By Michele S. Byers
Almost every 6-year-old has heard of “extinction.” Ask kids about extinct creatures and you will be told in graphic detail about the dinosaurs that once walked the Earth and disappeared millions of years ago.
But what will kids 100 years from now say about extinction? Sadly, the children of 2113 might describe how polar bears, elephants, gorillas, tigers and chimpanzees followed the path of the dinosaurs.
Although this is perhaps not well known, we are headed toward another great extinction, in which more than half of our animal and plant species may cease to exist in the wild within the next 30 to 50 years. In addition to many familiar and beloved large mammals, we are in danger of losing many songbirds, large ocean fish and plants used for food and medicine.
Drawing public attention to this threat is the mission of the Species Alliance, a nonprofit that has produced a feature-length documentary, Call of Life. The film details a potential loss of biodiversity so severe that scientists are calling it a “mass extinction.”
“Human beings depend on a rich and healthy biodiversity for our very lives, but also for the wonder, beauty and inspiration nature gives us,” said Rhea Landig, a New Jersey resident who just became the Species Alliance’s executive director. “We want people to understand how the current mass extinction of plant and animal species is being driven by human behavior, and that those destructive behaviors can be changed.”
Biodiversity, or biological diversity, simply refers to the variety of living things. A diversity of life forms is essential for a healthy planet. Just as humans depend on many plant and animal species for food, clothing and medicine, our plants and animals also depend on each other. The extinction or severe decline of even a single species can have cascading impacts throughout the ecosystem.
Through interviews with scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers and indigenous and religious leaders, Call of Life explores the causes, scope and potential effects of mass extinction.
Human behavior – especially overpopulation – is identified as the primary driver. Seventy percent of the Earth’s land has been altered by humans, reducing the habitats of many species. In addition, many animals and plants struggle with competition from invasive species, pollution, climate change and over-exploitation of natural resources.
Call of Life also looks beyond direct causes to consider how our cultural and economic systems, and psychological and behavioral patterns, contribute to extinction.
Experts interviewed in the film say a consumer economy, ineffective political leadership and overconfidence in technological fixes are all factors. Then there’s our propensity for “denial” – the all-too-human tendency to protect ourselves from despair by not acknowledging a crisis.
The Species Alliance hopes that by raising public awareness of the loss of biodiversity, people will make informed choices that will help preserve all species. A complete cultural turnaround will be needed, but Landig believes it can happen.
“It is up to us – our generation – to realize the unique opportunity before us,” Landig said. “We must act now if we want to preserve and protect the magnificence of our planet, for ourselves and for future generations of all species.”
Landig is scheduling screenings and discussions of Call of Life throughout New Jersey. There’s one at the Bernardsville Public Library on April 14, and one at Hunterdon Medical Center on May 15, timed to coincide with Endangered Species Day.
To learn more about the film, find a screening near you or schedule a screening, go to the Species Alliance website at www.speciesalliance.org or visit the Call of Life web page at www.calloflife.org.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.