Human activities may promote speciation
We applaud the vital work to save species at risk. However, it is a truism (if not a law) of biology, that all species will eventually go extinct. With that sobering thought, can we ask what level of effort should be expended to save those plants and animals that are inevitably doomed? With his new book, Inheritors of the Earth, Chris Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of York inspired me to consider an alternative view. He argues that many plants and animals benefit from human activities. For example, many species have expanded their geographic ranges. According to evolutionary biology theory, increasing fragmentation and niche availability drive species diversification. Indeed, Thomas argues that human activities are “increasing the rate at which new species are formed, perhaps to the highest level in Earth’s history.”
Thus, rather than the depressing notion that conservation is fighting a losing battle, we can view some kinds of human activity as actually promoting biodiversity in the long run. This positive view will provoke controversy. However, if we embrace the idea of a new paradigm for maximizing biodiversity, which we can call “neobiodiversity,” conservationists can start to turn toward the most serious threat facing life on Earth: climate change.
Climate change is the biggest threat
Indeed, earlier this month, the IPCC released yet another climate change report again sounding loud warning bells. Just this week, the Washington Post reported on a study published in PNAS showing “massive loss” of insect abundance in pristine rainforest. The researchers identified climate change as the culprit in driving the precipitous decline. Without action, we’re undoubtedly facing environmental catastrophe. Many scientists warn that we may soon reach a variety of tipping points. Beyond these, runaway global warming and its effects are unstoppable. Extreme conditions will prevail across large swathes of Earth. At this point, it won’t matter what species we have saved. They will disappear anyway, and humans along with them. Earth may be uninhabitable but for a few extremophiles.
Conservationists must shift focus to deal with climate change
Given this urgency, we should heed Professor Thomas’s message to “re-examine humanity’s relationship with nature.” We must be done with business as usual. Treating “Earth as a faded masterpiece that we need to restore” is no longer a luxury we can afford. Instead, global conservation must focus on taking all and any steps necessary to combat global warming. At the same time, such measures may include reforestation, which may benefit legacy species, but species-focused conservation may be a priority that no longer takes center stage in a long-term strategy to save life on Earth.