By Azzedine T. Downes – President and CEO at International Fund forAnimal Welfare (IFAW)
Most humans, most of the time, live as though the planet is ours for the taking. Some scientists even want to rename this chapter in Earth’s history as Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans, to highlight the fact that even though humans make up less than one percent of all life on Earth, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to destroy 83 percent of all wild animals and half of plants on the planet.
On this 49th Earth Day, as climate change, a growing urban population and other emerging 21st century threats cause wildlife to search for a new home in both rural and urban areas, should we be celebrating the planet? Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is: are we willing to share it?
Biodiversity is essential for the biological foundations of human society, from agriculture and medicine, to clean water and reliable weather. In this light, sharing isn’t caring. It’s an act of survival.
When humans are challenged by radical approaches to save our planet, and the end goal feels unreachable, we lose sight of the fact that small acts and smart daily decisions have an extraordinary impact on how people and animals can thrive together.
Some of the world’s most renowned scientists and biologists call for ambitious approaches to protect the environment and animal life on Earth. E.O. Wilson, for example, perhaps the most venerated biologist of our time, has called for devoting half of the Earth’s surface to wildlife and wilderness – while in fact only 15 percent of the planet’s land is currently under protection. However, we don’t have to start big, we can start in our own backyards.
There are countless decisions people can make through their day that shows willingness to share the planet – from the kinds of products we buy, the vacations we take, to the ways we decide to volunteer our time.
In rural areas, that means securing wildlife corridors for feeding, mating and migration. In cities, that means making buildings safer for birds and streetlights safer for nocturnal animals. At sea, lobstermen can use ropeless traps to spare whales and dolphins from entanglement. Mariners can avoid deadly collision with sea creatures by following speed limits and using apps that tell them when they’re passing through other species’ waters.
From a macro perspective, if we start by getting serious about protecting some of Earth’s most diverse ecosystems – which today account for a very small percentage of the planet’s overall territory – we could save millions of species. After all, tropical rainforests cover less than one-tenth of the planet’s land area, but are home to more than half of its species. Coral reefs cover less than 0.2 percent of the ocean floor, and yet as many as one in three marine species depend on those habitats for survival. Savannas are far biologically richer than we give them credit for—providing habitat to many of the most beloved endangered species, like lions, tigers, zebras, elephants.
To share the Earth in any meaningful way is to break through the zero-sum logic that pits our species against the world. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of humankind recognizes our state of interdependence. These days, even hard-nosed realists preach the gospel of globalization: Like it or not, we are intertwined with people around the world.
Today, we can extend that recognition to other species. By doing so, we can move from consumption to contentment, from exploitation to stewardship, and sooner than later, off of our shared course to mass extinction.