By Simon Jenkins
I may not care if the Hoolock gibbon or the Gabon viper become extinct. But as humans, we need reminding of our relationship with nature so we can choose how to act
The surest way of sending the world to sleep is to give it “a wake-up call”. The World Wildlife Fund applies the cliche to “half the Earth’s animals” having disappeared in the past 40 years. The cause is chiefly human exploitation and habitat decline. The losers range from lions to dolphins, vipers to curlews, monkeys to eels. These are not lost species but actual numbers.
Such stories tend to vanish into statistics. There are supposedly about 8bn species of animal on earth, with 90% believed undiscovered (how do they know?). Of these, 97% are invertebrates. The WWF is concerned with vertebrates: animals, fish and birds, of which some 45,000 species are thought to exist. Of these, just 10,000 populations of 3,000 species were counted. It is hard to see how robust such alarmist figures can be.
I accept the cry of Professor Ken Norris of London Zoo, that “If half the animals died in the zoo next week, it would be front-page news.” But it would mean something was clearly wrong at the zoo. How much my life is altered by the disappearance of the Hellbender salamander, the Hoolock gibbon or the Gabon viper is moot. It needs arguing rather than just asserting. Nor am I impressed by South Sudan’s “instrument of accession to the convention on biological diversity”. That benighted country should first look after its humans. We can at times seem like Roman emperors, treasuring our cheetahs while our slaves die.
Yet there is sense in James Lovelock’s message in his Gaia hypothesis, of a world perpetually rebalancing itself, making mistakes then correcting them, always pushing forward to some new achievement. A sign of human advance is that we are aware of what we do. This applies to the waste involved in keeping humans alive, and it applies to the pleasure we take in sharing the planet with other, often beautiful, creatures. It is a human virtue to be less cruel to animals than animals are to each other.
It may not “matter” to me that the gibbon or the viper become extinct, any more than it matters that a park I never visit goes under housing or a coral reef disappears to mass fishing. What does matter is my awareness of my relationship to nature. The value of these reports is to remind us what is happening. We can choose, each in our small way, what to do about it, and that may not be much. But awareness is the first step on the road to power.