Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Lost Species Day, 30 November 2021

Julian Caldecott

Oxford Dodo photograph provided under creative commons license by Wikivoyage

On November 30, we remember the millions of wild species that became extinct or committed to extinction during recent centuries of careless human dominance. Most will remain forever unnamed, ‘known only unto God’ as the war memorials say. But all uniquely manifested the limitless creative power of nature, and all were part of the web of life that embraces and sustains our world. So this is a day of mourning, but also a day when we can learn from what we have done, and promise ‘by the green of the spring’ never to do it again.

To make this promise real demands renewal. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said, we must first end our ‘War with Nature’ and declare ‘Peace’ instead. But this is a big ask. Since the early 1990s, every organisation of life scientists on Earth has has been reporting that humanity is violating the boundaries of biosphere integrity. These warnings are now reaching a crescendo. The multi-taxon ‘Living Planet Index’ has recorded a 68 per cent loss since 1970. The populations of everything have crashed by two-thirds, other than people and our domestic animals, pets, parasites and weeds. Much of this carnage has come from the destruction of species-rich ecosystems, which have shrivelled and burned over vast areas, shedding species into extinction as they contract. The ‘Dying Planet Index’ would be a more accurate name for it.

The populations of everything have crashed by two-thirds,

And all this is happening because our own species was shaped in a turbulent Ice Age world in which the ability to adapt, invent and cooperate within groups was vital. By these means we just about survived, but when the climate became more stable from 12,000 years ago these skills allowed us to expand everywhere. The effect is like a fox, which just about survives in the wild by killing everything it possibly can, but when it enters a chicken coop those same instincts produce a massacre. Likewise, when humans enter new places, our first instinct is to kill everything we can, and only later to work out how to live sustainably.

The same pattern has been repeated many times in many places. War with nature, followed by a lawful peace. Extinction of large slow marsupials in Australia in a few centuries, for example, followed by sixty thousand years of careful coexistence, with each other and with nature. So we know we can do it. But for many decades now the whole world has been a colonisation frontier, and we are armed with hard new technologies and free energy from 300 million years’ worth of fossilised sunlight. Anything we can kill, cut down, dig up, grow or make can be sold somewhere. An inevitable consequence is that up to a million species have become committed to extinction each year, due to ‘web of life’ failures such as trophic shifts and the loss of co-evolved species.

up to a million species have become committed to extinction each year

But the ‘extensive’ frontier of horizontal and vertical space, of continent, ocean and atmosphere, is now full up, depleted, polluted, and emptied of most wild things. The war with nature has run its course and we now have a new priority on the ‘intensive’ frontier of mind, spirit and society: peace and lawful stability. This is where out promise can take us. People know how to slow down and live well. Every community can have a memorial to lost species; a library and nature reserve where young and old can study the rules of ecology and the ways of nature, and a body of laws, traditions and initiation ceremonies that drive home the reciprocity between people and nature.

None of this is unusual for people who realise that they live in a world governed by nature, where breaking the rules of ecology has fatal consequences for everyone. We have done it many times before, as each culture has matured. It is time for our global culture to grow up. This can happen in many ways. Apart from the universal rules of ecology and the supremacy of nature, we are free to create. But some good examples are emerging as different people reinvent their ways of life. One is the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia. Another is the Peace with Nature initiative in Costa Rica. Others embrace the Well-being Economy Alliance of New Zealand, Iceland, Scotland, Finland and Wales, the path to inclusive contentment of Bhutan, and the thousands of small ecosystem restoration activities that are underway everywhere that people have woken up.

It is time for our global culture to grow up

These new approaches reach into every part of society and economy to restore the ideas of boundaries and stability, harmony and sufficiency. Some are more emotional, some more spiritual, some more economic than others. But all recognise that we must now help each other to remember the old skills of our species. These skills have always come into play when the time of war was done, and the time to restore peace had arrived. Our commemoration of lost species is a start. From it we can promise to build peace with nature in our hearts, minds, and times, and this can be made very real, very fast. We know we can do it. Pass it on.

Surviving Climate Chaos by Julian Caldecott

Title: Surviving Climate Chaos by Strengthening Communities and Ecosystems

Author: Julian Caldecott

Paperback ISBN: 9781108793780

Hardback ISBN: 9781108840125

About The Author

Julian Caldecott

Julian Caldecott is Director of Creatura Ltd, an environmental consultancy, and has a background in wildlife research and conservation in tropical rainforests. Since 2000 he has le...

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