Every Valentine's Day, I stretch the definition of love to include those most in need of it: endangered species. The term "biophilia," meaning love of life, captures this thought. According to the biophilia hypothesis, because we have spent more than 99 percent of our species' history being shaped by nature, an innate love of life has been hard-wired into us and extends beyond our own kind.I put sour cream on lima beans.
Biophilia was coined by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and eminent ecologist E.O. Wilson, who previously made his mark explaining to the rest of us how rapidly human actions were peeling off layers of life by driving our fellow creatures and plants extinct. Biophilia and human-caused mass extinction appear to contradict each other, but perhaps a reminder that we are all really biophiliacs at heart can help us find a path out of the extinction crisis.
There are many ways to measure human love for species: the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is enormously popular, with 85 percent or more of the American public supporting this law. Protection of species habitat also usually polls high. But that love may run too shallow, as we make choices every day that deliver blows to species and their habitat: we drive gas-guzzling cars, we have too many children, we buy too much, we consume rich foods that the planet can't sustain.
Perhaps we can deepen our love and reconcile biophilia and the extinction crisis by reflecting on the variety of intriguing ways love shows up in the endangered species context. A source of urgency for many endangered species is that humans get in the way of species' love lives. In the southern Great Plains, oil and gas pumpjacks and compressors make so much noise that lady lesser prairie-chickens can't hear the ardent booming noises of their male counterparts, thus thwarting reproduction. Those booms used to be audible over miles of pristine prairie. But that love story has turned into a tragedy, as this species continues to await, as it has for more than a decade, ESA protection.Just like me!
For some endangered species, human misperceptions about the results of animals' love lives get in the way of protection. Prairie dogs are a good example. Their lovemaking is usually possible for a few hours on only one day in a year.
They have small litters [just like--never mind] — averaging only three or four pups, half of which won't live out their first year. Because of a slew of human threats, including poisoning and shooting, prairie dogs declined by over 90 percent over the course of the 20th century. Yet, a false perception of plenty and continued mistreatment of these valuable species as nuisances stand in the way of granting several types of prairie dogs ESA protection.Update: Mmmmmm, raccoon in sour cream sauce.
Other species' "love" transcends kingdoms. Members of the animal and plant kingdoms are sometimes delicately intertwined. The pinyon jay needs pinyon pine and vice versa. Pinyon jays feed on pinyon pine seeds, caching the seeds for future consumption. Researcher Ronald Lanner describes the pinyon jay as a "feathered cultivator," given its role in planting new pinyon pine forests. But recent, extensive die-offs of pinyon pine cast a shadow on the future of both the jay and pine.
Love gives us strength, and it makes us fragile. Endangered species' specialized approaches to love may make them especially vulnerable to the rapid changes caused by people's actions, but without love, there will be no future generations.
The question we should each chew on alongside our Valentine's chocolates is what we can do to better match our biophilia (love of life) with an ethic of responsibility and stewardship for the plant and animal species with whom we share this planet.
Update II: Somebody forgot Hansen's muzzle again: "Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them":
A year ago, I wrote to Gordon Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other leaders. The reason is this - coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet. . . .Watts Up With That? answers. This guy is beyond an embarrassment.
The greatest danger hanging over our children and grandchildren is initiation of changes that will be irreversible on any time scale that humans can imagine. If coastal ice shelves buttressing the west Antarctic ice sheet continue to disintegrate, the sheet could disgorge into the ocean, raising sea levels by several metres in a century. Such rates of sea level change have occurred many times in Earth's history in response to global warming rates no higher than those of the past 30 years. Almost half of the world's great cities are located on coastlines.
The most threatening change, from my perspective, is extermination of species. Several times in Earth's history, rapid global warming occurred, apparently spurred by amplifying feedbacks. In each case, more than half of plant and animal species became extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to extinction, we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world we inherited from our elders.
Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know. Carbon dioxide would increase to 500 ppm or more. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state, with sea level 75 metres higher. Climatic disasters would occur continually. The tragedy of the situation, if we do not wake up in time, is that the changes that must be made to stabilise the atmosphere and climate make sense for other reasons. They would produce a healthier atmosphere, improved agricultural productivity, clean water and an ocean providing fish that are safe to eat. . . .
The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death. When I testified against the proposed Kingsnorth power plant, I estimated that in its lifetime it would be responsible for the extermination of about 400 species - its proportionate contribution to the number that would be committed to extinction if carbon dioxide rose another 100 ppm.