The end of ev­ery­thing – or not

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY KATHLEEN PARKER Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

A new United Na­tions re­port pro­ject­ing the ex­tinc­tion of one-eighth of all an­i­mal and plant species should rat­tle the cages of any re­main­ing skep­tics re­gard­ing cli­mate change and the cen­tral role hu­mans have played in Earth’s ac­cel­er­at­ing de­struc­tion.

Find­ing out that 1 mil­lion species face ex­tinc­tion with­out rad­i­cal, cor­rec­tive changes in hu­man be­hav­ior is akin to find­ing out you have a fa­tal dis­ease. One day you have a thou­sand prob­lems; the next, you have just one. Noth­ing in to­day’s head­lines com­pares to the cat­a­strophic po­ten­tial posed by cli­mate change and the dec­i­mat­ing ef­fects of care­less con­sumerism around the globe.

The four horse­men of the Apoca­lypse – gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be Con­quest, War, Famine and Death – weren’t far off the mark. To­day, we might re­vise the New Tes­ta­ment ver­sion to in­clude Plas­tics, Emis­sions, De­for­esta­tion and Homo sapi­ens.

Lest some folks be­come in­censed by this ap­par­ent dis­par­age­ment of man’s great works (see war and con­quest), be as­sured that such ev­i­dence is ev­ery­where abun­dant and noted. But men and women who can cre­ate plas­tic (my own great-un­cle/chemist played a part) can surely find biodegrad­able – and prof­itable – al­ter­na­tives. Dustin Hoff­man may not don flip­pers and scuba gear to un­will­ingly cel­e­brate the fu­ture of plas­tics, as fa­mously por­trayed in “The Grad­u­ate,” but per­haps a young con­gress­woman from the Bronx will lead a con­fetti pa­rade driv­ing a card­board con­vert­ible.

The re­port, a sum­mary of which was re­leased Mon­day by the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Sci­ence-pol­icy Plat­form on Bio­di­ver­sity and Ecosys­tem Ser­vices, was the re­sult of a three­year study by 145 au­thors from 50 coun­tries.

Robert Wat­son, a Bri­tish chemist who served as chair of the panel, wrote in a state­ment that “the health of ecosys­tems on which we and all species de­pend is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing more rapidly than ever. We are erod­ing the very foun­da­tions of our economies, liveli­hoods, food se­cu­rity, health and qual­ity of life world­wide.”

But, Wat­son also said, it’s not too late to re­pair and sus­tain na­ture – if we act now in trans­for­ma­tive ways. It won’t be enough for in­di­vid­u­als to re­cy­cle their Dasani bot­tles or tote their own shopping bags, though these are help­ful and keep us mind­ful. But big com­pa­nies have to sign on and gov­ern­ments have to cre­ate in­cen­tives and poli­cies to ad­vance sweep­ing change. Need­less to say, this won’t be easy.

The re­port makes the es­sen­tial con­nec­tion to hu­man well­ness, as op­posed to merely car­ing about the hor­rors en­dured by sea crea­tures dy­ing with their stom­achs packed with plas­tic or Arc­tic an­i­mals starv­ing to death as the ground melts be­neath their feet. If some­thing hurts economies and school­child­ren, we even­tu­ally get around to pay­ing at­ten­tion. As Wat­son him­self noted, “We need to link it to hu­man well­be­ing; that’s the cru­cial thing. Oth­er­wise we’re go­ing to look like a bunch of tree-hug­gers.”

If only there were enough trees to go around.

What’s clear is that there’s no time for de­lay or par­ti­san bick­er­ing. What’s dif­fer­ent now is the de­gree of ac­cel­er­a­tion. Ev­ery­thing is speed­ing up, in­clud­ing the tem­per­a­ture and acid­i­fi­ca­tion of oceans, which con­trib­ute to the loss of co­ral reefs, them­selves un­der­wa­ter ecosys­tems es­sen­tial to more than 25% of marine species.

Mean­while, the world’s pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to reach nearly 10 bil­lion by mid­cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Al­ready, it has tripled since 1950. Col­lec­tively, we hu­mans have al­tered 75% of Earth’s land and more than half of the marine en­vi­ron­ment. More peo­ple re­quire more crops, re­quire more land, re­quire fewer trees, which ul­ti­mately re­sults in warmer tem­per­a­tures and you know the rest.

Who knows? The end of ev­ery­thing may be the great uni­fier we’ve been look­ing for.

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