Unbeknown to most of us, the rate of extinction today is 500-1,000 times faster than previously experienced. It is safe to say that extinctions are happening significantly faster than ever before. An estimated 200 unique species go extinct every day. A species lost, on average, every 7 minutes, day and night. A rhino is shot for its horns every 6 hours. An elephant for its tusks every 15 minutes. A pangolin, the world’s most traded wild mammal, is killed every 2 minutes for its scales and flesh. The doomsday clock is ticking. Wildlife is dying in “wet” markets and starving to death in degraded habitat. This COVID-19 pandemic came from our wasteful and destructive interaction with wildlife and ecosystems across the globe.
There is no doubt. Our world is in crisis. Our planet is burning and polluted. As shared oceans acidify and choke on plastics every year sets a new heat record. We are experiencing catastrophic and irreversible losses every day. Extinction is forever, and whatever was going to happen with that unique species during millions of years of evolution and natural selection will never be realised. Is this the shared doom of our iteration of complex life. Life on Earth will go on, but, like the dinosaurs and their peers, all large-bodied animals die off. The next iteration of complex life is in the works right now. Maybe in a deep ocean trench, the edge of a volcanoe, or on top of Mount Everest? During mass extinctions like the one we are definitey experiencing right now, the species in our position does not survive. T-Rex did not make it out of the Cretaceous, neither did any other dinosaurs.
Before 1950, there were estimated to have been 1 million lions roaming the African continent. Today, there are less than 20,000 wild lions remaining in Africa. This, however, is still more than double the fewer than 7,000 wild cheetah, our fastest land animal, remaining on the planet. Alarmingly, there are estimated to be about half as many great white sharks (made famous by the film “Jaws”) remaining in our oceans with an estimated 3,500 still swimming. We all know that pandas are an Endangered species, but a wild population of around 1,700 is terrifyingly close to extinction. Ring-fenced by people and agriculture, and threatened by disease and climate change, just 1,000 mountain gorillas survive in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As an example, there are just 75 Sumatran rhino remaining in the wild. Grand species of folklore and legend are being lost under our watch.
To put this into perspective, there are twice as many Van Gogh artworks known to be in circulation, over 2100, than there are living mountain gorillas. Just a few years ago, the “Portrait of Joseph Roulin” sold for $115 million. Joseph worked for a railway company in the south of France and was a friend to Van Gogh. A masterful portrait now considered to be of great value. A single similar “investment” in mountain gorillas, as a species, would go a long way towards securing their future in the wild. An endowment of this size could give them the equivalent of human rights.
Imagine being able to make an investment in a species, and then sit on the “board” that represents their interests to the world, buying up land, advocating for their rights, working with local human communities, and protecting them from disaster. Just imagine that for a second. There are obviously more questions than there are answers, but it has become clear that we need to rethink what we consider to be valuable. Is one living mountain gorilla more valuable than a Van Gogh painting? Are all of Van Gogh’s paintings together more valuable than all of the remaining mountain gorillas? We need to decide these answers.
By 2050, machines and androids will most likely be able to do everything better, more efficiently, and more reliably than us. These robots will not need the biological world of plants and animals to survive, and would probably prefer it if insects didn’t nest in their air vents, and it never rained. As technology advances beyond current imagination, just “being in nature” could become one of the only thing human beings are the best at. We are resilient, naturally waterproof, don’t rust or require insulation, and we can be fuelled with just water and raw vegetables.
When robots or just sequences of code become our lawyers, accountants, administrators, artists, musicians, managers, mechanics, machinists, architects, designers, authors, reporters, politicians, and doctors, which is inevitable, we will be left as the stewards and custodians of the natural world that we evolved in. That will be our most important job in the future. So, don’t tell your children to be lawyers or doctors, rather tell them to become organic farmers, explorers, divers, foresters, or conservationists. To me, the alternate future in which we surrender to being entirely dependent on machines to sustain life on Earth seems more sinister. Our freedom and security on this planet is rooted in our relationship with the natural world.
In the United States, the 1964 Wilderness Act defined “wilderness” as an area where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Land that “retains its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation.” Wilderness has been described as “an unsettled, uncultivated region”, “a barren or desolate area, “a wasteland”, “a state of neglect, powerlessness, or disfavour”, and “something characterized by bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion”. In these definitions we seem to intentionally exclude ourselves and make wilderness seem more barren and dangerous than spiritual and fulfilling.
