Science likes to categorize things, as we all know. Most species on planet Earth that are known to science are assigned a conservation status by the IUCN Red List. The IUCN rates species from extinct, extinct in the wild, critically endangered, to least concern. According to the list, the Hawaiian Crow is “extinct in the wild,” the Mountain Gorilla is “critically endangered,” and Homo sapiens – us – are of “least concern.”
This is the IUCN entry on our species:
“Humans have the widest distribution of any terrestrial mammal species, inhabiting every continent on earth (although there are no permanent settlements on Antarctica). A small group of humans has been introduced to space, where they inhabit the International Space Station.
Humans are found in a wide variety of habitats, largely thanks to their ability to use technology to adapt to and modify their habitats. Major concentrations are found in urban centers: over the past 30 years, the urban population has increased so that more than half of the world population will be living in cities by 2008.
In mid-2007, the total population of human beings was estimated at 6.6 billion, an increase from 6.1 billion in 2001.
There are currently no major threats to humans, although some subpopulations may be experiencing localized declines as a result of disease, drought, war, natural disasters, and other factors.
At present, no conservation measures are required. Humans are present in numerous protected areas throughout their range.”
To the degree that humans have widest geographic distribution of any terrestrial mammal, and some humans even spend time in space, we are indeed of the ‘least concern.’ But that is also relative to other species – perhaps all life on Earth is ‘critically endangered.’ About 200 species are going extinct everyday, dropping like flies so to speak (except, ironically, flies, which seem to be doing alright for themselves). That’s .1% of all species, snuffed out of existence every year.
The above map shows how our species has colonized most of the planet. It shows how our apparent success can also be our downfall. The IUCN is wrong that there are no major threats to humans. Overpopulation, over-consumption, nuclear war, and the destruction of our life-giving planet all threaten our very survival. And the localized threats that the IUCN cites – drought, disease, and natural disasters – will all become global problems if climate change continues without a fundamental system change in industrial society.
Truly, though, our species belongs in many categories. We are of ‘least concern’ relative to other species, we’re ‘critically endangered’ if we’re going to be honest, and we’re also ‘extinct in the wild,’ or will be very soon if we don’t change. Most humans alive today are domesticated by civilization, and no longer retain the inherent ability to live in the wild. This is a unique situation in the history of life forms on Earth. Normally, a species is only extinct in the wild when it’s population crashes. Humans, however, are flourishing (at least reproductively) across the earth (and beyond). The distinction between civilized humans and uncivilized is humans must be made, though. To be “uncivilized” is often used as an insult, but in this context, we’re talking about the original meaning – living in a society that is not characterized by cities and social stratification. Very few uncivilized societies exist anymore because the rampant and unsustainable growth of cities has made that lifestyle increasingly difficult.
No animal wants to be domesticated and have fences put around them. When species become extinct in the wild, reintroducing them to their native habitat becomes difficult beyond measure. Survival techniques that are learned by passing from parents to children may be lost. Some species never recover. At least two things must happen for our species to survive.
1. We need to defend the right of uncivilized people to remain so, and not force civilization upon them. If we do, we lose that link to the essence of our species. True, pure humanness is hanging on only in the endangered cultures of the uncivilized.
2. We need to reintroduce civilized people to nature, and teach them to connect with their animal instincts. We need to raise our children to understand that they too are wild animals.