Imperial ecologists make the case for long-termism in conservation

by ,

A older bird tamer monitors a younger child as they hold a kookaburra.

To tackle planetary extinction threats millions of years in the future, humanity must start paying attention now, researchers argue.

Almost a century has passed since scientists first presented evidence of the Earth’s warming temperature, and recent research into global biodiversity loss and rises in extreme weather events makes it clear that climate change is no longer a distant threat.

But experts in biodiversity at Imperial College London, Australia, Spain and the US advocate for the urgent need for improved international collaboration to tackle threats to life on Earth beyond the current climate crisis. 

In a paper published in the journal BioScience on 21 February, scientists called for the need to think about the risks to biodiversity on Earth hundreds of millions of years from the present.

A ticking clock

From the very start of the Solar System, time has been ticking towards the natural end of our star Associate Professor Francisco Garcia-Gonzalez Donana Biological Station (Spanish Research Council) and the University of Western Australia

“From the very start of the Solar System, time has been ticking towards the natural end of our star,” said Associate Professor Francisco Garcia-Gonzalez from Donana Biological Station (Spanish Research Council) and the University of Western Australia, one of the paper’s lead authors. Planetary extinction threats, such as the eventual death of our Sun, should be considered right now, researchers say.

"Though thinking about the death of our star may be a dreary and frightful prospect," the researchers argue that we are still in time to prepare and plan for different scenarios, if humanity starts thinking about solutions before it is too late.

Picture of Milky Way.
Source: NASA Hubble Telescope / Flickr

Some examples of the problems explored in the paper include the depletion of natural resources, accelerated climate change and the loss of biodiversity. The researchers discuss a recent ‘paradigm shift,’ where society is increasingly aware of conservation issues.

The authors explain that the awareness has potentially helped mitigate a few global problems we face today and has potentially helped the next few generations, there is an urgent need to come up with a long-term plan that would ensure a brighter future for all future generations.

Thinking cosmically about conservation

The researchers advocate for the adoption of a ‘cosmic perspective to conservation,’ including humankind’s own conservation.

This means that while humankind is currently in the middle of multiple environmental and climate emergencies that it is trying combat currently, we should also consider the event of an inevitable planetary emergency far into the future.

Illustration of different planetary crises on different timescales, spanning to 7500 Myr.
Overview of current short-term and potential long-term (planetary and cosmic) perspectives on conservation.

This calls for a global effort, where humanity not only evaluates the importance of planetary-scale dangers and how fast they may arrive, but also the speed of our own timescales in reacting and solving them.

Planetary-scale crises, like the eventual extinction of the Sun, may require more complex political and social infrastructures to solve, as well as longer timescales to create and implement those solutions. 

Leaving enough time to think about these problems will determine whether humanity can escape or cope with a worldwide crisis. The researchers describe this kind of planetary emergency as a “the point of no return” for the maintenance of biodiversity on Earth.

Dr Aurelio Malo from the Department of Life Sciences said: “To consider the end of humanity for astronomical reasons may seem ridiculous to many people as it goes too far away into the future… but we should discuss and prepare for events that may compromise our long-term future and that of all known life forms.”

Thinking ahead

The team put forward potential long-term solutions to current problems, bringing attention to the fact that societies have previously demonstrated feats of international collaboration, resulting in change for the better on a global scale.

Examples include the expansion of renewable energy technologies, the commercial whaling moratorium and the relative stabilisation of the ozone layer as a result of policies regarding the use of substances that destroy it.

At the end of the day, we are custodians of biodiversity. Dr Aurelio Malo Department of Life Sciences

Professor Garcia-Gonzalez said: “We now understand that we can damage the world in a way that it will damage us back. This is the point of maturity as a species, realising our actions have consequences and that it is our responsibility to sustain life for future generations.”

The authors argue that it is our duty as a civilisation to give biodiversity a life-supporting system beyond the death of our star.

Dr Malo said: “As the only known civilisation with an understanding of biological evolution, we have two ethical responsibilities. First, to provide life-supporting systems for biodiversity beyond our Sun's collapse, and second, to leave other potential civilisations in the universe evidence of the process of biological evolution in our Solar System."

“At the end of the day, we are custodians of biodiversity. It's our house so we need to care about it,” he said.


'Scientists’ warning to humanity for long-term planetary thinking on biodiversity and humankind preservation, a cosmic perspective' by Francisco Garcia-Gonzalez, William J Ripple, Aurelio F Malo is published in BioScience. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biad108


Jacklin Kwan

Jacklin Kwan
Faculty of Natural Sciences

Alex Epshtein

Alex Epshtein
Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication


Global-challenges-Natural-world, Government-and-policy, Climate-change, Global-health, Environment
See more tags