independent

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Are we living through our own extinction?

JIM HURLEY

WEDNESDAY APRIL 18th is World Heritage Day, an annual celebration now in its fortieth year. The focus this year is "World Heritage and Sustainable Development: the Role of Local Communities". While local communities can and do contribute to conserving the world's natural heritage all is not well on the macro scale.

Cosmic events such as the collapse of distant stars or strikes by errant asteroids have had profound impacts on the wellbeing of life on Earth in the past. So too with Earth-based events such as major volcanic eruptions, continental drift, climate changes, ice ages and sea level rises. For example, the fossil record shows that there were periods in Earth's long history when tropical coral reefs went missing worldwide and remained absent for up to ten million years.

Five great extinctions have occurred in the past. The relatively sudden loss of all the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago is the best-known example. These mass extinctions were times when more than fifty per cent of the life forms on the planet died. The reasons for these five catastrophic events remain largely unknown. However, the good news is that life bounces back if given about ten million years to do so.

Considering the present rate of loss of habitats and species, some believe we are now living though the Sixth Mass Extinction. The reason for it is known this time. The extinction is happening in slow motion and the cause of it is one species: ourselves, the most 'successful' life form on Earth. We are fouling our nest and our exploding population is gobbling up natural resources at a rate that is totally unsustainable.

There are two views on where this is going. The negative one is that the die has been cast and we are sliding uncontrollably down a slippery slope towards mass extinction with the strong possibility that we may cross the fifty per cent extinction threshold by as early as the year 2100. The more optimistic view is that we are on the cusp of realising and appreciating what is about to happen if we continue to pursue present policies and that, if for no other reason than the selfish one that we need our natural heritage and biodiversity for our own survival, we will pull back from the brink just in time.

While the problems are global in scale we can all contribute on a personal level to raising awareness of the need to conserve our world heritage.

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