When I was younger I used to think about dinosaurs a lot. I’d think about how they lived and interacted, what they might have looked like, all the usual things. But I also used to wonder about extinction. Did they know they were going extinct as it was happening?
It’s pretty certain they wouldn’t have done. Extinction, even something as dramatic sounding as ‘mass extinction’ doesn’t happen at a rate you can easily observe it, and dinosaurs would hardly have been compiling data to form hypotheses and develop theories as to why it was getting a little harder to find food. Maybe at the moment a meteor struck a few would have looked up and wondered ‘what was that?’ But by then it was already too late.
Humans on the other hand are more than capable of compiling such data, tracking it over time, and drawing such conclusions. So with all that extra insight the dinosaurs lacked, surely if we see a mass extinction coming we would be taking serious, rapid, global action? Yet we are not. We can see we are now firmly in the midst of a mass extinction to which we are a significant contributor, if not the single driving factor. Conservation groups flag it up and do what they can. Governments hand-wring and talk tough. Yet at the exact same time we continue to behave in exactly the same ways that have caused, and are causing, an extinction event at a remarkably rapid rate.
A report yesterday concluded that over the last 45 years there has been a 58% decline in global wildlife populations. 58%. More than half. Gone, in less than 50 years. Now, the data in that report is skewed to certain parts of the world, it’s much harder to measure in Africa and South America for example. But when we look at those countries we see plenty of crisis stories. So it’s not likely they are acting as massive wildlife refuges leading to the 58% figure being over-stated. It could well be that the opposite is true and 58% is a conservative figure.
So why isn’t action being taken? The problem is one of engagement, and influence. We don’t care enough about animals and plants going extinct. There is worldwide outrage when a single individual lion or gorilla gets shot, but an entire species of frog goes extinct and nobody blinks. It doesn’t create so much as a ripple in the media. Even the report on the 58% decline is buried under Bake-Off winners and football hooliganism.
It’s easy to sit back and blame everybody else. The media don’t report it, the governments aren’t doing anything. But these people do serve us. If the population of the UK turned round tomorrow and said “We’re not buying newspapers that are not pushing global wildlife conservation”, it would change. If we said we wouldn’t elect a politician unless they were seriously committed to action within the next five years against climate change, habitat loss, industrialised practices that destroy habitats, the large scale destruction of freshwater sources and so on, then it would happen. Change would come.
But the reality is it won’t happen. Because of cognitive dissonance. This is what allows us to say we care about wildlife conservation, join the World Wildlife Foundation and the RSPB, then engage in cycles of consumption that only add to the problem. We as individuals are a tiny part of the problem. Therefore nothing I do can really make a difference. Systems are rigged, so there’s no merit in voting certain ways. I’d do it, but nobody else would, so I’ll waste my vote. Sound at all familiar? If you haven’t said or thought this, someone you know has, and you probably didn’t correct them. More likely you nodded along.
As you are reading this, you are probably more engaged than most. I know I’m preaching to the converted. The reality on a global level though is that the only thing that will ultimately redirect most people is the day when this hits them personally. When a decline in pollinators or food crops means they suddenly go hungry, or at least cannot eat the things they like. That’s when we as a species will look up, like the dinosaurs, and wonder what just happened. But, like the dinosaurs, by then it will be far too late.