Does it Matter by Richard Leaky summary

Does it Matter

  Today we are facing a serious global ecological crisis unlike anything human kind has ever encountered.It is not because of how our ecosystem functions, but because of how of ethical system functions. The present crisis is one that can be called as a systemic crisis ( a systemic problem is one that cannot be solved in isolation, as it is related to the overall system), and it owes largely to our foolish acts

Malayalam Explanation

English Explanation

   According to Barry Commoner, the first law of ecology is " everything is related to everything else". The wide network of interconnection that do exist among the different living organisms as well as populations in our ecology is being reflected here. We human beings are just a strand in the great web of existence.


    Richard Erskine Frere Leaky is a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and the chairman of Kenyan wild life service. This essay, Does it Matter is the last of the 14 chapters in Leaky's book, The Sixth Extinction, co-authored with Roger Lewin.

    The essay begins with the reference to the famous Simon- Ehrlich wager( bet) and the two opposing views on the need to preserve our rich biodiversity. The Simon- Ehrlich wager was a scientific wager between Professor Julian Simon and the biologist Paul Ehrlich. The origins of this wager can be traced back to the pages of the journal, Social Science Quarterly. Both Simon and Ehrlich held different opinions regarding the need for preserving our rich bio- diversity. Ehrlich was of the opinion that the rich biota of our earth should be preserved at any cost, as soon as possible, whereas Simon was against it.

     Ehrlich says that we human beings generally hold an erraneous view and judgment regarding the need to preserve the  various species on earth. Some of us are least bothered about the environmental issues, the need to preserve biodiversity, it's massive destruction and time taken for regeneration.     They even think that we need not even have to be worried about all these issues. According to Ehrlich, it is foolish to remain indifferent. It is similar to saying like people are less bothered about a catastrophic fire that can destroy the world's only genetic library 4 they are unaware about the numerous valuable treasures embedded in it. At the same time the scientist would keep an examining  the matter at close quarters , checking the intensity and duration of the fire and its impacts.

   Ehrlich has his own  analogy. He says that nowadays , people seem to be less bothered about what happens around us. For example, just imagine if the giant asteroid is about to collide Earth.  Of course, there may be a small, a very small percentage of people who seem to be concerned about this,  reflecting on the past impacts   of such collisions, that caused mass extinction in the past.

    But majority like Simon and his lot,would argue that there is no need for such worries, because the scope of mass extinction arising from asteroid collision are guesswork and speculation and there is no solid evidence for such extinctions too.

    Ehrlich says that things should be taken seriously and if there were some means of deflecting the Asteroid, it should be done at any cost because negligence can give way to catastrophic results.

     Leaky now draws our attention to various important areas which he discussed in his eighth chapter of the sixth extinction here in the chapter he identifies and discuss the importance of threemajor areas.

1 economic 

2 ecosystem services

3 esthetics.


    Leaky says that we need to preserve our rich biodiversity because , the loss of diversity represents the loss of value system.

     If certain animals and plants can be used as potential sources of new food medicines and new materials then the loss of that particular species reduces that particular potential . For example we know that Omega 3 fatty acids derived from fish oil is a cure for many ailments arising from deficiency and malnutrition.

   Just imagine the loss of this kind of rich natural resources, then we will be forced to manufacture them synthetically or opt another alternative. Also we know that a large variety of medicines are being extracted from certain medicinal plants as well as certain animals so the loss of that particular species of plants as well as animals may obviously lead to the loss of that particular potential.

Ecosystem services

.   There do exist a symbiotic relationship between nature and its beings ,an interacting network of plants and animals is important for sustaining the chemistry of atmosphere and soil.

    For example the mangrove forest, which are of great ecological importance contribute to the well being of our ecosystem in diverse ways. 


    These mangrove forest that act as buffer zone between water body and land prevents soil erosion and act as a natural shield that offers protection from cyclones and other ecological disasters. They also harbour a variety of life forms( fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds) and act as breeding ground for a number of marine animals. 

Other examples of ecosystem services include natural fertilization by   pollination, seed dispersal by various animals and birds  etc. So, the loss of such species would definitely reduce the efficacy ( ability to produce the desired result) of these naturally occurring ecosystem phenomena and services.

3) Aesthetic pleasure( pleasure derived from beauty)

    If a rich diversity of species pleases our senses ,then the loss of any would definitely affect this particular value . The same has been advocated by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species. He advocated the existence of a genuinely aesthetic sense in some animals and birds. He saw animal and human aesthetics as a continuum.He saw beauty in the elaborate plumes( colourful feathers) of birds, striking colours of certain animals and plants etc.

   Also different forms of wildlife observations give us different kinds of  pleasure. So the loss of species would definitely result in the loss of values.

   so the question is do we need all the species of our rich biodiversity for satisfying the above mentioned,  three aspects or can some be lost without any harm?

    According to Simon the answer would be obvious , ie., it is not at all a serious matter of concern, as it doesn't cause any serious harm to human beings and it is foolish to preserve the entire biota for the sake of satisfying these three aspects. There is no wonder in it, because Simon's priciplal measures of value are purely economic and of immediate practicality. He raised similar concerns in one of the debates too. He said recent scientific and technical advances like seed banks and genetic engineering have diminished the importance of maintaining species in their natural habitat which means there is no need to be worried about preserving are rich biota in their natural environment because of the availability of  ample technical aids for supplementing the same.

