Visions from nature

Paul Hebert: Saving Humanity From a Lonely Planet

By Sam Perrin

Earlier this year I sat down with Professor Paul Hebert, leader of the International Barcode of Life project. We talked at length about this project, which you can read more on here. But what’s the use of documenting life on our planet if we don’t use the information? And how do we maintain hope for species in a world where more seem to be dying out every day?

If current extinction rates continue, we could be looking at a very lonely planet in the near future. So how can scientists change this?
If current extinction rates continue, we could be looking at a very lonely planet in the near future. So how can scientists change this? (Image Credit: Maxpixel, CC0 Public Domain)

Sam Perrin (SP): We have made huge progress in the documentation of species, and a lot of other areas that feed conservation biology. You can’t conserve something that you can’t categorise. But in the holocene/anthropocene, extinction rates are still high, we don’t seem to be getting better at conservation. What are the big steps that we need to take to use this knowledge and help lower extinction rates.

Paul Hebert (PH): Firstly, we need to know much more about extinction rates. We certainly realize that we’re thinning life, but we don’t understand how extinction rates vary among its different lineages. We don’t understand our impacts on global biodiversity just as we wouldn’t understand our role in climate change without our century-long tradition of monitoring the weather. Humanity does react when science reveals risks. For example, evidence for a thinning ozone layer provoked a shift away from the use of chlorofluorocarbons. Similarly, we’re seeing action to reduce global warming because both modelling and monitoring programs are revealing the impacts of our reliance on carbon-based energy.

Although I’m confident that studies which quantitatively document the depletion of life will provoke action to protect biodiversity, I’m unsure how much loss will be required to create societal discomfort. Would we be comfortable if our activities meant the loss of 90% of the multi-cellular organisms on our planet? We might already be there. Recent reports suggest a 75% decline in insect populations in Europe over the last 30 years. What if the decline reaches 99%? I believe that detailed information on demographic trends for life-at-large will lead society to say – enough is enough, we must declare peace with nature.

SP: So how do we then achieve that?

PH: It’s easy to identify changes that would make our world a friendlier place for the species that share it with us. We certainly need to reduce the head count for humanity. During my lifetime, it will have risen fivefold from 2 to 10 billion. Obviously this trend isn’t sustainable.

We need to find much smarter ways to feed ourselves. I think of shifts in my own diet; many items I now regularly consume were unavailable in Canada when I was young. We can adjust our feeding habits, and it’s obvious we need to move down the food chain. Embrace herbivory, and find ways to grow plants in a gentler, more productive fashion. We just can’t afford to destroy more wildlands for agriculture. We need to make existing agricultural lands more productive. Here in Canada, the production in greenhouses is far higher than in open fields. We need more containerized, more controlled agriculture. The cost of energy will be a key driver. Lower its cost and containerized agriculture will flourish. Where field agriculture is the sole option, we need to replace herbicides and pesticides with smart robots that control weeds and pests with a laser blast. We need to get really serious about an innovation agenda for food production, and we need a financial system that rewards landowners for more than chopping trees and harvesting food. We need to view wildlands as a public good that merits payment.

SP: Do you think we also need to change the way we talk about biodiversity and sustainability with the public? Everybody knows the words ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, most people have an opinion on it. Extinction, loss of biodiversity, these terms aren’t as ubiquitous. Is there a way we need to change how we talk to the public?

PH: Even today, it’s a complex task to fully understand the linkages between our actions and climate change. In many respects, biotic change is simpler and more tangible. We just need to become very good at counting organisms to generate the comprehensive trend data needed to reveal the extent of our impacts. I’m very concerned by our past anecdotal approach to the registration of biotic change. When I was young, my world was alive with giant silk moths in the trees, Purple Martins fluttering around backyards, and large clams in the lakes. No longer; these species have all been driven to near extinction by invasive species or pesticide usage. Although their loss is registered in the minds of my generation, our youth doesn’t miss them. In the same way, I lack a personal connection to the massive flocks of passenger pigeons that darkened our skies a century earlier. The ratchet turns and with each generation, lost species just slip away. There is just one solution and this lies in the implementation of a global bio-surveillance system that plots the trajectory of life. It’s the medicine required to empower change in a fact-driven society.

The Purple Martin, once a common sight in Ontario, Canada, has become much rarer in the past decades (Image Credit: Bill Thomson, CC-BY 2.0)

SP: What would you say to people in their Bachelors or Masters level today who are involved in science and realise what we’re doing to our world and say “ok, this is horrible, I don’t want to work here”. How would you inspire optimism?

PH: Optimism is difficult if one only considers the end game – because extinct species can’t currently be resuscitated. However, most species are still with us and this provide both a cause to embrace and a basis for optimism. There’s never been a time in history when we’ve needed more researchers to study biodiversity, and we’ve never been so well provisioned with the required technologies.

Consider the many challenges that humanity has solved through time. We’re extremely good at fixing problems once we recognize them, so there is no basis for defeatism. We first need to document what’s happening to life, and we then need to plot a course correction. If, for example, the banishment of pesticides and herbicides would reverse the loss of species, I’m confident we can remake our food production systems without reliance on them. Today’s youth could have a powerful effect on the future by focusing on environmental sustainability.

I heard Stephen Hawking speak last year about his expectation that humanity will need to colonize Mars within a century to avert the prospect that our species will become extinct as a result of ecosystem collapse on earth. This proposal ignores an obvious fact – the best day on Mars is going to be far less hospitable than the worst day on Earth. I have a lot of optimism that with targeted intervention, it’s not too late to ensure a sustainable planet. A century from now, it might be, but I’m confident that today’s youth will not be asleep at the switch. They will take charge and drive the changes needed to ensure that earth remains an oasis in a harsh solar system.

If our planet had hosted a scientific community 65 million years ago, they surely would have tried to protect global diversity in a subterranean refuge before the meteorite impact. Aside from gathering up the dinosaurs and pterosaurs, much effort would undoubtedly have been directed to smaller organisms. As this work proceeded, the shelter might have run out of space, eliciting a backup plan to store DNA from every species. Life on our planet currently confronts another explosion – the explosion of humanity. We have a minimal responsibility to gather up representatives of every species and place their DNA in secure storage so we can read the books of life at our leisure. And later on, we’ll surely strive to resuscitate each species because otherwise we’ll be very lonely.

This article is part of a longer series of commentaries by leading ecologists, which you can view here.

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