|"The Sixteenth International Botanical
Congress took place in downtown St. Louis at a large convention
center. Four thousand scientists from one hundred countries met
to talk about plants. They gave more than 1,500 presentations at
220 symposia in rooms so cold I wore a light sweater. The
congress is held every six years, not often in the United
States, not since 1969. It is a mega-event, a botanical mecca.
This year, it was a kind of dirge.
The president of the congress began by predicting that, if
trends continue, one-third to two-thirds of all plant and animal
species will be lost during the second half of the twenty-first
century. A natural rate of extinction is about one species per
million per year. The rate is now one thousand times that and
will rise to as much as ten thousand times the natural rate.
Most of these losses will be in the tropical rain forests, an
ecosystem we are losing so rapidly that in fifty years we can
expect to have 5 percent of what we have now. I have been told
over and over, often very cleverly, how many acres of rain
forest are being cut down every minute of the day, how many
acres for every breath I take, for every heartbeat. I can
never seem to remember that number.
The president of the International Botanical Congress outlined a
seven-point plan that would slow the current rate of extinction.
The plan involved money, organization, and research, nothing
that isn't possible or reasonable. Throughout the congress, more
plans would be revealed, all requiring money, organization, and
research. In smokeless rooms, over conference tables, men and
women were hatching plots to save the world. Among the elite,
back-room deals were being made. At least, I hoped so.
I sat in a lecture hall listening to a woman pinpoint how we
have made a mess of things. Human beings have transformed 50
percent of the land surface of the planet. We have doubled the
amount of nitrogen in the environment and increased the amount
of heat-trapping gases in the air. Scientists no longer argue
whether global warming is real. Every year is the hottest on
record. Every summer has a deadly heat wave.
The oceans are in serious trouble. Some fifty dead zones, areas
with little or no oxygen, have appeared in our coastal waters.
The largest in the Western Hemisphere is in the Gulf of Mexico
and is caused by nitrogen and phosphorus flowing down the
Mississippi River. Shorelines are eroding. Toxic algal blooms
have increased. Over 60 percent of coral reefs, which sustain
one-quarter of marine wildlife species, are threatened. Much of
the damage is unseen and underappreciated. Commercial trawlers
literally scrape up the seafloor.
What does it mean to clear-cut the ocean?"
-- "Anatomy of a Rose,"
by Sharman Apt Russell