Sat. Nov 19th, 2022

The Eremocene or the Age of Loneliness. Thats what the biologist EO Wilson calls the global disaster were headed for, with half of all species extinct by the end of the century as a result of habitat destruction, pollution, over-fishing and other human activities.
I know were all sick of bad news right now, but this really is a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. The collapse of natural ecosystems will put our food and water supplies in jeopardy. The loss of so many species means well miss out on innumerable new medicines drawn from the natural world.
Losing all this will make us poorer in the long run. But the deepest consequence has nothing to do with money. Its far more personal, and has to do with the severing of our connection to the natural world, and a disorienting sense of aloneness when we find ourselves in barren landscapes that were once teeming with diverse life.
Were a biological species that co-evolved with other species over millions of years, so we have an intuitive attachment to the natural world, whether were conscious of it or not. Its why we tend to feel better if weve spent a day in the countryside or at the seaside, and why David Attenboroughs documentaries tug so powerfully at our heartstrings. But in a world denuded of biodiversity, with millions of species lost forever, the feeling of sadness will be immense, and permanent.
A few years ago, a group of scientists had the disquieting sense that there are far fewer insects around than there used to be. It was nothing more than an instinct that something was deeply wrong that something from the past is missing from the present, as one of the scientists later wrote. They called it the windscreen phenomenon, because they all felt they werent finding as many bugs stuck to their cars as they used to. So they encouraged volunteers to drive around with nets on their vehicles to see whether insects really were disappearing. To take just one example of their findings: flying insects in German nature reserves had fallen by around 80 per cent over the past quarter of a century alone.
Whats terrifying about this decline in numbers is that you find the same story almost everywhere, and across almost all species. Its estimated that since 1970, wild animal populations have lost on average 60 per cent of their members, with many species having suffered even bigger declines. Were only just now beginning to understand the vastly complex interaction within natural ecosystems and how the decline of one animal or plant can rapidly lead to the extinction of others. One example amongst many is the drop in sea otter numbers in the Pacific, which meant sea urchin populations exploded (because the otters used to scoff them), which meant urchins destroyed the kelp forests, which in turn led to many other species becoming extinct, including Stellers sea cow.
Scientists now have a term for the cascade of extinctions were now experiencing: biological annihilation. To put it another way, its increasingly clear that mass extinction is going to be more like a cliff edge than a gentle decline and were heading for the brink at alarming speed. As Wilson puts it, the natural world is at desperate risk of being effectively reduced to our domesticated plants and animals, and our croplands all around the world as far as the eye can see. Were devastatingly close to that end game already: the National Academy of Sciences looked at the worlds mammals by weight, and found that 96 per cent of that biomass was humans and livestock, and just 4 per cent was wild animals. This heartbreaking loss is happening largely without protest or debate. That is in large part due to a strategic decision taken by the big green charities a couple of decades ago: to focus their campaigning energies on the climate emergency, rather than, say, saving orangutans.

The Covid-19 conservation crisis has shown the urgency of The Independents Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign, which seeks an international effort to clamp down on illegal trade of wild animals
That was an understandable and well-intentioned decision, but it was the wrong call. Not because the climate crisis doesnt matter, because of course it does. But protecting biodiversity is a far harder challenge than combating global warming alone. Combating CO2 emissions is just the starting point – delicate ecosystems are often damaged by rising temperatures saving them involves many other difficult tasks.
Its entirely possible we end up living on a planet with zero carbon emissions, running entirely on renewable energy, and yet our rainforests have been lost due to deforestation, and our oceans are barren through overfishing.
By focusing on the climate crisis as the top campaigning message we are not galvanising public opinion as effectively as if we were tapping into our inbuilt affinity with animals and natural habitats. CO2 levels and global warming will always be more abstract than a campaign to save a specific ecosystem or species.
Shifting the main environmental campaigning focus back to conservation and biodiversity is the opposite of a cop-out. It means continuing to take action on carbon emissions, but also requires us to go even further in protecting the Earth.
Wilson calls our impending isolation on a planet stripped of millions of animal and plant species a miserable future. As he concludes at the end of his beautiful book Half-Earth: Only a major shift in moral reasoning, with a greater commitment given to the rest of life, can meet this greatest challenge of the century. We have no time to lose.