These very exclusive definitions for wilderness demonstrate our gradual disassociation, our unconscious divorce, from nature, and our own innate “wildness”. When in the wild, modernised people often say things like, “You know, nature is so cruel!” when a predator kills its prey, before looking back down at their iPad. My guests on safari say things like, “Nature is just amazing” when a zebra walks past, or “Nature will always find a way” when an animal, or plant, survives a catastrophe against all odds. We say these things unconsciously as if we are somehow alien and not part of the natural world. We are not aliens from another planet. We are certainly not gods. We are, however, arrogant and vengeful. We love, yet we also hate. We judge each other to isolate ourselves. We divorced from nature to justify and ignore the atrocities we commit against nature.
Are we really “man the killer” that walked out of the wilderness into the city? Are we great because we left the wild or because we came from it? Why are we burning down the house we live in? Is it our destiny to destroy this interaction of complex life on Earth to make way for something new? Since 1990, we have continued our systematic destruction of the biosphere, wiping out another 10% of our remaining wilderness. Over 30% of the Amazon Basin gone in 25 years. A total area twice the size of Alaska no longer considered to be ecologically-intact – no longer wild. Over 3.3 million square kilometres that could have been saved, but is now lost, forever.
Natural disasters are becoming more intense, and more frequent. Mass human migration, incredible violence and conflict, terror and extremism, nuclear threat, water shortages and famine, viral pandemics, and xenophobic attacks across the developed world, are all very bad signs. We are living in unprecedented times. Ecosystems are ceasing to function properly everyday as they reach their own tipping points. We know how to fix this. We know how to save ourselves and this planet. It starts with conserving what we have left and living better where we are already.
As a scientist, conservationist, forester, explorer and mammal, I know that we cannot compute or even fully-understand the actual functioning of the complex, connected “ecosystems” that support life as we know it. We depend on them, yet we do not fully understand their functioning. These losses are happening on an unimaginable scale – oceans and rivers, not bays and streams. EO Wilson agrees that there is no existing definition that clearly defines what an “ecosystem” really is. Where does an ecosystem begin, and, more importantly, where does it end? We have most likely developed the computational power, but still do not have the baseline data to even start mapping out the millions of connections and co-dependences between ecosystems, species, cycles, processes, niches, and even isolated dead ends of creativity. Hopefully one day the mystery of what we really will be revealed.
The surviving wildlife in our cities is being shocked, caught, shot at, run over, and poisoned. Raccoons, squirrels, pigeons, possums, polar bears and tigers have no space to live. Insects, most importantly bees, are disappearing in a fog of poison and pollution, as the bacterial communities that populate our bodies shift and change due to self-imposed isolation using deadly chemicals and antibiotics. Apart from us, and in conflict with us, nature is adapting, shifting and adjusting with outbreaks of Ebola, the plague, and novel coronaviruses becoming more severe and more common. HIV/AIDS continues to spread through communities around the globe. These are all very bad signs for us. We may be the last to go extinct, but we will go extinct if we continue this toxic interaction with the biodiversity surrounding us and inside us.
Elon Musk famously said that he wanted to die on Mars, but not on impact. My hope is that he will be looking back, from the safety of his leafy habitat, at a shining, biodiverse, self-sustaining blue-green planet with 10 billion Homo sapiens living longer and better, readying themselves, some of them, for space travel. I hope that, by the time Musk goes to live on Mars, having intact wildernesses is more important than having libraries, museums and national archives. Having wild places preserves our ability to leverage the option value of the infinite power of the natural world, billions of years of iteration towards perfect balance. This is a very important time to be alive.
There is no doubt. We are approaching a moment of significant change before 2050. A radically-different future that few of us have taken the time to imagine. Over the next decade, we all need to be present, woke and proactive during one of the most important times in human history. Gen X, Xennials, Millenials, Boomers… The human beings alive today face the greatest gamble of all time. It is simple. Either we protect half of the Earth’s landscapes and seascapes to accommodate the millions of species driving the vast ecosystems that create the air we breathe and clean the water we drink, or we can choose to depend solely on new technologies to do this for us.
Most people worry about and care for their cars, their motor vehicles, working hard to keep them fuelled, well maintained, clean and safe. In return, they give us freedom, a sense of power, and make our modern lives easier and more efficient. Now, imagine how you, or anyone else, would feel about your vehicle if you could speak to it and you depended on it for clean air, atmosphere, food, and water. It would be very interesting to unpack how astronauts on long stays in the International Space Station feel that about their daily maintenance routines. Is the space station working for them or are they working for it? How will we react when AI in our devices starts talking to us in text and voice? Where are we going in this relationship with our machines? A new religion based on bits, qubits, and the day of the singularity? Are there ghosts in the machine? Only time can answer these questions.
