By Zack Metcalfe
It’s been a hard week. A recent UN report concluded that one million species could be facing extinction in the next few decades, a number so astonishing that I’ve been left to stumble from one mood to another, from anger to despair to resolve to simple, quiet depression. The integrity of the biosphere – that conglomeration of living things which supplies all the necessities of life – is teetering, our decades of repeated inaction leading us inexorably here.
One million species…To offer some context, the whole of scientific literature has identified around two million species on Earth, with an estimated 6 million more awaiting discovery, each the unique and irreplaceable product of boundless evolution, serving their ecosystem niches to the betterment of the whole. Everyone, from the most ardent environmentalist to the most apathetic of oil tycoons, depends so completely on the workings of an intact global biosphere that it’s laughable, providing us with food and shelter and the building blocks of society, yet here we are, forcing a collapse which will cost us prosperity itself.
The causes of our impending mass extinction are simple enough to grasp. The acronym HIPPO puts them into descending order – Habitat loss (from us as well as climate change), Invasive species, Pollution, Population growth and Overharvesting (overhunting, overfishing). Habitat loss is the most widespread and serious of these plagues, as we clear the world’s remaining wilderness largely for the production of meat and dairy, as well as for lumber and toilet paper.
The scale of this crisis can be difficult to comprehend, especially as we step into early spring and hear the birds singing with assumed contentment, but such are the limits of human experience. Our enduring birds are but a small fraction of the flocks which once dominated our skies, in numbers so great they used to blot out the sun for days at a time, their species diversity replaced with omnipresent robins and starlings. The forests of the Maritimes as well don’t resemble themselves in the least, victims first of intentional fires, now of clearcutting and invasive pests. Already gone from our shores are the Great auk, Sea mink and Atlantic walrus among others, while several more, like the endangered Atlantic whitefish, face uncertain futures. Believe me when I say we’re in the end game, but in spite of my occasional bouts of pessimism, we still have time; precious little, maybe, but time.
If habitat loss is the most potent driver of mass extinction than the swift protection of what remains must be our priority. Yes, we need to uphold and improve our species-at-risk legislation in Canada, address and undo climate change, eradicate poaching, reduce our meat and dairy consumption, eat sustainably grown foods and stop the spread of invasive species, but most of all, we need to protect wilderness.
Canada as a whole has committed to protecting 17 per cent of our lands and inland waters by 2020, while Nova Scotia has committed to 14 per cent with no deadline. These numbers are a start, but fall far short of solving the problem and have been plagued by delays. Contacting provincial and federal representatives about picking up the pace, with reference to our impending crisis, would go a long way.
Outside of government, we have nature trusts, those charities whose sole mission is the acquisition of wilderness and it permanent protection. Nationally there’s the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), presently fighting to reach 6 million protected acres through their historic Landmark Campaign, and provincially we have the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, adding 3,200 protected acres since February to their already impressive network. I donate regularly to both, and it’s money well spent.
I have covered conservation issues in one form or another for ten years and even I was unprepared for this news. While I despair when people turn away from headlines this dire, I understand it. There is no more human an act than to look away when a thing is horrible, especially when it’s contained on your mobile phone, but the sad truth is that it’s all around us, and worsening at a pace not known for millennia. We need to face it down, to be as unafraid as our primate hearts will allow, and see the destruction we’re enabling so that it might stop. This is the defining issue of our time, and will take more than a little courage.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.