By Dr. Robert Hogg and Mark Leiren-Young
We both grew up in Vancouver and we’d always joke about cities with 24-hour traffic reports, overcrowding, and overpriced housing. Over the last few years we realized the joke was on us and moved to smaller communities.
When humans decide a place is no longer a fit we can move away.
Grizzlies, wolves and caribou can’t.
Alarmist claims about population explosions have likely been around since the first family kicked an annoying cousin out of the cave because it was too crowded. Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore, and others have issued dire warnings about the earth’s carrying capacity, but earth is remarkably resilient at housing humans.
There were 1.65 billion people here at the start of the 20th century. Today there are over 7.7 billion and we’re looking at 11.4 billion by the end of the century. We won’t run out of space and we probably won’t run out of food (though we likely won’t share it either). But here’s where Malthus, Ehrlich, Gore, and others failed to carry the decimal point in their doomsday equations. They only looked at one species.
We continue to survive runaway population growth—and with enough creative condo developments all the people on the planet could probably squeeze into whichever U.S. states are coastal in 2100—but attempting to feed, clothe, and house humans has wiped almost every other creature off the earth. And that’s with only North Americans currently consuming at the pace of North Americans.
Elizabeth Kolbert dubbed our age “the Sixth Extinction”. According to the United Nations, 150 to 200 species will vanish today. We’ve lost at least one species since you started reading this.
The connection between the environment and us is broken.
HIV, Ebola, and Zika were born because we decimated the wilderness and diseases jumped from other species to ours. HIV grew out of the quest for rubber in Cameroon and Congo—and the eradication of millions of people by Belgium’s King Leopold II. HIV’s original patient zero was likely an infected monkey butchered as “bush meat”.
Large fruit bats are the most likely reservoir for Ebola in Africa.
Zika originated in a monkey in Uganda’s Zika forest in the 1940s.
These pandemics happened because we keep developing anything that remotely qualifies as “wilderness”. American biologist E.O. Wilson said “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” We’re torching masterpieces on every continent every day.
The southern resident orcas, the icon of coastal communities in B.C. and Washington state, are endangered and fading fast. Last summer the world mourned along with one of these whales—Tahlequah—as she displayed her dead daughter for 17 days.
The matriarch of these whales, Granny, died in 2017. Some experts believed she was over a century old. But she didn’t die of old age, she died of starvation. In the last known photo of the orca elder, she’s pushing an increasingly rare—and increasingly toxic—Chinook salmon toward a young member of her pod. If these whales could move to a more pristine ocean they would.
Some species have come back from the brink of extinction, but few animals anywhere who aren’t being raised as food at factory farms qualify as “thriving”.
At the rate we’re polluting our planet there will soon be more plastic in the ocean than plankton.
We’re running out of the bees that pollinate the plants that provide our oxygen.
We keep fracturing our few wild(ish) areas into smaller pieces and pretending that qualifies as “conservation”.
We need protected spaces for wilderness and wildlife.
We need to create and preserve intact environments in our oceans and on land.
We need to invest in the health of our planet and that means declaring places off-limits for “development”.
Nature Needs Half, an organization launched at the 2009 World Wilderness Congress in Mexico, proposed that humans should aim for 50 percent of the world to be wild by 2050. Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue is fighting to designate protected areas in the oceans—or Hope Spots—to help preserve and revive marine life.
Meanwhile, the UN just warned that we have a dozen years left to get our carbon footprint under control if we’d like the planet to resemble the one we’re on now.Today there are over 7.7 billion and we’re looking at 11.4 billion by the end of the century. The UN’s biodiversity chief, Cristiana Paşca Palmer, says we’ve got two years to come up with a game plan to protect biodiversity.
Whatever the math is, we're running out of time to redefine "progress".
Humans are resilient. The Canadian Public Health Society talks about environmental health being vital to human health.
Maybe it's alarmist too and we'll be fine if we keep using the oceans as sewers and the planet as a waste dump. We’re clever. We can probably find a way to outlast every other animal except the rats and the roaches.
But why would we want to?
Dr. Robert Hogg is a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences and senior research fellow with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. His research focusses on issues surrounding aging and HIV and describes how diseases that strike people living with this virus differ from those that impact HIV-negative people. Professor Hogg is a Member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
Mark Leiren-Young is the author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, director of The Hundred-Year-Old Whale, host of the Skaana podcast and winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour. He and Robert met as lab partners in high school. They have stayed friends ever since—despite Mark destroying his friend’s grade point average.