Eighteen months ago, audiences crowded theaters to watch a movie featuring blizzards in New Delhi, giant hailstones in Tokyo, tornadoes in Los Angeles, and New York City inundated by tidal waves and buried in ice. The Day After Tomorrow
was a speculative depiction of what could happen in the future if we continue playing havoc with global weather by pumping pollutants into the atmosphere.
Environmentalists who chuckled at this over-the-top Hollywood disaster flick won’t be smiling when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth
opens May 26. The movie is a documentary showing the realities of climate change
, and the frightening prospect of droughts, floods, killer heat waves, epidemics, huge extinctions of wildlife and plant species
, and the destruction of Earth’s natural systems as we know them.
By timely coincidence, the movie opens four days after the United Nations celebrates International Biodiversity Day and, hopefully, the public will be shocked by the inconvenient truths told by these twin events. The fate of the planet rests on our willingness and ability to control global warming, and the loss of the Earth’s plant and animal species is inextricably linked to our own health, our security, and our ability to prosper.
When it comes to species survival, we may be approaching a tipping point where the damage becomes irreversible. Yet many people don’t realize just how dependent we are on biological diversity and the benefits that nature provides.
Biodiversity comprises every living thing on Earth, from the tiniest invisible microbe, to the biggest whale cruising the oceans
, to the tallest tree soaring skyward. They are part of the uncounted millions of species that make up the interconnected, complex, and vulnerable web of life. As John Muir, the great conservationist, put it: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” He knew that if threads come loose and the fabric of life unravels, you’re in trouble. To put it succinctly, we’re in big trouble.
When nature thrives, its ecosystems provide us with an abundance of benefits and services that are crucial to our lives. They include food, fuel, natural medicines, clean air, freshwater
, minerals, fiber, timber, and other raw materials. Healthy wild lands control floods, pollinate crops, regenerate soil, control pests, prevent diseases, and moderate the weather. The list goes on and on.
And don’t forget those beautiful, unspoiled natural places where we seek recreational opportunities and spiritual renewal. Scientists and economists calculate that nature’s free benefits are worth $33 trillion a year. But these assets are being rapidly devalued as forests
are razed, coral
reefs die, plants, animals, and fish populations disappear, and once-vibrant ecosystems grow weaker and more wasted.
How sick is the patient? The main indicator of nature’s health is the loss of species, and thousands are on life support. They have been disappearing at 50-100 times the natural rate, and this is predicted to rise dramatically. In May 2006 the World Conservation Union (IUCN) announced that a study of 40,177species of wildlife and plants found 16,119 threatened with extinction.
Should we care that 12 per cent of the world’s birds, a fourth of the mammals, and a third of all amphibians are heading for the brink. Unless there’s a drastic turnaround in the way we abuse our resources, certain majestic animals we all learned about in childhood like tigers
, polar bears
, great apes, and rhinos
, will go the way of the dinosaurs in the not-too-distant future.
Yet there are encouraging signs. Much of the world’s intact biological capital – particularly forests and wildlife – is found in the developing world where Brazil
, the Philippines
and many other nations are now conserving instead of exploiting their natural resources.
A total of 188 nations have joined the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity that legally binds them to substantially reduce their rate of species loss by 2010. Only seven have failed to ratify the treaty: Andorra, Brunei, the Holy See, Timor-Leste, Somalia, Iraq and – regrettably – the United States.
When the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, the United States led the world in positioning conservation on the international agenda. In the last decade, the environment has been devalued and we have abandoned that leadership. The government should join with the many new voices within American society who are responding to the environmental crisis. They range from evangelicals who view protection of the Earth as a divine commitment, to corporate titans like Wal-Mart which is asking thousands of companies in its global supply chain to produce their products in a more environmentally friendly manner.
The damage hasn’t reached critical mass yet, and there’s time to reverse and repair it. A good place to start on International Biodiversity Day would be a commitment by President Bush and Congressional leaders to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity, to adopt a meaningful policy to combat global warming, and to lead a global effort to protect biodiversity and to secure a future for all life on Earth.