The EU's Green Week recently came to an end, on a note of urgency mingled with pessimism about the rapid loss of biodiversity in Europe, and the uncertain likelihood of halting that loss by the EU's targeted date of 2010. A session on Europe's ecological footprint pointed toward the need for "radical rethinking of our cities, consumption patterns, food production and our energy economy," and calling for biodiversity loss to be elevated in importance to the same level as climate change, as its implications are as drastic -- and absolutely interrelated. (Of course, the U.S.'s ecological footprint remains nearly twice as large as Europe's.)
Climate change is not the only factor impacting biodiversity, though. The fragmentation of habitats is increasingly placing species in isolation, unable to migrate freely across large regions as they once could. E.O. Wilson calls this "island biogeography" -- a theory he developed in the 1960s with ecologist Robert MacArthur which assessed species diversity. "In this context the island can be any area of habitat surrounded by areas unsuitable for the species on the island; not just true islands surrounded by ocean, but also mountains surrounded by deserts, lakes surrounded by dry land, forest fragments surrounded by human-altered landscapes."
This issue has actually been addressed quite successfully in several European countries, where wildlife corridors are designed into developing human infrastructure, ensuring that animals don't end up on islands. The World Wildlife Federation released a report last week in concert with Green Week on a number of case studies revealing figures that paint a grim picture of habitat loss across Europe.
EHF experts blame direct human influences as the main reason for reported trends. These include the use of pesticides or fertilisers, urbanisation, soil pollution, drainage, modification of cultivation practices, development and infrastructure issues, agriculture and forestry practices, as well as trapping, poisoning and poaching. WWF says this is an indication that the EU must take immediate action to meet its target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010.
But what, exactly, would immediate action look like?
There is, of course, the first rule to be followed: do no harm. Throughout Europe, remaining pockets of viable habitat remain vulnerable to development and destruction. A more comprehensive effort to secure the natural places which remain and to better protect Europe's air, water and soil from pollution and contamination is called for, activists say.
But in the longer view, Europe will have to chart a new course. In North America, South America, Africa and Australia, the answer to the biodiversity crisis is fairly simple, if sometimes politically difficult: identify hotspots, weave them into larger fabrics of protected land (the "Big Wild" advocates of efforts like the Y2Y project champion) and aim to preserve both the specific native biodiversity of important places and the integrated range of ecosystems of the land as a whole.
That approach is only partially possible in Europe. With its high population densities and much longer history of extensive exploitation of the land, the Big Wild is simply not an option. Instead, Europe is a continent of small, distributed wilds, turned into islands by seas of asphalt and farmland. And islands, as Wilson reminds us, tend -- over the long term -- to spell doom for the species trapped on them.
Perhaps what is called for then, is a form of "networked conservation." Perhaps the trick is to figure out ways of both lightening the overall impact of the built and worked environment (moving away from heavy ecological footprints and towards restorative ecological handprints) while innovating new ways of effectively connected isolated hotspots (through wildlife corridors and other means) into a healthier whole?
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