When you talk to earth scientists, the problem is climate change, and the verdict is that life will be several percent more difficult, in a century or so. When you talk to economists, the problem is resource limits, and the prognosis is positively rosy if we get our act together, but deadline is only about 20 years. But by far, the scientists who are most concerned with (both most fearful of and most riveted by) the coming crisis are ecologists. For them, the loss of species and the degradation of ecosystems is like watching Humpty Dumpty already smashing into the ground, and knowing that no royal calvary will be able to put him back together.
One of my classes this term is Sustainability Science, co-taught between Harvard, Columbia, Arizona and Minnesota States. Last week the topic was biodiversity, and the two main points were (1) we now have plenty of evidence that it matters, and (2) we're losing it fast. The reading I enjoyed the most was old news to the ecologists in the room: a chapter from E.O. Wilson's Consilience. He argues that, like an aggregate Indiana Jones, society is racing toward a quickly closing hole in the wall that forms the future of our planet. If we aren't careful, we'll hit the wall, and even our survival will be at risk. We can apply all our technical genius to get through the hole in time, but for every pair of prosthetic legs we build, we make civilization more precarious and alienated. The challenge is to carry as much of the natural world through the hole with us.
Here's the chapter we read: To What End? Skip the first couple pages to where it says to start reading (before that is a rant I can't endorse).