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Too Big to Fail: No Bailout for Biodiversity

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From flickr.com/photos/37472264@N04/8053087535/: Ice-coated beauty in Mars' Silver Island
Ice-coated beauty in Mars' Silver Island
(image by europeanspaceagency)
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For a president of many "firsts" Obama has had a lot to say about "lasts".

Obama spent a lot of time on his Alaska trip talking about all the things he has seen and done, that his grandchildren won't be able to. His point was to call attention to climate change, and express how delays up to this point are already having irreversible effects on the earth, from disrupting ancient landscape features to threatening unique species due to habitat loss.

Yet climate change is far from the only--or even the biggest--threat to the various diverse species inhabiting Earth. While the science and solutions regarding climate change dominate news cycles and hyper-partisan debate, there is significantly less controversy (manufactured or otherwise) over the role invasive species, plant and animal alike, are playing in disrupting ecosystems around the world.

The argument of the human role in transporting these species, both deliberately and unintentionally, is similarly one-sided: we do it all the time. The thornier question is: how do we stop doing this?

Compromise becomes a bit fuzzy on the subject of invasive species, because a little tolerance goes a long way to enabling such organisms to colonize and overwhelm their new-found habitat. Nature doesn't follow federal maps delineating "protected" areas from those open to development, recreation, or any of the sorts of human activities that prove disruptive to sensitive habitats.

That is part of the reason why NASA has employed a "planetary protection officer" for its Mars missions, to ensure certain resilient bacteria don't manage to gain a foothold and potentially kill any native lifeforms before we even get the chance to discover them. So much for old notions of Martian invaders attacking Earth; we are more likely to be the space colonialists.

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The delicacy of this extra-terrestrial biome only highlights how late to the game humans have been in embracing truly sustainable practices across the board. The trouble lies in the void between intentions, and consequences.

Wind energy, for example, may be a prime contender for moving the grid to a more sustainable model, but turbines have an unfortunate proclivity for killing and maiming birds used to an unimpeded route through the skies. Of course, the common house cat makes wind turbines look forgiving by comparison--estimates allocate two billion bird deaths to domestic felines, against 300,000 or so for the turbines. Unfortunately, both are directly attributable to human intervention, if not intention.

On the other hand, we are slowly learning to mitigate our non-carbon footprint on this planet.

Just as sustainable energy is beginning to turn the corner as an international initiative, sustainable tourism is gaining ground as both an area of study and an occupation; vacationers looking to do good and feel good are beginning to take advantage. Controlling waste, consumption, and raising environmental awareness around the world isn't just about controlling pollution, but reminding tourists that they are part of a larger system. And while we may be some years away from manned missions to Mars--much less any sort of space tourism industry shuttling adventurous travelers back and forth between planets--this bodes well for the Red Planet as well as the Blue.

The U.S. Navy made the ground-breaking announcement in September that it will begin limiting its use of sonar in the Pacific Ocean, out of concern for how the technology is harming the delicate anatomy of whales and dolphins, which rely on hearing to navigate (and communicate). Again, sonar may not be a carbon-rich pollutant, but the military is finally acknowledging how their presence at sea impacts the native species there.

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Even pet-ownership has its own set of green guidelines--though taming the animal instinct to suburban standards may still be an impossible dream.

The trouble with such measures is that the tipping point for a single threatened species headed toward extinction isn't as easily jostled by half-measures the same way that climate change advocates intend to reduce carbon pollution over years and decades. Globalization may be Obama's solution to getting the whole world on board with environmental standards, but it also part of the reason why invasive species are so prolific, they are the new normal.


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Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations at Amherst College, and has split his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest ever since. He has (more...)

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