Humanity's Choice - » The Australian Independent Media Network
By Nicole Clark
It was a cold morning in mid August in 2013 when the choice finally
dawned on me, after almost 3 years at University and two ecology majors,
not once before had this thought crossed my mind. Not once in the
times I analysed data, climate data, plant data and all species data-
had I once visited the ideal that this choice was something all of
humanity had to face. When the thought settled into my mind, I was grief
struck, I was awe struck, I felt sick, tangled and distraught. Not
once had something hit so far home. In all the textbooks, in all of the
lectures, in all of the labs ; not once had something hit me as hard as
this did- in all of my time whilst doing Environmental Science had I
ever even imagined. What happened on that cold morning in mid August
2013 in my lecture? I understood something that I never did before. For
you to understand the concept in just the right amount of intensity
that I felt at that very moment, you need to let go of the pre-conceived
notions that fill you with ideas about the environment. Think about
what those words ‘threatened’ and ‘endangered’ mean to both you, and to
others around you.
When I ask- what does the label endangered or threatened species
really mean? The first thing you think is, ‘Oh my god, extinction!’ Your
first response will probably be ‘my children will never get to see
rhinos and elephants- they will only be in text books’. We all know
about the risk of losing species, and we all know about the attempts to
save those species at risk and we all know that no attempts to
save species will ultimately lead to their extinction. But, have we
ever even considered what will happen if we can’t ‘save’ them all? In
mid August 2013, something dawned on me.
Blinded by ideals, my class mates and I worked on the lesson task and
discussed species loss. We had been given a task to devise ways to
save species at risk and how they can be saved using modern
Environmental Science. With a blind heart full of dreams, my initial
thought was ‘all species would be saved- because surely all
environmentalists will save them all’. By the end of the class, my
thinking suddenly changed. Then it dawned on me, there are over 30,000
endangered/threatened species (Baillie et al, 2004), we simply cannot
save them all, no amount of conservation will save them all. My heart
sunk and it was then that I knew.
I was faced with the cruel raw reality standing before me. Humanity
has to make a choice, in fact humanity has NO choice but to make a
choice. Humanity must decide who stays or goes, my hands were shaking
and I looked over at my class mates with their hearts still full of
dreams and it felt like my heart stopped.
So… now I ask the question, how do we make that choice, how do we
make the most difficult and the most important decision a single species
(humanity) is ever going to make? Similarly, a scarier thought… what
if… we had, already made that choice? What if in all the haste to save
the rhino, the panda and the Siberian tiger, have we unconsciously made
the wrong choice? On that cold mid August morning I was faced with the
biggest reality of them all, what will humanity choose?
To understand the complexity of this seemingly endless swell, we need
to explore the ideas behind species loss, and what it really means to
‘lose’, a species. What is the context of these words ‘threatened and
endangered’, what do they mean? How is each label determined? Baillie et
al, (2004) states, these words are used as a reference point from the
IUCN list (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and are
categorised according to risk intensity. Different risks for each
different species can lead to the loss of an entire species OR simply
extinction. To assess this risk intensity, scientists look at the number
of, the increase/decrease of a population of a species over time and
the relative breeding success of the given species over time. From these
deductions the risk for each species is ranked into categories,
serving as a reference point as to just how intense the risk of losing
the species in question is.
The real question here is, can humans make the most important choice
of all, can we chose to save the right species from the brink of
extinction? Can we really make the right choice and can this choice be
unaided by previous influence? Is it something we can do with a
subjective eye? Of course we can- right? Well actually, probably not.
It isn’t something we like to think about too often, least of all
scientists… but, humans are bias. But just how bias are we?
Scientists now know that humans have what is called a ‘cute’ meter in
our brains, it’s called ‘Baby Schema’ (Glocker et al, 2009), this
means, we respond to things we deem as cute, and from the age of 3 our
brain is programmed to respond to specific features that mimic a human
infant . The human brain responds to features such as, a rounded bulbous
head, high cheekbones and large wide bulbous eyes (Sanefuji et al
2007). So… in actual fact, since humans find these traits more
appealing, where ever these traits are evident, humans have an automatic
emotional response to cuddle, nurture and care for any species with
similar aesthetics. Therefore, in saying this, it isn’t too surprising
that the most documented and heard of threatened species management
cases worldwide belong to the cute, the cuddly and the downright
adorable (Smith, 2007). That is, most threatened species management goes
to species such as (to name a few), the panda, tiger and rhino.
Unfortunately, it is all too true, and those species which are not
deemed as ‘cute’, actually do receive less attention, in fact it’s well
documented that this is the case. Scientists even have a name for it,
it’s called; the Noahs Ark problem (Perry, 2010).
