Prof David Watson1, Dr Maggie Watson1
1Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia
Planetary conditions conducive to multi-cellular life are predicted to continue for another billion years—longer than there have been plants and animals. Since humans will inevitably become extinct much sooner, the foreseeable future comprises a hitherto unexplored paradox—a habitable planet devoid of people. Although when and how humanity passes are unknowable, decisions we make now will determine the scenery and cast of characters for Earth’s next phase. Reconciling our scientific and personal perspectives and applying a conservation-centered ethos, we offer three messages. First, a reassuring realization: no matter how humanity ends or how much we degrade the planet during our demise, life on earth will continue. Second, a cautionary projection: paradoxically, the world’s worst ferals are the most future-proof. Invasive species management necessarily minimizes population declines and arrests extinctions in the short term, but we must remain mindful of the longer-term consequences of these actions. Gene editing now allows deleterious traits to be inserted into these invaders, retro-fitting evolutionary ‘Achilles heels’ designed to entrain eventual extinction. But the same traits and ecological circumstances that render them invasive also make them the most likely representatives of their lineages to survive the Anthropocene. Finally, a personal challenge to everyone concerned about Earth’s future: choose a lineage and a place that you care about and prioritize your actions to maximize the likelihood that they will outlive us. Acknowledging humanity’s finite future and championing our beloved groups and places affords a reassurance that individual actions matter. We really can make the world a better place.
Dave Watson is a community ecologist working at the interface between landscape ecology and conservation biology. He has long been fascinated with mistletoes, and uses these parasitic plants and their animal associates as a lens to focus understanding of mechanisms driving the distribution of diversity.