Humans may not appear to have much in common with supervolcanoes and massive meteorites. But, in a special edition of the journal Nature last year, scientists warned humanity was killing off mammals, birds and amphibians at a rate similar to the five previous mass-extinction events in our planet’s history. Our impact on life on Earth is proving to be as dramatic as the meteorite thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and other such “cataclysmic forces”.
The ‘crex crex’ call of the corncrake used to be one of the sounds of Scotland but, despite conservation efforts, it is now facing extinction in this country as a result of loss of habitat and changes in farming.
While the bird is classed as being “of least concern” globally because of large populations in Russia, its plight here is emblematic of the apparent inability of humans to share Earth with other living things. About 14,000 species are currently classed as endangered or critically endangered, with nearly 12,000 considered “vulnerable” and more than 6,000 “near threatened”. Even animals we regard as “iconic” – elephants, orangutans and snow leopards – are in trouble.
So, assuming we care about this, it would appear that we need to find a different way of life that enables a degree of co-existence unprecedented in the modern world.
And it would appear that change is in the offing in Britain at least. The UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove has pledged to scrap the way agricultural subsidies are currently paid and replace the system with one that rewards farmers who adopt environmentally friendly practices as part of what he calls a “Green Brexit” from the EU.
If the reality matches the rhetoric, this could make a significant difference and perhaps even persuade the EU to follow suit.
Some may suggest saving animals like the corncrake is a waste of money. However, we are still waking up to the importance of different animals and plants to the health of overall ecosystems. The extraordinary effect of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US on flowers, rivers, trees and other animals demonstrated that.
But, beyond even that, if we allow a sixth mass extinction as bad as the previous five to happen then we may come to regret turning Earth into a very lonely planet.