When coral and elephants disappear from the earth

Mr Robert Macfarlane, in his book Landmarks, about the connection between words and landscapes, tells a revealing but stunning story about how recent editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped certain "nature words" that its editors deemed less relevant to the lives of modern children. These included "acorn", "dandelion", "fern", "nectar", "otter", "pasture" and "willow". The terms introduced in their place, he noted, included "broadband", "blog", "cut-and-paste", "MP3 player" and "voicemail." While this news was first disclosed last year, reading it in Mr Macfarlane's book still shocks me for what it signifies. But who can blame the Oxford editors for dumping Amazon words for Amazon.com ones? Our natural world is rapidly disappearing. Just how fast was the major topic here in Hawaii last week at the ongoing global conference held every four years by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which I participated in along with some 8,000 scientists, nature reserve specialists and environmentalists.

The dominant theme running through the IUCN's seminars was the fact that we are bumping up against and piercing planetary boundaries - on forests, oceans, ice melt, species extinctions and temperature - from which Mother Nature will not be able to recover. When the coral and elephants are all gone, no three-dimensional printer will be able to re-create them.

In short, we and our kids are rapidly becoming the Noah generation, charged with saving the last pairs. (This is no time to be electing a climate-change denier like Mr Donald Trump for president.) Dr Sylvia Earle, the renowned oceanographer, put it well to a sustainability conference hosted by the East-West Center alongside the IUCN meetings. In her lifetime, said Dr Earle, she has felt as if she's been "witness to the greatest era of discovery and the greatest era of loss" in our planet's history.

So now, she said: "We are at a crossroads. What we do right now or fail to do will determine the future - not just for us, but for all life on Earth." Those really are the stakes - there is a reason nature words are being removed from children's dictionaries. Last week, for instance, The Times reported on a study that revealed how "the African elephant population is in drastic decline, having shrunk about 30 per cent from 2007 to 2014... The deterioration is accelerating: Largely because of poaching, the population is dropping 8 per cent a year, according to the Great Elephant Census... Ms Patricia Awori, an official with the African Elephant Coalition, said, 'These numbers are shocking.'"

The Times reported last week on a study that revealed how the African elephant population is in drastic decline, having shrunk about 30 per cent from 2007 to 2014.
The Times reported last week on a study that revealed how the African elephant population is in drastic decline, having shrunk about 30 per cent from 2007 to 2014. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Okay, so you don't care that your kids may never see an elephant in the wild, only in a zoo. That's not all. The species extinction rate is now about "1,000 times faster than before the global spread of humanity", explained the great biodiversity expert E. O. Wilson, another speaker. "Half of the species described today will be gone by the end of the century, unless we take drastic action." These species, he noted, evolved over 3.5 billion years "to create an exquisite and careful balance of interconnected resilience". These plants and animals and their ecosystems sustain the foundations of life on which we depend. When we lose the trees that maintain watersheds, the coastal mangroves that protect against storm surges, the glaciers that store fresh water and the coral reefs that feed fish, we humans become less resilient. Indeed, strip them all away, said Dr Wilson, "and the world as we know it will unravel". The magazine Discover just noted that we've been tracking average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces since 1880 - or for 1,639 months. Due to global warming, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that July was the hottest "of all 1,639 months on record". That is why actress Alison Sudol, an IUCN goodwill ambassador, opened the plenary by observing that our planet is now "under attack" by us.

"Our vast oceans, full of mysteries and wonders, are thick with plastic and mercury," she noted. "Rainforests - abundant sources of oxygen and medicine; land of ancient lore and tradition; home to thousands of species of wildlife, many as yet unknown to us - are being ploughed down before we have a chance to properly discover what it is we are losing.

"These are lungs of the earth, the oceans and the forests, and we are destroying them. Deeply, desperately, we are hoping someone will do something before it is too late. That someone we are hoping for is you."

So do we have a plan? Dr Wilson has one - a big, audacious plan. It's the title of his latest book, Half-Earth, a call to action to commit half of the planet's surface - land and oceans - to protected zones.

Right now, the IUCN says, close to 15 per cent of the earth's land and 10 percent of its territorial waters are covered by national parks and protected areas. If we protect half the global surface, Dr Wilson argues, the fraction of species protected will be about 85 per cent, which would keep life on earth, including the human species, in a safe zone.

Naive, you say? Not so. Naive is thinking we humans will survive without the healthy natural systems that got us here. Naivete is the new realism - or else we, the human species, will become just another bad biological experiment.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'When coral and elephants disappear from the earth'. Subscribe