If you put the earth’s history on the face of a clock, humans arrived just a few seconds before midnight. Nevertheless, we have managed to shape this planet to an unrecognisable state. We have changed global weather patterns, altered vast expanses of land, pillaged the oceans and pushed the species we share this planet with close to extinction.
In the earth’s history there has been many different periods, consisting of different climates and lifeforms. There has also been 5 previous mass extinctions where whole sets of species have been wiped out. However, this 6th mass extinction is different as it is caused by a single species, humans. We have managed to make such a difference to our planet that scientists suggest we have entered a new age – the Anthropocene. Long after humans have been wiped out, the scar of our existence will be marked in the sedimentary rock.
We are currently living in the period called the Holocene, which in the scale of things is short lived. Starting around 12,000 years ago, it has been coined the Goldie locks period. There has been a very stable climate, not too hot and not too cold. This has been perfect for vast species radiation and ideal for the rise of humans. Now this climate is changing, it is changing because of us. We have pumped so much greenhouse gases (Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrogen etc.) through our industrialisation that our climate is rapidly shifting.
The last mass extinction event (KT) that killed the dinosaurs, was caused by an asteroid strike. The four before that are thought to either have happened due to volcanic carbon dioxide release or by melting ice sheets releasing vast amounts of methane. Our current rise in carbon dioxide levels is around 100 times more than what previously lead to mass extinction. We have raised methane levels over 100 times what has been seen in human history. Could humans be driving a 6th mass extinction event?
The process of burning and gathering fossil fuels has been catastrophic to our natural world. The pollution we have caused has already been documented in history through coral cores, ice cores, tree rings and peat bogs. We have truly stamped our place in the history of the earth. This climate change is causing coral bleaching, increased wildfires, extreme weather events, heavy nitrogen deposition and acidifying oceans, all because the way humans are living. This is leading to rapid biodiversity loss across our planet.
Naturally species are expected to become extinct at a rate of one in a million every year. We are pushing this extinction rate 1000 higher than it should be. This rapid loss of species can be directly attributed to human activity. A great example comes from global fisheries. The global fish take was relatively stable until a huge increase occurred as the world’s population boomed in the 1950’s. In the year 2000 this increase in fish take started to level off. This was not because we stopped trying, it is because we are beginning to lose our fish stock due to massive over consumption. Humans have been taking advantage of the planets primary productive activity, with little regard to the consequences of such actions.
In 100 years we could have lost 50% of the earth’s species. 99% of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily climate change but also introduction of exotic species, habitat loss and over-consumption. Insect populations have declined by 75% in the last 25 years, leading to rapid losses of song birds who rely on the insects. 50% of frog species could be lost in the next 20 years, with some species not having been described by science yet. The IUCN estimates that half the globes 5,491 known mammals are declining in population and a fifth are clearly at risk of disappearing forever.
We are losing iconic species like elephants, orangutans and whales. We happily depict such amazing animals in movies and stories but yet we allow these creatures populations to plummet in real life. For example, 250,000 sharks are killed a day for the shark fin soup industry. Surviving 4 mass extinction events, we have managed to reduce shark populations by 90% in just 40 years. Allowing keystone species like sharks and elephants to go extinct will lead to mass ecological cascades as the ecosystems in which they live will not be able to function without them.
Just last week Sudan, 45 years old, the last living male Northern White Rhinoceros died. Leaving just his two granddaughters alive, this species is now essentially extinct. The death of Sudan gathered much media attention online with people showing much concern. However, this is far too late. We cannot only give species attention after they die or when there are only a handful left.
Species populations are in rapid decline. On average populations fell by 58% from 3706 different species between 1970-2012. Our focus on preserving pairs of species to put in a Noah’s ark style conservation programme represents a hopeful impulse that digs with an understandable preference for charismatic beasts and beautiful landscapes. These iconic natural wonders command attention that the faceless fisheries, swarms of insects and permafrost habitats fail to gather, despite the fact they are quietly disappearing. But this is not our fault, the media offers no coverage of these disasters, for us to discover them we must look for them.
Why should we care that our species and habitats are disappearing? Species diversity ensures ecosystem resilience, giving ecological communities not only the scope they need to withstand stress but the power to provide ecosystem functions such as pollination or water recycling, that we humans actually rely on.
Perhaps the best example comes from the oceans. Phytoplankton in our seas create half the oxygen we breathe. Yet we have lost 40% of phytoplankton production in just 50 years. If plankton hadn’t produced oxygen levels, then prehistoric animals could have never moved out of the ocean and given rise to species like us. This goes to show that we not only need to conserve are species rich rainforests but we need to conserve all of our planets ecosystems, as it is from this very matrix of life that we are able to flourish ourselves. If we continue along the line of biodiversity collapse, we are sure to endure a socio-economic collapse for our own species.
The truth is the human race has all the money and intelligence that is needed to stop these problems and halt the destruction of our planet. The question is do we have the will? The world and its species are calling out for help, but who is listening. Our governments along with the world’s richest companies continue to fill their pockets and assert their dominance off the back of our planets natural resources. We are the ones that need to make the change. We need to make these things socially unacceptable, just like we did with drink driving and smoking, only then governments will be forced to make big changes.
Perhaps the biggest problem is our disconnection to the natural world. At the end of the day, we are nature and yet we are so caught up in our consumerism lifestyles that we can no longer connect with nature. If we can engage people and get them to care about their natural world, then we can start to better protect it.
There are many things we can do to help turn the tide. We can vote for greener governments to encourage a switch towards renewable energy and force them to start taxing the industries that are destroying our planet. This could reduce income taxes lifting poverty as well as halting the destruction of our planet.
We can change the way we go about our everyday activities. For example, installing solar panels on your house could save enough fuel to drive a car more than halfway around the world each year. Perhaps the biggest thing you could do would be to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet. We currently have an incredibly unsustainable way of feeding ourselves. If every American skipped meat and cheese just one day a week for a year, it would be the same as taking 7,600,000 cars off the road.
In the past, it has taken life ten to thirty million years to recover after a mass extinction. We are entering the 6th mass extinction event, but it is not too late. We have the power to stop and change direction. It is our job to make these stories the ones we talk about, to engage people with our planets problems. We can encourage people to get involved with conservation projects and adapt their life to favour the environment. Every effort does count, and as a Japanese priest once said “it’s better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness”.