Environmental Almanac: Author discusses toll we're taking on planet
If you're familiar with this column, you know I take great pleasure in observing the natural world, especially the wildlife I come across on a day-to-day basis in East Central Illinois.
I celebrate the peregrine falcon that has occupied Campustown from September to March in recent years and the songbirds that bring Busey Woods to life during spring migration — as well as the salamanders, fairy shrimp and other aquatic creatures that inhabit the ephemeral pools there. I write of the foxes that live among us without calling attention to themselves and the cicadas whose summer songs we can't escape.
I also highlight how people act to benefit the natural world. When I mention Cooper's hawks, I make sure to remind readers that we now enjoy robust raptor populations because we heeded Rachel Carson's call and banned DDT.
When I write about the surprising fish diversity of the Boneyard Creek or the return of mussels to once-desolate stretches of the Illinois River, I laud passage of the Clean Water Act and the suite of other effective laws that were enacted as the environmental movement picked up steam in the 1960s and '70s.
In addition, I call attention to the ways people treat land well, whether that's farmers adopting sustainable practices, a land trust protecting and restoring natural areas or a city making choices that promote ecological values (as in Champaign's development of the Second Street Basin, which combines floodwater storage with a naturalized landscape that supports wildlife).
Now and again, perhaps less often than is right, I also point out that the backdrop for all of the above is really very gloomy.
Statewide, the landscape of Illinois has been converted for human purposes more thoroughly than that of any other state, save Iowa. And in our part of the state, where once the grand prairie dominated the scene, we're even worse off.
The pre-settlement landscape exists here only in tiny remnants, which most people have never seen. And we have access to only a very narrow range of wild creatures, animals suited to life among us, on our limited public lands or in the few in-between spaces where neither corn, soybeans nor buildings grow.
My inclination to focus on this side of the ledger is prompted by a book I've just finished, one I highly recommend, "The Sixth Extinction," by Elizabeth Kolbert. Kolbert is entirely conversant in the science she reports on, and she presents it clearly for readers who are new to it. And her tales of adventures in the field with scientists — which include trips to the Great Barrier Reef, the Andes and the Cincinnati Zoo, among others — afford readers some wonderful vicarious experiences.
But the story of "The Sixth Extinction" is the story of how humans are destroying the diversity of life on Earth. It's reaches back in time, to when our ancestors wiped out prehistoric megafauna — think giant elk, mammoths and moas— continent by continent, and forward, to the world of the future predicted by climate scientists. There, coral reefs die off as the oceans acidify, and highly specialized organisms, such as the ones that characterize the life of tropical rainforests, give way to a narrow range of generalists.
Whether we intend it or not, Kolbert suggests, the "enduring legacy" of humanity will not be our art or technology, but rather a planetwide reduction of biodiversity comparable to the one that included the demise of the dinosaurs.
Hmmm. Is there any way to reconcile such a negative global view with my more optimistic local one? Come find out this Thursday at my talk titled "Seeing Value in Nature," which is part of the Scholarship of Sustainability lecture series at the UI. The talk, which is free and where the public is welcome, is scheduled from 4 to 5:20 p.m. in Room 149 of the National Soybean Research Center in Urbana.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.