Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Second Inconvenient Truth

While climate change has now risen to national and global conscience, in large part because of Al Gore's remarkable documentary and richly deserved Nobel Prize, another looming crisis sits in the wings, waiting for its own advocates on the world stage. The issue is tied to climate change, but possesses its own vital agenda as well; this biosphere we call earth needs friends and protectors. The pauperization of the earth itself, brought on by pollution, species extinction, and plundering of the planet carries with it an enormous cost.

Currently, experts warn, we are on the verge of destroying much of our ecological diversity in the coming century, if the present course of human behavior continues. A passionate movement to address climate change has started. A similar effort is required to rescue all living organisms.

One advocate who has long spoken with an eloquent and compelling voice is the noted biologist E.O. Wilson. Wilson served on the faculty at Harvard for over 50 years and won two Pulitzer Prizes for his writing in biology. He writes like a poet. But he's also one of the world's great scientists.

In his recent book The Creation, E.O. Wilson constructs an imaginary correspondence through letters with a Southern Baptist Pastor. Wilson's aim is to enlist the commitment of church leaders, and evangelicals in particular, for care of the creation. As a native of Alabama who grew up in the intense religious atmosphere of Baptist revivalism, Wilson seeks to build a bridge to a world he had long since abandoned. He's clear about his reasons for this effort, because he recognizes that religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today. And the very creation itself, along with the future of all life, depends on a growing partnership between religion and science for the health of the planet entrusted to our care.

Here are a few persuasive observations from Wilson about what is at stake:

In Wilson's imaginary correspondence with a minister, he sets forth the ominous fact that we are entering a period of mass extinction never before seen on our planet. We are about to enter, what poets and scientists alike may choose to call "the Eremozoic Era- the Age of Loneliness...Humanity must make a decision, and make it now: conserve Earth's natural heritage, or let future generations adjust to a biologically impoverished world."

"Because wild natural ecosystems are in plain sight, it is also easy to take for granted the environmental services they provide humanity. Wild species enrich the soil, cleanse the water, pollinate most of the flowering plants. They create the very air we breathe. Without these amenities, the remainder of human history would be nasty and brief."

"According to estimates by a team of experts in 2004, climate change alone, if left unabated, could be the primary cause of extinction of quarter of the species of plants and animals on the land by midcentury."

The sad thing is that we do not understand what we are doing. Wilson argues that the priority shouldn't be exploration of Mars or other planets; we need to mount an expedition to Earth itself. The number of species of organisms discovered to date, comprising all known plants, animals, and microorganisms, lies somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million. Estimates of the true number vary widely from 3.6 million at the low end to 112.00 million at the high end. About most of these species we know very little.

Reading Wilson's book, I learned for example, that we owe the churning of the soil not to earthworms, but to ants and termites. People need insects to survive, but insects do not need us.

Wilson argues that we need to build an Encyclopedia of Life to learn about and document the rich diversity of life, all of which has a purpose in the grand scheme of nature, but about which we know so very little. Already, discoveries have led to medical and scientific advances of remarkable value.

According to Wilson, the value in dollars (call it world-wide Gross Domestic Product) of the environment either matches or exceeds the value of human generated economic value.
Can we afford to dispense with this contribution of nature to our welfare?

Wilson passionately argues that the "obliteration of Nature is a dangerous strategy. For one thing, we have become a species specialized to eat the seeds of four kinds of grass- wheat, rice, corn, and millet. If these fail from disease or climate change, we too shall fail."

Wilson's book is a self-described class-action suit on behalf of biological diversity on our planet.
With an investment world-wide of some $30 billion dollars to combat species extinction and human practices that degrade the environment, Wilson believes that enormous progress could be attained. As he argues, "conserving biodiversity is the best economic deal humanity has ever had placed before it since the invention of agriculture."

I ended my reading of "The Creation" with a heightened awareness of how much our own tenuous life on this planet owes to the embattled natural world. People of faith should partner with the scientific community to face this second inconvenient truth- 'Blinded by ignorance and self-absorption humanity is destroying the Creation."

Here's a taste of a testimony/sermon that Wilson shares with his Southern Baptist pastor correspondent:

"Save the Creation, save all of it! No lesser goal is defensible. However biodiversity arose, it was not put on this planet to be erased by any one species. This is not the time, nor will there ever be a time, when circumstances justify destroying Earth's natural heritage. Proud though we are of our special status, and justifiably so, let us keep our world-changing capabilities in perspective. All that human beings can imagine, all the fantasies we can conjure, all our games, simulations, epics, myths, and histories, and yes, all our science dwindle to little beside the full productions of the biosphere.We have not even discovered more than a fraction of Earth's life forms. We understand fully no one species among the millions that have survived our onslaught."


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