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August 28, 2014
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editorial

Canaries in the coal mine


Many scientists who study these matters worry that the earth is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction (www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/06/01/opinion/sunday/are-we-in-the-mids...), there having been five previous ones in the past 540 million years (The last mass extinction wiped out the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago). Currently, nearly 20,000 species of animals and plants worldwide are on a high-risk list for extinction, recorded on the so-called Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Over the last several years, the IUCN has been working to establish a new Red List for ecosystems as well.

The symbiosis of species and ecosystems is irrefutable. Each species, no matter how small, plays an important role in an ecosystem, and the diversity of ecosystems is important, too, rendering critical services to humans and other living creatures allowing us to survive. Wetlands cleanse streams, forests absorb carbon dioxide, ice and snow from mountain glaciers bring fresh water to populations and farms downstream. From trees and plants to birds and bats, from fish and animals to insects and pollinators, from parasites and fungi to the tiniest micro-organisms, all are interdependent, part of the web of life.

Without the diversity nature provides, the stability to ecosystems is threatened. All species, humans included, depend on healthy ecosystems for clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. We depend on a hospitable climate to grow food to eat and for materials to build shelter. In short, we rely on nature and on Mother Earth to provide the basic conditions for survival.

What does our future hold if environmental degradation continues unchecked? Our destiny, the destiny of our children and grandchildren awaits. What are we thinking as we let the environment deteriorate around us—as we ignore the warning signs of canaries?