Does that mean we should do more to celebrate the gains?
‘We should also try to enable them. It is just as legitimate for us to ask how can we maximise gains as well as how we can reduce losses. I am arguing for an “as well as” approach.’
How does this change how you think about the sixth mass extinction (a loss of 75 per cent of animal species)?
‘First of all, I think we’re going to avoid the sixth mass extinction. A lot of species are threatened, but with our actual observed rate of extinction it’s going to take the best part of 10,000 years to get there. Now here’s a scary thought: if we consider that humans began exterminating the largest mammals 60,000 years ago and may continue to for the next 10,000 years (70,000 in total), that would actually make this one of the fastest mass extinctions. The one that killed the dinosaurs was an exception in that it was relatively instantaneous.’
‘Fortunately, 10,000 years gives us long enough to do something about it. You can interpret most of the discussion about the sixth mass extinction as a way to prevent it from happening.’
So there is hope?
‘The way I see it, the biological system is always continuing, and there are very large numbers of species of an enormous diversity of taxonomic groups that are going to make it – so long as we don’t unleash some completely new forces that we haven’t imagined yet, and so long as we let opportunist species thrive.’
Given that we can’t predict, what do you think effective conservation ideas are?
‘I’m not saying that we should give up doing what we are currently doing. For example, we have seen in Britain that species as they change their geographical distributions in response to climate change are disproportionately colonising protected areas that weren’t established for them. What does that mean? It means we need to protect places where species already are, places where they are going to end up and the places in-between. We need more protection, not less. It would reflect that biology is always a work in progress.’
So it’s like shooting a moving target?
‘What we sometimes do today is say well, change is bad therefore let’s stop change. Which is no longer a realistic solution. There are growing human pressures, growing populations and warming temperatures. Of course, we should continue to reduce future change, however, “no change” has been off the table for centuries.’
‘Really, it is the direction and rate of future change that we need to be paying attention to.’
By Laura Cole
Chris D Thomas spoke to Geographical at the Brain Bar festival in Budapest