protection, and most are surrounded by human population densities that are approximately three times the global average." The motion concludes with a recommendation for concrete action to help preserve these sites among several international environmental groups. Despite whatever comfort may be found in the knowledge that several agencies most of us have never heard of are trying to preserve the other living species around us, these circumstances and these gestures may seem remote and out of our control. The question arises, "what can an individual do?" "What can I do in Downey, where I'm just trying to get the kids to school, hold down a job, provide for groceries, make payments on the car, and take care of the rent or the mortgage?" There are things you can do. We've already mentioned some of them in this space over the past year. Some of them are easy and obvious, but some of them are difficult. We'll talk about a few of the harder ones next time. After all, as a human, you've got "dominion," but you've also got responsibility.

********** Published: September 13, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 22