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Signing up for extinction


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Nothing is permanent and as per economists in the long run we are all dead. That we should well know, yet we keep on planning and working with a different future in mind. However, this impermanency is also a philosophy and a process with a different speed. Our awareness of this ‘unsustainability’ does not mean that we should stop all our work and wait by the wayside awaiting the demise that is certain – extinction by karma! No, it is all about how we behave responsibly with complete awareness of ourselves as well as others to follow us. The present man on planet, however, has expedited the rate of decay while all the time thinking that what we are actually doing is the opposite. We even freeze our bodies expecting science to find a way to bring back life and await such mechanisms to emerge. This is the practice of cryonics. It is certainly an excellent business to the service provider and some say those who do not have enough money to preserve the full body have to do with only important parts! We believe that we can create urban forests and that they are equivalent to forests elsewhere. We fail to understand the rich diversity that exists in places such as Sinharaja   Staying in shape Some consume too much food and take care of the subsequent shape issues by different invasive processes such as liposuction and make amends for their overconsumption by allowing the fat taken out to be processed into biscuits and then shipping them into less-fortunate communities in Africa. Yes, this practice has been reported and as a way of fat recycling! An environmentally friendly way of staying in shape in someone’s opinion. This information should be some news for some of the beauty parlours mushrooming in our city also as they flush the contents taken out into the sewer system and into the ocean. It is certainly not easy to change directions, as the new ways and means constantly introduced by advances in technology as well as results consequently produced are certainly quite exciting and enticing. Some of the big businesses aligned to competitive sports when analysed in a lifecycle fashion may reveal that they are really counterproductive exercises. Yet we crave for some of these high-speed thrills and you really would be a spoilsport if you keep finding issues with such events. To the majority it is quite hard to see something wrong with such events at a glance.   Climate change Billions are on the path to prosperity and we believe Asia to be the next big happening place, because it is in Asia that we have the billions aspiring for that different future. The other millions in already developed economies are seeing indifferent growth and hope to make their growth through Asia as well. However, all perhaps may not be quite right. Climate warnings have been profound, which we blithely ignore. I recently happened to listen to a 60-minute discussion with a business magnate from an airline industry in Bloomberg TV who really ridiculed climate issues. I am quite sure he is not alone with such ideas in that corporate Ivy League. We are trying hard to understand what our young generation thinks about climate change. We however have to first start with knowing whether they know anything about it. The way we see our consumption driven-behaviour and social media statistics, it is more likely that we would see only a few percentage points in the age distribution demonstrating climate awareness. Even among that group we may find the majority expecting the politicians to do something about it and pushing the responsibility elsewhere. That is why it is important that politicians really understand the real significance of climate change and the need to migrate the economic thinking where development had been made synonymous with iconic brands and elements that spur consumption to an alternate pathway of responsible production and consumption. Current performance measurement yardsticks simply are not for the latter.   Understanding the future The history of our planet has revealed that mass extinctions have been present. Painstaking research and analysis has revealed such geological periods. One may ask ‘what is the value addition to an economy by searching for clues of what may have happened many billions of years ago on our planet?’ However, the importance of such knowledge comes when we try to understand the future. The future, that is beyond the usual business cycles of quarters and financial years. Knowing the value of such, international agreements and permanent bodies exist which study biodiversity globally. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is an example. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the International Convention on Biological Diversity. A principle function of IPBES is to perform regular and timely assessments of knowledge on biodiversity. If someone is to state that currently we are in the midst of another mass extinction – not really referring to the Ebola episode that actually is causing havoc in Africa and showing signs of spreading across to other parts – we perhaps may get worried. It is precisely that some scientists are stating today in the prestigious journal Science. However, ‘Science’ is not a journal that the Wall Street immediately takes notice of. We are currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth, warns an international research team in a new scientific research review published in the journal Science. The team consists of researchers from UK, USA, Mexico and Brazil and includes members of IUCN. We say extinctions are not quite uncommon. Species extinction is stated to happen every day across our planet certainly due to the spread of our own activities and as habitat conditions change. Current rates of extinction however are estimated to about 1,000 times the background rate of extinction – the natural rate. Even our own unique creations are in danger. A recent news item indicated that Sinhala is one of the top five most beautiful and endangered alphabets on earth. As I type this line in English, writing about the beautiful alphabet of my mother tongue, I understand the relationship between disuse and extinction. As per resources, it is more about abuse and extinction.   Importance of species diversity Throughout the 3.5-billion-year history of life, earth has gone through several mass extinction events, characterised by dramatic drops in species diversity – just imagine of a situation where only we live on this planet! Such visualisations indicate the importance of species diversity. Unlike prior mass extinctions, which were caused by factors such as natural climate change or asteroid collisions, the current mass extinction as per the team of researchers, is caused exclusively by the activity of human beings. One specific species, acting against the rest of the species. We are supposed to be quite superior due to our ability to think, design and act and yet such abilities are going against us it appears. In their paper, the researchers refer focus on the severe drop in animal diversity that has occurred as a part of the mass extinction. They have dubbed this dramatic loss of animal life as “anthropocene defaunation” – that is, the destruction of animal life associated with the era of human domination of the planet. We may not quite worry if the dengue strain of the mosquitoes become extinct yet broadly our conservation activities appear to be rather slow or less impactful compared to our destructive behaviour.   Destroying habitats We believe that we can create urban forests and that they are equivalent to forests elsewhere. We fail to understand the rich diversity that exists in places such as Sinharaja. There is always the keenness to encroach, place some road as a means of development and create places of abode by the side of the forest to enjoy living. Such activities do destroy habitat and with one stroke much is gone. The planet today does not have many such places and that is why we have earmarked heritage sites. This is perhaps is only prolonging the agony as we by different activities still capable of bringing the demise of such environs. Climate change is surely the big change that we are contributing to which is capable of widespread destruction. We are fond of mass petitions. We on our own island have signed many. I wonder what finally happened to those documents. I must confess I have never really witnessed any change. However, we are quietly but surely signing up to our extinction if we continue to subscribe to a system of economics that debits the resources and credits bank balances and views resources purely from an end functional, hedonistic point of view. For such mindsets, the trees only represent timber and the eyes only see the pleasures of a fine reclined armchair. The time has come to think differently. [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]

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