It's Time for a Virtual Species Diversity Ark

A new article projects that global warming will eliminate up 1 million species by 2050 — up to nearly 40% of all species. Combine that with the vast number of species that are being wiped out because of human activity (industrialization, elimination of habitats, pollution, over-fishing, etc.) and we are on the brink of losing a dramatic portion of our planetary’s genetic diversity. From these trends combined we may lose up to 90% of all species within a short timeframe in fact.

This is a major “security threat” to human civilization, human freedom and human life. Humanity cannot survive without its biosphere and web of life to support it. We are about to lose a large part of our “life support” system — Why isn’t the government as alarmed about this as they are about terrorism? There should be an “environmental alert system” like the “terrorism alert” system provided by USA Homeland Security. And if this system existed, we should presently be at “Red Alert” — there is a certain, unavoidable incoming threat. There is no uncertainty and our intelligence is 100% reliable. Mass-extinctions are happening now and will only get worse. Nothing can be done to prevent this. It’s already too late. We need to focus on survival and preservation at this point.

Each species is a different kind of machine that is highly evolved and adapted to particular problems. Its taken billions of years to evolve these machines and many of these machines depend on other organisms (other machines) to survive and reproduce. If we lose even a few of them we may face unexpected chain reactions that lead to the loss of entire ecosystems.

Who knows how many undiscovered new medicines, new nano-technologies, new chemical and physical processes we will lose in the process? And even if that is not important to some people, everyone can relate to the direct impact that massive species loss will have on everyday human life. What will we do if our atmosphere is not breathable, our water is not drinkable, we cannot grow crops anymore, wildlife is so depleted that forests start dying and the oceans die, strange new diseases appear but natures natural cures and balancing functions are extinct, and our atmosphere begins to change irreperably? Will we be able to live on the surface of our planet anymore? Or will humans eventally become extinct too? This is what we are facing.

It is too late to stop this from happening. Humanity and industrialization cannot be controlled. But we can at least start now to preserve the vital genetic technologies that these soon-to-be-extinct species represent. We must start building a library of well-preserved, documented genomes of species that are likely to go extinct. We need to document not only the genetic structure of each organism, but also whatever is necessary in order for each organism to survive and reproduce successfully.

Just storing DNA is not enough. The mere ability to clone organisms does not enable us to reproduce and reconstitute them. Many species, such as elephants, whales and primates for example, require very particular and long incubation, extensive and specialized parenting and support, feeding, training and complex symbiotic orgasims and habitats in order to develop, survive and reproduce. Even if we can clone them, we may not be able to rear them or enable them to reproduce. We need to focus on this problem.

The biosphere and web of life cannot function without the many species that regulate it, feed it, and drive it. What would happen to a person if we eliminated 40% to 90% of their organs? They could not survive! The biosphere functions as the “organs” of our planet — it regulates carbon dioxide, oxygen, methane, temperature, ocean currents, wind currents, food supply, diseases, crops, forests, desertification, waste conversion, chemical conversion, and just about every other essential process that enables human civilizations to survive. Terrorism is nothing compared to the threat of destroying our biosphere. At worst terrorists might knock out a city. But biosphere destruction and loss of species diversity will destroy entire continents, and ultimately will make this planet uninhabitable by humans. This is not science fiction. The rate of change in the biosphere is non-linear and subject to sudden, unpredictable changes from small perturbations. Exponentially cascading processes can result from unexpectedly minor changes to critical balances. What does this mean? It means that if we wipe out 40% of species on earth it is not unrealistic for humanity to be either extinct or unable to live on earth (at least without full life support systems) by the year 3000 or sooner. That’s a short period of time — less than the time-scale of a civilization.

Genetic diversity is not only essential for the survival and functioning of our biosphere, but it represents millions (even billions) of years of natural innovation. Nature has engineered solutions to problems we have today, and problems we will have in the future — in the form of species that have adapted to various constraints. By wiping out those species, we are essentially erasing our natural “technology portfolio” of collective “intellectual property.” This is truly the tragedy of the commons in action. In a few short decades the industrial age will have wiped out much of this irreplaceable “genetic technology.” There is no way to replicate that technology without millions of years of natural evolution. If we lose it, it’s gone. We will never get it back. With each lost species we may lose irreplaceable genetic technologies that could enable or guide priceless innovations in robotics, artificial intelligence, medicine, agriculture, and every other field of science. We must build a biodiversity ark, while we still have time.

No species is an island. Life is a web — a complex interdependent system. We need to preserve whole ecosystems, not just the individual components that comprise them. This is a major conservation project, and it will require new technology, extensive research, new technologies, serious long-term international government funding, and the cooperation of researchers, industry, and local communities around the world.

To protect this “ark” it should not exist in any one place. In fact we should make copies of it in as many places as we can. And perhaps even store at least one copy offworld — on the moon, or in orbit — so it is really immune to earth changes. This “virtual ark” (My friends call it “Nova’s ark”) is critical to the future of the human species, human civilization, and in fact the entire planetary ecosystem. And who knows how unique life is in the universe? If we are one of only a few rare oasis in a vast lifeless cosmos, then we have even more of a responsibility to preserve our unique ecologies.