The Green Room ~ extinction


Fairbourne in west Wales which is threatened by rising sea levels.
Credit: Paul Lewis
By the Revd Dr John Harrison

‘Mass Extinction’ is one of those banner headlines which triggers all manner of end-time scenarios in our minds, together with ‘End of the World’ and ‘We are all doomed’.

The other day I was reading a newspaper report which used such terminology to describe a local council decision in mid-Wales. The decision, taken for financial reasons, was not to renew the sea-defences around the coastal village of Fairbourne which would eventually mean giving up land and homes to the sea. The settlement would become, like Dunwich on the Suffolk coast, extinct, or part of history. Local decision-making aside, I found myself reacting in a very emotive way because I can recall many happy family holidays there in my childhood. Is somebody about to wipe out part of my past?

‘Extinction’ is one of those words that embraces emotive terms and is, thereby, a matter for mourning. It is not difficult to find estimates of global extinctions of 100 species per day. To what extent should we weep over their passing, or should we rejoice in the fact that they played their part in an evolving creation, which moves ever onwards?

The Oxford English Dictionary uses words such as ‘total destruction’, ‘annihilation’ and ‘termination’ to define extinction - all very final words. But extinction should also be seen as the natural order of things. Our lives are part of an ongoing act of creation, or evolution if you want to be Darwinian. Everything around us is changing, so it should be no surprise that flora and fauna are forced to respond. Some find themselves unable to cope with new conditions so their time, like that of the dinosaurs, comes to an end. The relationship between life and this changing environment (ecology) also changes the niches occupied by various species, some of which find theirs occupied by a different species. So unless they can adapt, their time too comes to an end.

So where do we, the human species, fit into this scheme of things? We could well ask whether we are the human dinosaur or whether our niche in life is secure. In Darwinian terminology, are we ‘fitted to survive’? We could argue that we have the tools to secure our future, but at what price to the rest of life?

While the earth and its store are available to us and we have the capacity to defend the ecological niche that we occupy, do we really have the right to trample over the earth pursuing goals unrelated to survival and driven more by careless and greedy use of land, and the pursuit of trivial goals such as self-adornment and quackery?

While the loss of certain species can be attributed to a changing physical world and to non-compatibility with the basic life-requirements of the human animal, can we live with the reality of extinctions which are due to a lack of care on our part and over which we shed no tears? While we are so lacking in care, our God mourns the loss of his creatures and points to us with an accusing finger.

  • Dr John Harrison FRMetS is the Bishop of Newcastle’s Environmental Adviser, and a former Vice-Dean of Natural Sciences and Senior Lecturer, Climate Laboratory, in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Stirling University.


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