How the public can learn from the past to save the future in the face of impending global catastrophe
By Mia Wroe
Sir Charles Lyell, pioneering geologist and close friend of Charles Darwin, famously said that “the present is the key to the past.” While this is very much a commandment in the field of geology, it can be reversed to produce another important credo: the past is the key to the present and the future.
We all know the story of the dinosaurs; as children we’re told of the monstrous beasts that dominated our planet 66 million years ago, of the formidable Tyrannosaurus rex and the iconic Diplodocus. We are also told that this is a story ending, ultimately, in failure. A failure to adapt, to evolve, to survive. We are left with a lingering image of these great lumbering brutes, too large and unintelligent to be successful, making their own extinction inevitable. The manner of their extinction is almost inconsequential for a group of animals so obviously destined for doom.
However, often forgotten is the fact that dinosaurs did not just subsist here, but they dominated the planet for more than 150 million years, making our meagre 200,000 thousand years look like the blink of an eye. Dinosaurs were an incredibly diverse and well adapted group of animals, filling specialised niches in the same way that modern fauna do. When their extinction did come, it was met not by a group of grossly colossal animals too stupid to adapt or even react, but by a group of animals whose reign over our planet had been more successful than any before it and any that have followed.
We currently stand on the precipice of another mass extinction, caused by climate change greatly aided by our own destructive actions. If anything, the fall of the dinosaurs should be taken as a warning. The past is the key to the present - it is something that is accessible to us, that we can observe, analyse and learn from, and we have access to it in a way that we do not to the future. Before us lies a history of the past 4.5 billion years; countless examples of species who could not adapt to extremes in global conditions. We would be foolish to ignore it.
Our current extinction event, the Anthropocene extinction (named so for the role we have played in it), is one, not caused by a sudden and uncontrolled asteroid impact, but by a more gradual greenhouse effect. We still have the chance to change our future by taking active measures in a way than no other species has had the opportunity to do. Implementing sustainable development programmes and renewable energy sources capable of replacing our fossil fuel dependency are essential steps in avoiding the impending global catastrophe that sits just around the corner.
There is a further message of hope in this story, though we must turn to the skies to see it. From the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction arose all ten thousand species of bird we see today. Avian dinosaurs outnumber mammalian species three to one. As rather appropriately noted in Jurassic Park, “life, uh, finds a way.”
From Issue 16
All images are original artworks by Jack Mayer Wood