It’s something that we rarely contemplate, but we humans are a species. Arguably the most intelligent species, and unquestionably the most adaptable, influential and destructive species, but a single species regardless. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise man’.
If we strip away the ego and artifice that we have constructed to describe ourselves, we are a simple taxonomic unit, sitting on a list with fellow units such as the naked mole-rat, the blobfish and the potato. Admittedly the blobfish has yet to evolve the ability to shape the entire planet in its own image, but who can truly say that there isn’t an alternate reality in which the blobfish has dominion (the multiverse theory at the heart of quantum physics makes blobfish world a genuine and wonderful possibility).
There are many species on earth that wield huge influence over their ecosystems. These are generally described as keystone species: those species that are fundamental to the successful function of a particular ecosystem. Beavers, for example, fundamentally change the structure and hydrology of their home ranges through dam building, creating habitat for species that could otherwise not survive. Many apex predators are also considered to be keystone species because they control populations of smaller herbivores, which in turn allows diverse botanical communities to flourish. A sound example is the Eurasian lynx, a large cat that predates species such as rabbit and small deer that could otherwise graze out vast areas of vegetation. A common theme that unites all keystone species is that they are relatively few in number, and their influence on their ecosystem far exceeds their abundance. This is where any attempt to portray mankind as a keystone species begins to crumble somewhat. We are certainly not few in number, and we don’t inhabit a particular ecosystem. In fact, with the exception of the marine world (for the time being) there are few terrestrial ecosystems that we have not found a way to infiltrate and change. Our influence is extraordinary. We are legion, and we transcend the definition of a keystone species. That puts us in our own category, where many of the adjectives we use to describe other organisms just don’t fit. Some authors have referred to humans as a virus which, whilst technically false, does act as a useful metaphor to describe our influence.
Over a relatively short period of time we have developed the ability to engineer our environment on a massive scale. Deforestation converted much of our wildwood to agriculture, which in turn allowed the population to expand, leading to further deforestation. Huge tracts of land have disappeared completely beneath cities and roads, which require extensive quarrying to plunder the land of its resources. Fossil fuels have driven the expanse of industry, which in turn has influenced the climate. This has subsequently altered the oceans, the one ecosystem where mankind has yet to gain a foothold. Ocean warming, coupled with changes in chemical composition and the drastic effects of manmade plastics on many marine species, means that although we haven’t colonised the ocean, we have still influenced it hugely, and not for the better. I don’t approve of the influence that humans have had in the planet, but I can accept that it was inevitable. Had any other species evolved so greatly in such a short time then doubtless the planet would have been shaped in their image instead, with equally disastrous results. Especially those sodding blobfish.
The success of our species is a product of our ingenuity, which has allowed us to overcome the things that would normally inhibit the growth of populations. As mentioned above, apex predators generally occur in small numbers that are restricted by the availability of prey, and the balance of predator and prey tends to find a natural equilibrium. If the predator reduces the prey population too much then weaker individuals can’t feed and die out, at which point prey numbers increase and predators feast, thus beginning the cycle afresh. We humans have found a way to stay ahead of the game in this respect by developing a diverse diet and giving over huge tracts of land to the farming of crops and livestock to sustain us. This has traditionally been very successful, but there are many shocking examples of where our control over nature wains and the needs of a rapidly growing population can’t be met. The horrific scenes of African famine from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present day provide a stark example. In recent years there has been a shift in political rhetoric, and the fact that we live on a small orb with finite resources has finally been realised. It is, however, only 30 years since the concept of sustainability was first introduced to global politics by the Brundtland Commission. With hindsight it seems like a case of ‘too little, too late’. We can’t cheat the system forever.
The rate of measured biodiversity decline over the past century is astonishing. A pessimist might say that this is just the beginning, and that the habitat loss required to sustain further exponential population growth will prove the death knell for global biodiversity. A slightly more optimistic view is that the value of nature is now realised, and that this value encapsulates more than just pounds, shillings and pence. For this reason there is a genuine desire from some quarters to retain and protect the jewels of the natural world, and even to redress some of the damage we have inflicted by creating and restoring new habitats. I don’t know which of these views I most closely align with, but suspect I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m heartened by efforts to enhance biodiversity and to think beyond the immediate needs of people, but I also feel that protecting a few trees whilst the rape of the rainforest continues is little more than tokenism. A more fundamental change is needed to have any kind of measurable benefit on a global scale, and it’s hard to see where that change might come from.
It’s sad to think that in a few generations iconic species like the giant panda, the tiger or the mountain gorilla might be little more than photographs in dusty old textbooks, but it’s also realistic. It’s very clear that we, as the most influential species by a great margin, have assumed stewardship over our planet, and therefore it’s our responsibility to address these declines in biodiversity. We each need to realise that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it, a species like any other. By destroying biodiversity we are slowly destroying ourselves. It might already be too late, the flywheel effect of actions already committed may have taken us across the Rubicon, but we have to try, if for no other reason than the act of immersion in nature is one if life’s purest pleasures, and one of the greatest releases from the pressure and stress of modern existence. We owe it to ourselves to resist.
As you read this there are teams of scientists working day and night on developing a means of terraforming mars, effectively creating a backup earth for when this planet can no longer sustain us. The virus moving to new host, if you’ll forgive a moment of indulgent hyperbole. Personally I’m investing my time in creating a wormhole to the blobfish world.