Training for my channel swim at Oxford University’s Rosenblatt pool, I am humbled by achievement, and that’s before I even enter the gates. The sports complex adjoins the running track where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier for the first time in 1954. I can almost picture him bracing for the line, surrounded by timekeepers and journalists in flat caps with wide open mouths. And the images are in black and white of course, because although the same year heralded another first, ironically for the color tv, techincolor didn’t catch on at the BBC until 1968.
It is a peculiar human condition to desire to be first at something. There is a whole bible, otherwise known as The Guinness Book of Records dedicated to the pursuit of being the first, the fastest, the fittest and even the fattest.
And I am no different when it comes to the competitive spirit: amongst the 1,000 people to have swum the channel, I am hopeful to lay claim to some obscure first. But scouring the list of swimmers and achievements, all the usual suspects have already been bagged. Yvetta Hlavacova has rather selfishly taken two titles, being the fastest woman, as well as the tallest at 6’5”. Knocks my modest 5’10” right into touch.
I’m not even the first person with my relatively uncommon surname to swim the channel. No, despite never having met another Chisholm who is not a close relative, someone has beaten me to that too.
So unless I’m going to set a new record for being the fastest (as unlikely as to be virtually statistically impossible), or perhaps the slowest (much better odds, place your bets now), it seems I’ll have to settle for second place. Or more accurately 1097th place. Taking on this challenge may set me apart from Joe public but amongst channel swimmers I am decidedly average.
But being first isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The human race is facing the dubious honor of being the first species responsible for the greatest mass extinction since a catastrophic event wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretacious.
For the planet’s biodiversity, we are the catastrophic event.
In Neolithic times, scientists estimate that just 20-30 species were becoming extinct every year. The population rocket first fuelled by the success of these early farmers and later by advances in industry, technology and medicine, has sent these numbers into the stratosphere. Today around 20,000-30,000 species are thought to die out each year. In 20 years time, this could be closer to 200-300,000, according to eminent ecologist Professor E O Wilson.
Put simply, the more of us there are, the less there is of everything else.
Darwin, whose Origin of the Species celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, would be turning in his grave. While he made it his life’s work to unravel the secrets of evolution, we threaten to send our fellow creatures on a one way ticket to oblivion.
Many of these species have yet to be documented, which leaves us in the unenviable position of killing things before we have even had a chance to discover them. And you may question the loss of plants and animals we don’t even know exist, but what will be the legacy of their disappearance on the delicate balance between the biodiversity of our planet and the ecosystems that support it?
When it comes to firsts, we fall at the feet of other species. Despite our technology and invention, we are still out paced by animals when it comes to running, swimming, flying and navigation. Even the human dynamo Usain Bolt, has nothing on the cheetah. But the world’s fastest mammal faces a race against extinction. And what of the animals without such good PR?
Take the saola, a species of Asian wild cattle. Never heard of it? Nor had anyone else until 1992. It may not have the poster boy good looks of the polar bear, but it’s no aye-aye either. This striking animal, more antelope than bovine in its features, is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN’s red list. It is being hunted to extinction in its remote habitat in the Annamite Mountains on the border of Lao PDR and Vietnam. At a push, we have just 20 years to save it.
Luckily for the saola, the IUCN has set up a working group to support its conservation. But its future and that of hundreds of thousands of other species, both documented and unknown, hangs in the balance. We face a devastating loss of biodiversity within the blink of an evolutionary eye.
2010 may be designated as its ‘year’, but biodiversity is the Cinderella of the environmental agenda, waiting in the wings as climate change holds the stage. And when the Copenhagen merry-go-round is over and Cinders finally takes her rightful place at the ball, let’s hope enough guests remain to witness her transformation.