If they found on Mars a single blade of grass there would be ecstasy at mission control, unleashing visions of humanity spreading out across the cosmos. But does the obsession with finding life on other, potentially habitable planets somehow excuse and blind us to the trashing of this one? News of the discovery of yet another Earth-like planet fuels the fantasy that if we scorch our own, we can always relocate. From Richard Branson to Stephen Hawking, there’s a hypnotic fascination with the possibility of escape which somehow relieves the pressure to look after our own, extraordinary planetary home.
As we tremble with anticipation at the prospect of finding a single microbe on another planet, under our feet we’re wilfully executing a mass extinction event. Once a fashionable cause, threats to our forests, cradles to the diversity of life, have been largely forgotten. But this century we’ve been losing them at the astonishing rate of 50 football pitches per minute. That’s an area the size of Greenland since the turn of the millennium.
All attempts to reconcile the industrial-scale exploitation of the biosphere by staying the right side of key environmental thresholds are failing. Forest-certification schemes, for example, have done nothing to slow their degradation. Why do we treat the abundance of life on our doorstep with such disrespect, when it throws up glories like the Namibian fog-basking beetle, which taught us how to build greenhouses in the desert? Or the bark beetle, which can detect a forest fire 10km away and is showing how to make better fire extinguishers? Even worse, the very people who put their lives on the line to protect land and the environment are being killed at an accelerating pace. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014