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Let's not be victims of our own 'success'


Government policies, corporate practices and individual behaviors need to be recalibrated in line with Earth's finite resources

When asked in an interview if he believed there is anywhere else for the human race to go--after wrecking the natural environment of our planet--David Attenborough, a UK broadcaster and naturalist, observed: "Why would I want to go and live on the moon, while I've got this world of badgers, thrushes, jellyfish, and corals? There is nothing there but dust. So I'd say thank you very much, and I'll stay where I am and watch hummingbirds."

That the renowned nature documentarian refused to even contemplate the option of space migration reveals the truth of the climate predicament we have created for ourselves and other species.

Given the exceedingly short existence of homo sapiens on this 4.6 billion-year-old planet, what we have managed to achieve is quite remarkable. With unrivalled cerebral power, humans have "tamed "nearly all places on Earth, transcending a "nasty, brutish, and short" existence to create a prospering global community.

In this sense, the human race has succeeded. We have managed to convert 38 percent of Earth's land to agricultural production. Measured in biomass, humans and livestock alone account for 96 percent of all the mammals on Earth. Increasingly, human-built structures are pushing into remote places to extract natural resources deemed unthinkable just decades ago. Almost unquestionably, the indomitable human spirit is on a path to greater achievements if it is able to progress.

However, our remarkable success has come at an alarming cost to the natural world. For example, the wildlife population has seen a precipitous drop of 68 percent since 1970. Our consumption demand in 2021 exhausted nature's annual budget (i.e., Earth's yearly capacity to generate renewable materials and absorb waste) as early as July 29 and maintained an ecological deficit for the rest of the year. In other words, we are already living on a borrowed future.

This may come as no surprise since winning, by definition, presupposes a losing side. However, our winning means the rest of the natural world is losing, which should give everyone pause. Our success, as it currently stands, is a cataclysm in the making. If we further strain the planet already teetering on the edge of calamity, the natural world will eventually be thrust into an irrecoverable death spiral. A case in point is the Amazon rainforest, home to 10 percent of the world's known biodiversity. At present, around 15 percent of its rainforest has already been lost. A further 5 percent to 10 percent loss could trigger a tipping point, plunging the region into an almost irreversible transition to a drier, savanna-like ecosystem with ripple effects felt across the globe.

Propelling the human race's success and amplifying its impact has been our command of technology. With it, our capacity to cause change is far greater and its impact far more lasting. Arising from this is a conviction shared by many that for any problem, big or small, there is always a technological solution. They feel that they can afford to take bolder and harsher action to bend nature to man's will and benefits, casting aside any caution as alarmism or timidity. By extension, many find it not so far-fetched to entertain the idea of space migration if things go south on Earth. The problem with this, however, is that the moment we think we have a Plan B, real or not, we naturally inject more recklessness into everything we do. Unfortunately, such a belief breeds complacency, excuses and inertia.

Of course, this is not to trivialize technology's potential to help restore nature's balance or dismiss human curiosity for space exploration. But what we all need be wary of is equating such technological "fixes" with an assured ticket to a safe new world and a license to do whatever we please to planet Earth.

Faced with the dual crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss, humanity is awakening, albeit belatedly, to the challenges ahead. There is now an emerging consensus on fully accounting for the value of nature in government policies and corporate decisions. Despite a $711 billion annual financing gap for global biodiversity conservation, the international community is exploring new financial resources as well as trying to reduce old incentives harming biodiversity. At the UN biodiversity conference (COP 15), countries vowed to build "a shared future for all life on Earth" and new targets are set to be outlined that will likely include preserving 30 percent of the world's land and oceans and putting global biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030.

Amid the lingering pandemic and heightened geopolitical tensions, glimmers of hope for our natural world remain. To keep it alive and strong, fundamentally, we need to acknowledge Earth's finite and fragile nature and recalibrate government policies, corporate practices and individual behaviors accordingly.

At the first part of COP 15 held in Kunming in October, China launched its first batch of national parks and announced the Kunming Biodiversity Fund to support global conservation.

Fifty years ago, the eye-opening photo of Earth seen in full from space (known as the Blue Marble) helped propel the environmental movement in the 1970s. The sheer vibrancy of planet Earth is mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, yet that should not blind us to its fragility and vulnerability.

Some 20 years after that famous photo was shot, as the space probe Voyager 1 was about to speed through the edge of the Solar System, its camera was turned back toward Earth one last time and captured an unforgettable image--the blue marble of Earth reduced to a barely discernable pale blue dot. Despite the unavoidable sense of diminution and loneliness this image evokes, we can find comfort in the knowledge that planet Earth affords us all a place we call home. However, if the richness of life and vibrancy of nature is lost, the pale blue dot may eventually fade into a speck of dust, unremarkable and forlorn in the enveloping dark of the universe.

We, as a species blessed with unmatched intelligence, would be much better off applying that intelligence to cherish, protect, and restore the natural world, with a genuine sense of care and urgency, rather than pinning our hopes on it making space migration viable. This might seem the more "conservative" approach to ensuring our future, but that gets to the nub of the matter since conservation by definition is conservative in nature.

Zhu Li is a director of the conservation program at the Paulson Institute. Niu Hongwei is the chief conservation officer with the institute. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn