By David Wilkie and Joshua Ginsberg
Oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge of Alaska; minerals in unlogged forests of Congo and Gabon in Central Africa; new roads across the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Mayan forests of Central America; and oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Seldom does a week go by without a news report on industry seeking government permission to build infrastructure and extract resources within the world’s last wild places.
Human society clearly wants raw materials to fuel economies of sufficient size to meet the needs of what will soon be nine billion people. Yet promoting the disturbance and degradation of the few places on the planet that remain intact and most resilient to climate change is, at the very least, short sighted.
Our neighborhood auto mechanic relies on a combination of technical skill and a slew of modern manuals to help him restore his customers’ cars back to working order after they’ve been dinged, dented, misused, and neglected. Yet all the manuals in the world can do nothing to repair a long-neglected vintage vehicle. For that only patience, humility, and faith in the car to reveal what it needs will do.
This is the predicament we face with nature – a crisis centuries in the making.
It started with the Neolithic era more than twelve thousand years ago, when hunters first turned to farming. Agrarian advances in the Arab world would come in the 8th century, followed by additional farming innovations by the British 900 years later. In a blink of geologic time, an anthropogenic revolution had transformed wild nature into millions of hectares of farmland and livestock paddocks.
The 18th century saw an industrial takeover of the world’s artisanal manufacturing, sacrificing ever more natural resources into the caldrons of human demand along the way. Lister’s, Emmerich’s and most importantly Fleming’s experiments on the antibacterial properties of carbolic acid and molds like Penicillium notatum eventually released humanity from millennia of evolutionary disease pressures.
Norman Borlaug’s green revolution in the 1960s and its GMO version in the new millennium have allowed humans to grow to over seven billion, becoming one of the most populous and geographically distributed species on the planet, and certainly the one that consumes the largest percentage of global productivity.
According to a recent Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund, humanity today is consuming more resources than the planet can generate sustainably. In other words, we are now eating into the planet’s savings account. A decade ago, an assessment of the “Human Footprint” by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Columbia University found that human activities have measurably altered over 83 percent of the planet’s terrestrial landscapes and coastal reef systems.
Wild places with intact assemblages of native species, interacting at ecologically meaningful densities largely in the absence of human influence, may now cover a mere 10 percent of the planet’s lands, rivers, lakes and seas. Unless we invest in their protection, most of these oases of nature will likely become degraded or disappear in the next 20 years. As we recognize Wildlife Conservation Day today, that challenge is much on our minds.
In 2010, the global community agreed on a set of biodiversity goals for 2020, the so-called “Aichi Biodiversity Targets.” In addition to ensuring the formal protection of 17 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface and 10 percent of our oceans, the Aichi targets sought to achieve “…restoration of at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems….”
Without the last wild places we will never know how nature works, we will never understand what makes intact nature more resilient to climate change, and we will never be able to repair the ecosystems we have broken.
Plundering the last wild places will not make up for our failure to sustainably manage the 90 percent of the Earth that we have already altered to provide food, fuel, shelter, and clothing for human kind. Our collective survival demands a different approach. Like our neighborhood mechanic under the hood of an unfamiliar vehicle, it’s time we paid close attention to our planet’s intact ecosystems and let them tell us what it is they need.
Dr. David Wilkie directs the Conservation Support program for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Dr. Joshua Ginsberg is the Senior Vice President of the Global Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society