Like everyone, I have been reading the graphs and looking at the
numbers that measure the convulsions in the global financial markets.
And as I do, I keep hearing the echo of another frightening set of
numbers — the ones that gauge the precipitous declines in the
species that surround us. The financial markets will eventually come
back, but not the species we are squandering.

Last week in Barcelona, Spain, the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature released results of a global survey of mammal
populations. It concluded that at least a quarter of mammal species are
headed toward extinction in the near future. Don’t think of this
as an across-the-board culling of mammals, of everything from elephants
to the minutest of shrews. The first ones to go will be the big ones.
And among the big ones, the first to go will be primates, which are
already grievously threatened. Nearly 80 percent of the primate species
in southern and southeastern Asia are immediately threatened.

The causes are almost all directly related to human activity,
including, for marine mammals, the growing threat of ocean
acidification, as the oceans absorb the carbon dioxide we emit.

The numbers are not much better for other categories of life. At least
22 percent of reptile species are at risk of extinction. Perhaps 40
percent of North American freshwater fish are threatened. In Europe, 45
percent of the most common bird species are rapidly declining in
numbers, and so are the most common bird species in North America.
Similar losses are expected among plants. What is especially worrying
is how much the rate of decline has increased over the past
half-century as the human population has increased.

numbers are shocking in their own right. But they don’t begin to
tell the whole story. These are projections for the most familiar, best
studied, most easily counted plants and animals, which, all told, make
up less than 4 percent of the species on Earth. It is only reasonable
to assume that many, if not most, of the legions of uncounted species
are doing as poorly.

What complicates matters further is a
simple lesson we might also draw from the present financial crisis:
everything is connected. No species goes down on its own, not without
affecting the larger biological community. We emerged, as a species,
from the very biodiversity we are destroying. At times it seems as
though the human experiment is to see how many species we can do
without. As experiments go, it is morally untenable and will end badly
for us.

The good news here is the same good news as always
— the resilience of nature. Given even the slightest chance,
declining species often find a way to recover. But the bad news is also
the same bad news — human irresponsibility. In our myopic
pursuits, we characteristically overlook the possibility of giving
species the chance to recover.

We are watching a global,
international effort to stabilize the financial markets. It will take a
similar effort to begin to slow the rate at which species are
declining. The bottom line is that what is good for biodiversity is
also good for humanity. This includes protecting habitat and finding
ways to reduce human pressure on other species. It also includes a
concerted effort to slow climate change, which, unchecked, could have a
devastating impact on the entire planet.

What we need, really,
is a new ability to think selfishly in a slightly different way.
Instead of saving the Sumatran orangutan or the Iberian lynx for
itself, it may make more sense to think of saving them for ourselves
— not as resources to be harvested somewhere down the road or
even as repositories of genetic difference, but as essential elements
in the biological complexity from which we arose and in which we

Without them, we are diminished.

Published: October 15, 2008