    Here Leaky says that he cannot agree with Simon's view and he accepts the view of the famous ecologist Le Kaufman. According to kaufman , destruction of a particular species may result in wiping away of a whole species of plants, birds and animals and ultimately human beings, because everything is related to everything else .  A piece of American soul was removed along with the loss of species like ' passenger pigeon' and ' American chestnut'. so we risk eroding the human soul by allowing the erosion of our rich biodiversity . Leaky also opposes Simon's view that ,by using artificial methods and technological aids humans can derive things which we get from the natural environment naturally.  See, technologies like Seedbank and genetic engineering should only be used for supplementing and not replacement . Also Simon said that nature has ceaseless tressure of resources which can be used for millions of years.

    But this is not true, and Leaky says that he cannot agree with this , because there is something called the" input- output relationship" of nature or, a kind of give and take policy.  A sustainable living style is necessary for maintaining this equilibrium of give and take relation.  Of course, the artifice of advance  technologies , science and urban environment extra can blind us about the "input- output"( symbiotic) relationship to a particular extent, but ultimately we cannot escape from the inherent truth that lies beneath it. 

The inputs and the outputs.

    The input-output interactions are are present among all organisms ranging from fungi, that nurtures the health of plant rootlets to the cycles of water Oxygen and carbon dioxide .               This is an example of ecosystem services;  they represent the stability and health that emerge from the entire biota of the earth that is functioning as a complex dynamic system.

    Leaky says that the magnitude of our ignorance about the world upon which we live is frustratingly large and our worries are the best representations of that ignorance . We have in mind , certain questions, like,  

1)can the ecosystem be reduced in size by eliminating a proportion of species and still function effectively ?

2)can we identify the most important components and preserve them alone and remove the least important ones and still function normally?  

    These are actually manifestations of our ignorance. we are still ignorant about the law of nature that  humans are not exempted from the rules that govern the life of all other organisms .whatever befalls the Nature befall human beings too. We fail to recognise the complexities of this dynamic system.  Through continuous, ruthless exploitation and destruction of our rich biodiversity, we are indeed pushing our Nature over a threshold beyond which it might be unable to sustain and ultimately human beings. Indirectly we become both agents as well as victims of the sixth extinction.

Our present crisis 

     We human beings are only bothered about the present . we only look at the world around and find it difficult to encompass change over great periods of time, but we need to have a perspective of time in order to see where our future as a species, lies . For that,  we must retrospect into fossil records which can help us comprehend about the dynamics of living systems, at time periods beyond our current experience and imagination.

     If we look back we can see that all major catastrophic collapses of biodiversity occurred frequently in the past which were irreversible as well as unpredictable. From this, it is clearly evident that species and communities of which we are also part,  are not perfectly resilient( ability to withstand the catastrophe) to external agents of destruction. we are vulnerable and can disappear at any time and be lost forever.

We always tend to blame external agencies like extraterrestrial objects and global changes of various kinds for these catastrophic collapses of our rich biota . But we fail to see ourselves as potential agents of such crisis.  


     The ruthless cutting of tropical rainforest and encroachment on wild habitats are evidences of the same and  as a result,  mass extinctions occur.

    Each of us is  individually as well as collectively responsible for the extirpation ( destruction)of a species which should be taken seriously. 

       The anti -alarmists shall never admit this fact ,nor shall they promote the "save the species" campaign because they consider it as a total waste of time, effort as well as money. Their opinions are biased and based on speculative scientific facts like the average lifespan of a species is about 1 to 10 million years. But their  argument is foolish . it is as absurd as the idea that there is no need to treat an easily curable childhood disease, as all human beings are subject to death and decay oneday.

     Mass extinctions are sudden and can occur due to various causes like asteroid impact or whatever. But recovery is not an easy thing, it is a very slow as well as time consuming process. we human beings has been here around for 1500000 years ,so we might look forward to a further million years and at some point in future there might occur a giant asteroid collision which can instantly extirpate the majority of Earth's species including human beings. And by chance, if any human being escaped the peril, they cannot exist in isolation and Nature would go on without human beings.

Many of us can't even contemplate ( imagine)an age without human beings. So, they hope to break the biological rule and continue to live forever by recourse to space travel and colonization of other planets. Leaky says that these are mere flights of fancy born out of the arrogant belief that we human beings are above everything.  Therefore, we should admit the fact that we too shall perish one day and we should teach our children not to destroy or degrade this rich  diversity we are blessed with and the one  upon which we depend for our survival. Being the one sensient creature on earth we have a duty to to protect the lives of all the species .so we should efface ourselves from the human -centred view .

     Like all those previous biological catastrophes, the sixth extinction is also going to be catastrophic and it might wipe out the most vulnerable and those with a large body size and gradually after 5 or 20 million years, earth will start to take care of itself, and time will clear the human impact. 

     But this doesn't mean that we should not be concerned about preserving the Earth if this is to happen for sure. We arrived on earth as an  accident and we have no rights or claims over the biota .we should therefore understand the interconnectedness and interdependence of the beings of nature and it is our duty to protect and not to harm them. We should also have a holistic view of the biota , that is a holistic worldview( holistic view means seeing ourselves within the great web of life). we should perceive the  earth as a functional unit and ourselves as the part of a whole. we should be aware of the truth that the earth does not give us licence to do whatever we chose.To solve the issue of endless exploitation the rich nations can help the poor nations thereby providing a sustainable model development.

     Mass extinctions were a neglected subject of study, long time ago and they were thought to be mere interruptions in the flow of life. But now, they are recognised as a major creative force. Though five extinctions have already occured , we don't have a solid explanation of why these extinctions occured, none of the theories were proven. But the Sixth one will be entirely different from the previous ones, for we know the reason as well as the culprits. They are none other than humans.

Prepared by 

Sreelekshmi M

Department of English.