I sit here with my laptop next to my printer. I can see the box of paper for it gradually diminish. With about half an inch to go I start reminding myself that I ought to do something about it. When I’ve got a quarter inch left I make a note in my to do list to get some more paper. When the only paper I’ve got left is in the printer I ask Caroline to buy some for me. Then I run out. It’s a similar psychology to our attitude towards extinctions; intellectually we can see them happening, but for some reason we don’t actually get round to do anything about them until it’s too late. We have other priorities, usually driven by our own circumstances.
There’s also the issue of only being able to guess at the size of the pile of paper, which means we have to assess numbers of plants or animals. Unfortunately we’re not very good at imagining numbers until they get so small that in biological terms they’re irrelevant. How many hedgehogs are there left in the UK? A recent study (The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs, 2011) suggests 750,000, which sounds like a lot. It sounds very few when the same study estimates there were 30 MILLION hedgehogs in Britain in the 1950s.
I am more affected by the thought that our 13 year old, growing up in the country, HAS NEVER SEEN ONE. He has never heard a nightingale sing or seen a snake here. To him they may as well already be extinct. It’s not surprising we don’t notice the plants and invertebrates disappearing in front of us when we don’t even notice what’s happening to the bigger fauna, or what ecologists call the “charismatic animals”. You will be comforted if you read the Wikipedia list of extinctions in the UK since the Neolithic (wolves, bears, that sort of thing), but less so by Natural England’s 2010 report, identifying the 500 species lost here in modern times.
And preventing extinctions is a good deal more difficult than ordering a ream of paper. It’s invariably not just a question of banning some pesticides or airlifting a few Black Rhinos out of harm’s way. The story of the re-introduction of the Large Blue near to us in Somerset always makes me smile; its ludicrously complicated life cycle posed an enormous challenge. Last year’s Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction was only moderately easier. The cost of doing the same for the hundreds of other species which will go extinct in the UK over the next decade is mind boggling and, of course, entirely unrealistic.
We must get out of the mindset that extinctions happen elsewhere, that they only happen to “unimportant” species, and that they’re somehow fixable. Like climate change there’s no point scaring people or producing reams of uncertain but depressing sounding numbers. There’s also no point arguing with folk who say it’s a natural phenomenum. Like the paper running out it’s pretty obvious where the blame for at least biodiversity loss generally lies – with us. It’s also pretty obvious that we have to feel empowered to do something about it ourselves.