We have all seen them: pleas to save the dolphins, save the lions, save the monarch butterfly, save the rainforests. Animal rights and environmental conservation organizations are constantly knocking on our heads asking for support for their causes.
And they should be lauded for their work.
However, I have one suggestion. I would change the plea. Rather than begging people on the street to support the recovery of one species, I say the tagline should be: help us save everything.
The sixth mass extinction: does anyone care?
It is no secret we are in the midst of an extinction event as devastating as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Yet, most people respond to such terrifying news with apathetic shrugs. They can't be bothered by the idea their planet is dying because the severity of the sixth mass extinction has not yet reached their daily lives.
Here's what I mean: every day, people wake up, go to work, come home, cook dinner, complain about their bosses, hang out with their families, and go to bed. The extinction of between 150 and 200 species on any given day does not disrupt this routine. It does not affect people's lives in ways they can see.
And I say the same goes for the "Save the dot, dot, dot" campaigns. While most people can get behind the majestic beauty of tigers, the thrilling adorability of sea otters, or the awe-inspiring magnitude of the Amazon rainforest, the truth of the matter is, none of these living organisms are part of the average person's daily life (for the most part).
And that means, for the great majority of people, they will still get up the next day and go to work, come home, cook dinner, and all the rest — the loss of some exotic species of animal that lives on another continent won't affect them.
The sixth mass extinction: why we should care
There is one fundamental problem with the idea that extinction does not affect daily life: it's incorrect.
That's right; everything from the fairyfly (the world's smallest insect) to the great blue whale (the world's largest animal) occupies a brick in the building of life. Remove one brick, and the whole building will come tumbling down. Because every brick needs every other brick in order to stay in place.
The same is true for life on the planet. All life exists because it is dependent on other life. So if you take one life away, another life goes, and on and on until there is no life left.
The balance of life: wolves in Yellowstone
A perfect example, albeit in reverse, is the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program. In 1995, biologists released a population of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
Twenty years later, the entire ecosystem of the park has changed.
Populations of plants and animals decimated by the loss of gray wolves in the area 60 years ago — they were hunted to extinction in the 1930s — started flourishing again, including some that don't seem connected to a wolf at all, like beaver, fish, and songbirds.
Biologists studied the situation and found the loss of wolves in the 1930s created a literal avalanche effect. It first led to an increase in the elk population since the wolf was the elk's primary predator. The increased number of elk meant over-browsing of the willow, aspen, and cottonwood plants. And the loss of the trees forced the beaver out, since they rely on willow for food, and the songbirds too, as they need the foliage for shelter.
Furthermore, the loss of trees affected the temperature of the rivers, since the shade that kept the waters cool had become elk food. Warmer temperatures forced fish and other marine life to find new cooler homes, which in turn affected the purity of water itself (marine life helps keep water "clean"). Not to mention, the increase of sunlight on the rivers caused increased evaporation, lowering the water table, and that, in turn, affected the soil of the surrounding land.
And, oh yeah, the lack of elk carrion left over after a wolf kill meant whole populations of scavengers and opportunistic eaters, like ravens, eagles, coyotes, lynx, wolverines, and even grizzly bears, had to search for food elsewhere.
Luckily, all of this was reversed by releasing eight wolves in Yellowstone in January 1995.
If we don't care: a dead planet
Now imagine there were no gray wolves to reintroduce to Yellowstone. The devastation of the ecosystem wrought by their disappearance would have continued until the entire area became uninhabitable.
And that is one ecosystem and the effects of one missing species of animal.
Take that idea to a global scale with the loss of multiple species, and we will eventually have an uninhabitable planet, sooner than we may think. At that point, you can bet extinction will have an effect on our daily lives, since it will be our own we are facing.
So we have to care: save everything!
And that is why we need our conservation efforts to focus on saving everything. Because while people may connect to dolphins, lions, monarch butterflies, and even the Amazon rainforest, it is the cascading effect of their loss that will, hopefully, spark people to see how the survival of all species is crucial if we want our planet to continue supporting life.