Aside from the lack of subjectivity and clear bias, the fact is, we
(the human species) are selecting cute animals to save. By simply
selecting our ‘favourite species’, it is unlikely to affect the planet
in droves isn’t it? No. Actually, it is likely that in making this
choice to save only ‘cute species’, other species will die as a result
(Chaplin et al, 2000). It pains me to say this so casually and without
emotion, yes- other species will die. If we painfully ignore that
concept as part of our future- on the other hand, what if choosing to
let a species die could actually not just wipe out one or two species
(which is sadly a given and therefore not the most devastating aspect
here) – but instead an entire community and the community that
depends on that community? Not only will humanity have to consciously
decide which species will go extinct, humanity could unconsciously
choose to let the wrong species go extinct! All, without even
considering the consequence, that humanity too will suffer! Such a
species like this in science is what is known as a keystone species, and
if you lose a keystone species, entire communities can cease to exist
(Dobson et al, 2006).
So what are keystone species? What do they do? What happens if you
remove a key stone species? Keystone species are those species that
mandate the function and unity of ecosystems. Keystone species hold all
species in the community together in what is known as a trophic level
order (Duanne et al, 2002). Any species loss is biodiversity loss and
when a keystone species is lost, it is likely to cause a cascade
effect, or a trophic cascade. As a result, entire communities hang in
the balance. Ecosystems provide services to humans in what is
collectively referred to as, ecosystem services (Chaplin et al, 2000).
If a keystone species is lost, not only will an entire community
collapse, humans will lose the service an ecosystem has to offer too.
For example, removing a keystone species such as tuna, can affect an
entire food web causing mass species extinction and mass economic
welfare to the fishing industry (Chaplin et al, 2000).
Humanity has created an experiment. Not only could we make the wrong
choices, but there’s nothing to say we haven’t already! There’s nothing
to say, that ANY of the species we are trying to save are OR
are not keystone species, just like the tuna. Consider this, it’s a
scary terrifying thought to question whether saving a species such as
the panda or rhino is right, but quite another to consider the
possibility that a tiny little invertebrate such an ugly snail or warty
toad, holds the key to the survival of every living species within the
community the rhino or panda exist in. Then ask yourself, what happens
if we a) never know of their existence and b) never know AND let them go
extinct in our quest for cuteness? Sadly, the answer is, we don’t know.
Scientists don’t know what the consequence of selecting cuteness will
bring, we don’t know what the consequence of our already pre-programmed
appeal to nurture and care for animals (that remind us of our own cute
little infants)-will bring.
Humanity must decide, not only do we have to roll up our sleeves and
open our minds to the incredibly difficult decision as to what species
we will save, we also we need to be aware that our decision is
pre-programmed instinct. An instinct designed to assist us in rearing
our own young, which can be incredibly emotionally driven and without
subjectivity (Sanefuji et al, 2007). All the while, these choices are
strongly affected by the biological desire to protect all that we deem
as cute. If all of the animals we want to save are all ‘cute’, which
cute ones do we save (will it be the rhino, the elephant, the tiger or
maybe the panda?) Nevertheless, perhaps more importantly, we also need
to consider- in our quest to save cute, have the not- so -cute
completely lucked out? Are we creating our own unique biodiversity loss,
is there a not –so- cute keystone species being driven to extinction?
If so, what will happen to the environment if we make the wrong choice?
OR have we already made the wrong choice?
Humanity has a choice, this is no ordinary choice, it is a choice
that hangs in the balance of our very existence. Asking the question to
anyone, ‘which species should live and which species should die’, is
truly shocking, but there is nothing more real about this statement. On
that cold day in mind August 2013, it wasn’t the fact that some species
were not going to be saved that shook me. No, it was the likely hood
that humanity would make the wrong choice and would not save the right
ones. For me, it’s not simply the question of asking which ‘species we
save and which we should not’, for the question in its self is riddled
with discomfort. It’s also not even the notion of which ‘not- so- cute’
keystone species we should save or let go- despite that it’s even more
confronting and uncomfortable as the later. No, for me, it’s considering
the likely hood that anything that isn’t cute- be it keystone species
or not, will be forgotten and will not be saved ; going down in history
as humanity’s secret pushed- to- the –corner, shame. The shameful
choice, the choice that alters the future of the planet for every single
living thing. And, perhaps the most confronting of them all on that
cold mid August morning- the thing that terrified me the most and the
thing that really hit home? That subconscious scientific affirmation
that, I, as an Environmental Scientist -already knew the answer. The
answer, that humanity has probably already made that choice. Because
for humanity, the final decision will always be the elephant in the room
(or not, depending on how ‘cute’ that elephant is) and when faced with a
double-edged sword for who stays and who goes; for humanity, not unlike
all species, instinct will always reign supreme.
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