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Austin Yang

Year-Prize: The 13th Eco-generation Environmental Essay Competition     Item: Time for Nature

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Austin Yang (USA)
Honorable Mentions



I remember a time when I heard the melodic chirps of birds as the sun peeked its radiant head above the horizon. A time when, while feasting on a hotpot dinner during a gelid, winter day, I saw deer roaming in my backyard, grazing on the snow-covered emerald grass. A time when, while playing tennis with a friend, squirrels scurried in the background, foraging for stray nuts and seeds on the ground.
Sadly, I can only remember these times.
Nowadays, no birds are there to greet me in the morning. No arachnids are there to remind me of my crippling arachnophobia. No crickets are there to sooth me good night as I fall into a deep slumber. I’ve gone on for weeks without seeing a single bird, months without seeing a single squirrel - animals that I used to see on a regular basis. Even community parks are filled with nothing but screaming children and exhausted parents. It feels...off. Sure, I know animals exist, having seen plenty of images of turtles and rabbits; yet, I find myself questioning, rather irrationally, whether they still exist on Earth.
I fear that my questioning is becoming more rational.
The finite variety of life on Earth is slowly whittling away before our eyes - even as I write this essay. One-fifth of the species who roamed Earth merely a century ago are now gone forever. Over 40% and 33% of amphibian and coral species, respectively, are at significant risk of dying off.  Even one third of mammals, thought to be the most resilient form of life, may not exist in the foreseeable future. What’s alarming is how much of this is attributed to humans. Humans have demolished thousands of acres of historic habitats in place of farmlands and pastures. They have recklessly allowed invasive species to choke out native wildlife, and even more recklessly attempt to remove them with detrimental methods. They have obliterated the webs of healthy ecosystems, eradicating millions, if not billions of others.
Ironically, humanity is destroying the very thing that bolstered its prosperity, as if it was slowly cutting off the branch that it itself sits on. Biodiversity yields the raw materials, from timber to tilapia, that has allowed the human race to build expansive societies. It maintains the delicate balance of atmospheric gases that fostered the growth of humans. It provides a plethora of raw data for experts that result in humanity’s multitude of discoveries. This irony, however, brings a firm warning alongside it: the eradication of biodiversity equals the eradication of society.
I am not suggesting that humans return to primitive lifestyles. On the contrary, as someone fascinated by the endless abilities of technology, I believe that the prudent use of biotechnology and genomics may allow us to halt, if not reverse the decline of biodiversity. This can be done through a 3 branched initiative called the PRE plan. Like its Latin name suggests, the PRE plan would stimulate humanity’s efforts to return to a position before Earth’s rapid biodiversity loss.
(P)reservation. To prepare for the potential extinction of thousands of threatened plant species, is it imperative that humans store and preserve genetic material, whether it be DNA sequences, tissue cultures, or intact seeds, with methods such as suspending plant cells in a growth medium or cryopreservation. If extinction of the wild species does occur, preservation would allow humans to regenerate that species from stored tissues and reintroduce it back to the environment, thus “reversing” extinction. Perhaps the most well established example of this practice is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Holding more than 930,000 different varieties of crops’ seeds in extreme frost, this vault is a reserve for many species in the case of a severe loss of biodiversity, such as a global catastrophe. Admittedly, while regenerated species will have significantly lower amounts of genetic variation as a result of the bottleneck effect, the regeneration of a species is still desirable relative to its permanent extinction.        
(R)eformation. Humans’ impact on global diversity can be minimized through methods to reduce environmental impact. By genetically engineering crops to favor productivity per unit of land, more crops can be grown in less space, reducing the area of cropland necessary for agriculture. Genetically engineering crops to favor shelf life, such as the Arctic Apple, reduce crop deterioration and subsequent food waste, further decreasing the demand for land. Development of biofuels from quick growing organisms such as algae will reduce the human dependence on nonrenewable resources, such as coal or oil, reducing carbon emissions and fostering a circular economy. Though lowering humanity’s terrestrial impact may appear counterintuitive to development, it must be considered that the environment is tightly intertwined with the human economy, food security, infrastructure, and livelihoods. Regardless of how much society develops, the downfall of the environment will inevitably result in the destruction of several crucial pillars of society and the ultimate demise of humanity. 
(E)valuation. Whether it be habitat loss, climate change, or destructive pollution, the lives of countless species have already been irreversibly damaged. Thus, in order to save the maximum number of species, humans must regularly assess several factors of species’ health, such as genetic diversity and adaptability to changes, through genomic technologies such as barcoding. Regular assessment and surveillance on the health of a species will foster early identification of threatened species, allowing humans to take necessary conservation efforts to protect the remaining individuals. Despite appearing as the least impactful of the three branches, evaluation will reduce the enormous number of species that silently fall into extinction, a terrifying phenomenon seen in the present.
Truely, the uncontrollable loss of biodiversity is one of the most critical crises of the modern era. However, rapid developments in biotechnology and genomics have placed humans in a powerful position to combat this issue. It is urgent that humanity utilize its developments in modern technology to combat such mass extinction, so that the birds can continue chirping, the deer can continue grazing, and the squirrels can continue foraging.


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