Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

Reading 3.3: Threats to the living planet

An idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or plant. The idea in this case is 'nature', the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental 'damage'. But that was like stabbing a man with toothpicks: though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought that we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces – the wind, the rain, the sun – were too strong, too elemental.

But, quite by accident, it turned out that the carbon dioxide and other gases we were producing in our pursuit of a better life – in pursuit of warm houses and internal economic growth and of agriculture so productive it would free most of us from farming – could alter the power of the sun, could increase its heat. And that increase could change the patterns of moisture and dryness, breed storms in new places, breed deserts. Those things may or may not have yet begun to happen, but it is too late to altogether prevent them from happening. We have produced the carbon dioxide – we are ending nature.

(McKibben, 2003)

Since 1998, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has been compiling a Living Planet Index, a measure of the state of the world's flagship species based on data from 1970 onwards. This includes measurements of the populations of 695 terrestrial species, 274 marine species, and 344 freshwater species. The most recent report, issued in 2006 (and based on data between 1970 and 2003), paints a dismal picture, with a global decline of around 30 per cent in species populations in this 33-year period (see Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2
Figure 3.2 Graph of declining living planet index (source: Living Planet Report, 2006)

There have been five major mass extinction events on Earth. Each of these events marked the end of dominant life forms, such as the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period (65 million years ago). Yet life was able to evolve once again to fill the empty niches left by the extinct species, and even develop new niches. The renowned biologist, Edward Wilson, believes that we have precipitated the sixth mass extinction (Wilson, 2002). If present trends continue, up to 50 per cent of all species will become extinct within a hundred years. In his most recent book, The Revenge of Gaia, James Lovelock (Lovelock, 2006) is not so sure whether our own species will be able to escape this mass extinction event which we have created.

Even with these stark facts about the health of our planet, most of society pays little attention and worse, does so little to change lifestyles. Yet, this should not come as a surprise. The reductionist approach to thinking (reductionist thinking) compartmentalises our mental models so that it is virtually impossible for us to see the links between what we do in our everyday lives and the impacts we are having on our own quality of life and the quality of life of other humans, the viability of other species, and the effects on our climate.


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