Beware the Age of Lonelisses

The Economist

Earth’s biodiversity is a dilemma wrapped in a paradox. The paradox is that the more species humanity extinguishes, the more new species scientists discover. Like the conquistadors who melted the Inca gold, they recognise that the great treasure must come to an end—and soon. That understanding creates the dilemma: will we stop the destruction for the sake of future generations, or go on changing the planet to our immediate needs? If the latter, planet Earth will enter a new era of its history, cheerfully called by some the Anthropocene, a time for and all about our one species alone. I prefer to call it the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.

Scientists divide biodiversity (keep in mind, all the rest of life) into three levels. At the top are the ecosystems, for example, meadows, lakes and coral reefs. Below it are the species that make up each of the ecosystems. At the base are the genes that prescribe the distinguishing traits of each of the species.

A convenient measure of biodiversity is the number of species. When in 1758 Carl Linnaeus began the formal taxonomic classification still in use today, he recognised about 20,000 species. By 2009, according to the Australian Biological Resources Study, the number had grown to 1.9m. When still-undiscovered invertebrates, fungi and micro-organisms are added, estimates vary wildly, from 5m to 100m species.

Earth, to put the matter succinctly, is a little-known planet. New species flood laboratories and museums everywhere, but are being diagnosed and named only at a pace of about 20,000 a year. At this rate, and taking the low-end estimate of 5m species remaining to be classified, the task will not be completed until the middle of the 23rd century. Such a snail’s pace is a disgrace of the biological sciences. It is based on the misconception that taxonomy is a completed and outdated discipline. This still-vital discipline has been largely squeezed out of academia and relegated to natural-history museums, themselves impoverished.

The exploration of biodiversity has few friends in the corporate and medical worlds. Science as a whole loses as a result. Taxonomists do far more than name species. They are also experts and primary researchers on the organisms of their speciality. To them we must turn for most of what is known about world-dominant groups such as nematodes, mites, copepods, algae and composites.

The fauna and flora of an ecosystem are also far more than collections of species. They are a complex system of interactions, where the extinction of any species under certain conditions could have a profound impact on the whole. It is an inconvenient truth of the environmental sciences that no ecosystem under human pressure can be made sustainable indefinitely without knowing all of the species that compose it, which commonly number in the thousands or more. The knowledge coming from taxonomy and biological studies dependent upon it are as necessary for ecology as are anatomy and physiology for medicine.

The remainder of the century will be a bottleneck of growing human impact on the environment and diminishing of biodiversity

How can we care for species composing Earth’s living environment if we don’t know the great majority of them? Conservation biologists agree that large numbers of species are becoming extinct before they are discovered. Even in purely economic terms, the opportunity costs of extinction are going to prove enormous. Research on just small numbers of wild species has already yielded an abundance of new pharmaceuticals, as well as leading to new biotechnology and advances in agriculture. And that is just a start. Natural ecosystems provide purification and storage of fresh water, stabilisation of the climate and much of the very air we breathe.

The human impact on biodiversity can be characterised as a mindless juggernaut fuelled by the life it destroys. The agents of destruction are, in rank order, habitat destruction, harmful alien species, pollution and over-harvesting of wild species.

The moral choice ahead

Of course there exists an earnest worldwide effort to map and save biodiversity. The Census of Marine Life and Encyclopedia of Life programmes have made available on the internet most of what we know of Earth’s species. New techniques are helping to discover new species and to identify those already named. Most notable among these is bar-coding, the identification of species with short sections of highly variable DNA. Global conservation organisations are doing all they can.

These efforts are estimated to have slowed deterioration by as much as one-fifth. This is progress, but dismally short of stabilising Earth’s living environment. The remainder of the century will be a bottleneck of growing human impact on the environment and diminishing biodiversity. We bear all of the responsibility of bringing ourselves and as much as possible of the rest of life through this into a sustainable Edenic existence.

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