The Writer’s Life: Mob-sourcing extinction education (and fun!)

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Our own version of Charles Dickens’ famous opener to A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” might go something like this:  On the one hand, we are choking off our life-line to biodiversity, big time.

If you really want to know about it, as Holden Caulfield would say, check out “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” a recent Nature paper by U.C. Berkeley’s Anthony Barnosky and lots of other researchers, including his wife, Stanford’s Elizabeth Hadley.

In it these earnest brain-heavy folk point out that human impacts on the Earth are such that a “planetary-scale tipping point” may soon be reached “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” Suffice it to say, the changes likely to occur do not include chocolate ice cream for everyone or anything else very nice.

On the other hand, according to Michael Nielson in Reinventing Discovery: the New Era of Networked Science, we are also in the midst of “a great change in how knowledge is constructed.” Massive computing power and instantaneous connection possible between ideas is “speeding up the rate of all scientific discovery. It means speeding up things such as curing cancer, solving the climate-change problem,” etc.

Nielson’s book is a fine overview of recent advances made possible by online collaboration, and the increasing “openness” of science to everyone with access to a computer. He is a true geek head but also notes the warm and cosy feelings issuing from Galaxy Zoo, an online “citizen science” project whereby regular citizens help figure out what’s up there all around us in the universe. It turns out that doing science is really fun and makes you feel good; it also helps increase the general store of human knowledge.

Can our faster on-the-draw pace of scientific discovery keep pace with the threats to life issuing from our over-population and over-consumption? I hope so. One of the important factors in pushing Earth towards this bad tipping point is extinction. Yes, when plants and animals go extinct, we lose not only the products of millions of years of evolution, creation itself, but we lose key players in what makes the biosphere healthy. As Barnosky and company put it, “Removal of keystone species worldwide, especially large predators at upper trophic levels, has exacerbated changes caused by less direct impacts, leading to increasingly simplified and less stable ecological networks.”

Okay so let’s play a game. It’s called xeko.com, and it’s all about extinction. Creator Amy Tucker has made a colorful board game with playing cards including such concepts as biodiversity hotspots, energy flows, competition, and predation. It’s a lot easier than that sounds. Players actually construct ecosystems as they go. It’s an organic and attractive way to get people (because let’s face it, it isn’t just kids who need to learn this stuff) to become beguiled by the workings of the natural world.

Once you get a sense of that, you won’t want to let it go. And in a full-circle kind of a way, xeko.com is actually the product of crowd-sourced networking itself. Check out the story on Youtube!

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