The election is over, and everyone can heave a huge sigh of relief. Everyone except the winners, who need to tackle the next phase in the cycle: doing the job for which they were elected. For President Obama and Congress, this should include addressing a topic that went virtually unmentioned during the campaigns – the environment.
Sure, climate change, aka global warming, was hurled around like a hot potato from time to time, but no one is talking about a more tangible and readily solvable environmental issue – our declining biodiversity. I have written about biodiversity many times since E.O. Wilson of Harvard University coined the word itself almost a quarter of a century ago. In the book “Biodiversity,” he presented some alarming facts, facts that we should not ignore if we enjoy living on the earth as we know it. We will be well served to reconsider some of the concepts he presented. Most people, including many members of Congress, still do not grasp the urgency or the depth of the problem.
In short, we are measurably losing life on a daily basis. Tropical forests continue to be a prime example because their destruction is causing a species extinction rate rivaling anything the earth has experienced in 65 million years. Giant meteorites colliding with the earth caused previous mass extinctions. And even if human civilization had been in place, we could not have prevented the inevitable destruction and elimination of species. Today, we are losing both plant and animal species at an alarming rate, not only in the tropics but worldwide. And since people represent the meteors in this case, we can most certainly control their trajectory.
Compelling reasons for preserving the world’s biodiversity are endless. From a purely anthropocentric view, how many plants or animals have traits that could be of value in the field of medicine? Every time another species goes extinct, we lose the opportunity to find out. But doomsday predictions annoy most people. They tend to engender a feeling of helplessness, which can make people denounce the messenger, ignore the message, or both. However, tackling the issue of declining biodiversity is not a hopeless task, because we the people can control the situation and see immediate positive results. Through education and, if necessary, regulation we can curtail environmental destruction, especially by those who destroy the environment merely for their own benefit.
An environmentally educated society would embrace measures to ensure the welfare of our natural environments and the species that comprise them. We can teach our children that every species is valuable in its own right, and though we may use them to our benefit and enjoy them, we are not entitled to annihilate them or wantonly destroy their habitats. Congress can promote scientific research to acquire more knowledge about the ecology, distribution patterns, medical potentials and food opportunities of the plants and animals of the world. Unlike the sudden impact of a moon-size meteor on the world’s plant and animal species, the trajectory toward extinction for many species today is gradual, starting with the disappearance of populations of native species, a creeping problem that does not alarm us in the early stages. How are you going to feel when you suddenly realize that several years have slipped by without your having seen a blue jay or tiger swallowtail or fence lizard?
Let us spread the message – to our children, our elected officials, and each other – that in addition to potential value for us, each species has its own intrinsic value, its own right to exist. We can become a society that appreciates the importance of natural and native biodiversity and is committed to preserving it for posterity. Congress needs to be 100 percent bipartisan and totally in support of all efforts to reduce the loss of biodiversity not only in our own country but also throughout the world. Then we won’t have to listen to doomsday predictions about what will happen if we don’t take action.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.