The Earth is facing a biodiversity crisis the likes of which has not been seen since the fifth mass extinction 65 million years ago. Biologists say we are now experiencing the sixth.
Despite this planetary disaster, most New Brunswickers (or even Canadians for that matter) have no idea just how dire the situation is. This in indicative of two pressing issues we face in Canadian society when it comes to confronting environmental issues.
First, it reveals a lack of knowledge among the population about the situation. Second, it reveals just how lucky we are in Canada. Though signs of biodiversity loss across the country are clear, we have not yet reached a point where society at large is affected in a life-changing way. While we can be thankful for now, over the long term, this means we may sleepwalk into an environmental disaster.
It is said there are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who ask, “What happened?” Unfortunately, most people are in the final category. Time and time again, history tells us that humans seem to be unable or unwilling to change their behavior to prevent a future catastrophe. Whether it be in the Roman Empire or the Qing Dynasty, we humans seem to have a high time preference built into our DNA. In other words, most of us are unwilling to make sacrifices now for future benefits; we want what we want and we want it now! It is usually only after a tipping point is reached or some cataclysmic event has transpired, that humans reorganize and create a new, more robust system.
The implications of this for the biodiversity crisis are not encouraging. It may simply be a case of “too little, too late” to save many species. The Canadian Species at Risk Act is a prime example. Though a step in the right direction, the act is far too bureaucratic and shortsighted to be as effective as it needs to be.
From here we need to ask a difficult question: can humanity really prevent catastrophic biodiversity loss? Theoretically the answer is yes, but whether or not what needs to be done actually happens is another question entirely. Even if the countries involved in the organization for economic co-operation and development get their act together, the entire developing world will have to get on board.
Given crushing poverty in many of these regions, that is going to be a difficult task to say the least as conventional economic development is seen as a lifeline to desperate people the world over.
Fortunately, a counterbalancing tendency in human societies seems to be at work. In the famous words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
At this crossroads in planetary history, we must hope now more than ever that this maxim holds true.
Planet Raves is The Aquinian’s environmental column, featuring reflections from students in environmental studies classes.