We need to think very carefully before gambling on new technologies manipulating the natural world to support life on Earth. Can technology maintain our atmosphere, feed us, clean our water, or protect us from unnatural disaster? Will blockchain manifest the shared ownership, accountability and connectivity achieved already by nature? Can we replicate billions of years of natural selection and evolution using CRISPR? Will the first application of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics be in environmental stewardship, farming, or in the military? We need to decide these answers.
We are one experiment away from AI. Self-powered, self-aware and self-replicating code, drones and machines are an inevitability, the same as universal translators, light sabres, private space travel, augmented human cyborgs, digestible knowledge, settlement on the Moon, and our great grandchildren being raised and augmented by robots. Inevitable? We really do not know what is going to happen. What is science fiction or future fact? Are we going to see a new Homo species evolve out of technology? Will the first trillionaire be an asteroid miner? Is it inevitable that we settle on Mars and go to Alpha Centauri? Our exploration must continue into space, but all human beings exploring space must come from Earth. Any investment in space travel must be matched by investments in the protection and restoration of our natural world, our home. This is imperative.
Blood, soil and water, our connection to the Earth, will forever be our superpower. Billions of years of natural selection and creative iteration, from trilobites to us, built a vast global ecosystem of animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and viruses, which, if undisturbed by a cataclysm like an asteroid (or us), will remain self-sustaining, adapting and evolving for millions of years, in balance. The technological singularity is the hypothesis that beyond a certain point AI or artificial superintelligence (ASI) coupled with new technologies, like quantum computing, will manifest an exponential technological expansion, making discovery and invention instantaneous. It is hard to believe that this human engineered event could replicate the level of complexity and interconnectedness through time, space and dimension achieved by nature already.
Before it is too late, we will value nature more than anything else. Decades exploring Africa’s wildest, remotest wildernesses have shown me that the human experience in the wilderness, represented in our innate wildness, is the formative power that created all of us. These last wild places and our shared human experience in them explain the origin of religion, of science, and of the laws that govern our modern society. Observing the inter-web of life connects us to self-realization, balance and a sense of purpose working for our children and the planet. This connection also helps us celebrate our ancestors like we used to, and preserve valuable traditional knowledge systems and indigenous languages.
We are part of the awesome, unstoppable power of the ocean, the almighty ebb and flow of life, the life tide pulling and pushing our life force. This connects us to our fates, fears, failures and fortunes. There are laws of connection and attraction that we do not yet understand, described and explained as gravity, luck, superstition, religious belief, love, the “Secret”, greed, and fate. We have spent millennia trying to understand the basic metaphysical laws of the universe through prayer, meditation, hallucination, chanting, dance, substance abuse, and study. The unifying life force will never die, but does periodically flicker and collapse due to cataclysm, only to be reborn as a new age and visualisation of the original spark of life at the Big Bang.
The humanoids portrayed in Star Trek and Star Wars represent the different versions of us evolved during hundreds of years of space exploration. They were human beings that adapted, evolved and engineered themselves to live on other planets in other solar systems. Human beings from this “Planet Earth” cannot become multi-planetary as Elon Musk suggests we should. Human beings living sustainably on Mars will cease to be Homo sapiens. They will become a new species living on a new planet, adapting and augmenting themselves to survive off Earth. Rapid adaption and even evolution will occur and they will very quickly cease to be us, if they are to survive sustainably. They will, of course, consider themselves different, perhaps consider themselves to be “Martians”.
There is no doubt our world is in crisis with two-thirds of all wildlife and almost 80% of all seabirds estimated to have disappeared around the world since 1975. From this point forward, we really cannot afford to making any mistakes. We tend to appease or ignore the things we fear most until they are upon us. Now is the time for large-scale coordinated action. Hope is not gone. There is still so much to secure, protect and restore this decade. When it comes down to it there is a lot left to save. We are still a living, breathing, spinning blue-green planet orbiting the sun where it was possible to film the astonishing new Netflix series, Our Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. We need to act to save these places now.
The awe and wonder of the natural world is not gone, but it is dying. In the words of David Attenborough: “The Garden of Eden is no more.” The call-to-action is clear and the time for change is now. We will never get to experience the world our grandparents took for granted, but maybe our grandchildren could? We need a sparkling vision of a planet in balance that we must all subscribe to. An Earth with a stable population of 10 billion people living longer, happier and better in a world filled with the abundance of life, with elephants, rhinos, lions, jaguars, polar bears and pandas, all enriched, not controlled, by technology. As explorers, this leafy paradise will be our home as we launch out the atmosphere to explore the galaxy always wanting to return.