Unapologetic progressive. Fearless activist. Plucky liberal.

I met a man Monday while doing work for OFA, and we were both political junkies, so we sat for more than an hour talking about dozens of subjects. Somehow the topic of zoos came up, and I mentioned my recent visit to the one in town, including how sad it is that some of those animals, like the Amur leopards, are on the brink of extinction. He posed an interesting question: Does it matter if Amur leopards go extinct?

That made me stop and think. We always talk about extinction in dire terms; it’s never reported as a value-neutral subject. I started wondering whether that made sense. The man I talked with is right in the sense that no, the world isn’t going to end if Amur leopards, or human beings, or poison dart frogs, or mosquitoes die out. When it comes right down to it, no creature on this planet is necessary for the Earth to go on spinning around the sun.

So I think the answer to “does it matter if species become extinct?” is both no and yes: no in the existential sense that nothing really matters in the cosmic scheme of things; yes in that extinction is a result of a bigger problem. It’s hard to think of many ways species could go extinct that aren’t the fault of human beings. Either we hunt animals until there are no more, or we destroy animals’ habitats through deforestation and global warming. (One exception is the disappearance of many amphibians because of a deadly fungus.)

The world is getting warmer. That’s a fact, whether you believe climate change is caused by humans or not. It’s likely too late already to save animals in Arctic and Antarctic habitats such as polar bears and penguins. It doesn’t have to be too late for other endangered animals. And it is something we should be concerned about, because no one knows how many links in the food chain have to disappear before it collapses.

It’s a popular urban legend that the cure to cancer could be hidden in the Amazon rainforest, but we’d never know because of the rate at which it was being destroyed. However, the pace peaked at 27,000 square kilometers per year in 2004, and dropped to 6,500 in 2010. Still not good, but an improvement. But because of the success environmentalists have had in their endeavors, now Brazil is contemplating loosening regulations for farmers and ranchers. If it does, it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that plants that are key to curing cancer and other deadly diseases will be lost. Parts of the Amazon are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Central Amazon Conservation Complex is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet and home to several endangered species. Look at that picture. Are we really willing to let that disappear?

Photo of Amazon courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey


Comments on: "Does it matter if species become extinct?" (3)

  1. I think it matters.

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