By Robert J. Burrowes
What do the Pyrenean ibex, St. Helena olive, Baiji dolphin, Liverpool pigeon, Eastern cougar, West African black rhinoceros, Formosan clouded leopard, Chinese Paddlefish, the Golden Toad and the Rockland grass skipper butterfly all have in common but which is different from the Dodo?
The answer is that these species all became extinct since the year 2000, that is, in the last fifteen years. The Dodo became extinct in 1662.
The one thing that all of these species have in common is that the cause of their extinction was human beings.
If you would like to watch a video which evocatively showcases some of the extinct species of planet Earth, you can do so here: ‘Toll a bell on Remembrance Day for Lost Species 30th November 2015‘.
The real tragedy is that the few species mentioned above do not begin to tell the story. Recent estimates indicate that 200 species of life (plants, birds, animals, fish, amphibians, insects, reptiles) are driven to extinction each day. Every day. This rate exceeds that during the last mass extinction event, when the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago.
In short, planet Earth is now experiencing its sixth mass extinction event and we are the cause. How so?
Well, human activity now impacts heavily all over the planet and we are using a variety of sophisticated industrial technologies to destroy other life forms in vast numbers and this inevitably results in the extinction of some species.
In some cases we simply hunt these life forms to extinction as a result of some misguided commerical imperative. Whether it is for food (such as whales and many species of fish), trophies (such as ‘big game’ animals), raw materials (such as the ivory of elephant tusks) or some delusional belief in their aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities (such as the horn of a rhinoceros), we kill them with sophisticated killing technologies such as harpoons, fishing nets and guns (against which they have no evolutionary defense). To give one example: sea turtles. Six out of the seven subspecies of sea turtles are endangered, according to Wildcoast. Why? ‘Sea Turtles are threatened due to the poaching and hunting of their shells, meat and eggs. Turtle eggs are sold as a snack…with the absurd belief that they possess aphrodisiac elements.’ See ‘Sea Turtles‘.
But mainly, it is two things that drive species over the edge: our systematic destruction of land habitat – forests, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, mangroves… – in our endless effort to capture more of the Earth’s wild places for human use (whether it be residential, commercial, mining, farming or military) and our destruction of waterways and the ocean habitat by dumping into them radioactive contaminants, carbon dioxide, a multitude of poisons and chemical pollutants, and even plastic. There are now ‘dead zones’ in several oceans of the world, not to mention the great floating garbage patches.
In an extensive academic study that was recently concluded, the more than 150 joint authors of the report advised that ‘most of the world’s >40,000 tropical tree species now qualify as globally threatened’. See ‘Estimating the global conservation status of more than 15,000 Amazonian tree species‘. Why are more than 40,000 tropical tree species threatened with extinction? Because ‘Upwards of 80,000 acres of rainforest are destroyed across the world each day, taking with them over 130 species of plants, animals and insects.’ See ‘Half of Amazon Tree Species Face Extinction‘.
Or consider frogs.
Relatively speaking, we pay a lot of attention to big and colorful species but the species you have never heard about or which are less ‘exotic’ need to be valued too. Such as frogs which, among other invaluable services from a limited human perspective, eat malarial mosquitoes. ‘Frogs have survived in more or less their current form for 250 million years, having survived countless ice ages, asteroid crashes, and other environmental disturbances, yet now one-third of amphibian species are on the verge of extinction.’ See ‘Save the Frogs!‘
But not all of our destruction is as visible as our vanishing rainforests and the iconic species that vanish with them. Have you thought about the Earth’s soil recently? Apart from depleting it, for example, by washing it away (sometimes in dramatic mudslides but usually unobtrusively) because we have logged the rainforest that held it in place, we also dump vast quantities of both inorganic and organic pollutants into it as well. Some of the main toxic substances in waste are inorganic constituents such as heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. Mining and smelting activities and the spreading of metal-laden sewage sludge are the two main culprits responsible for the pollution of soils with heavy metals. See ‘Soil-net‘.
Far more common, however, is our destruction of the soil with organic based pollutants associated with industrial chemicals. Thousands of synthetic chemicals reach the soil by direct or indirect means, often in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other poisons that destroy the soil, by reducing the nutrients and killing the microbes, in which we grow our food. See, for example, ‘Glyphosate effects on soil rhizosphere-associated bacterial communities‘.
Using genetically modified organisms, and the chemical poisons on which they rely, exacerbate this problem terribly. But two other outcomes of the use of such poisons are that the depleted soil can no longer sequester carbon and the poisons also kill many of the beneficial insects, such as bees, that play a part in plant pollination and growth.
And, of course, military contamination and destruction of soil is prodigious ranging from the radioactive contamination of vast areas to the extensive and multifaceted chemical contamination that occurs at military bases.
Like destroying the oceans, destroying the soil is an ongoing investment in future extinctions.
Anyway, if so far you have been unconcerned about the fate of our fellow species, you would be wise to reconsider. If you haven’t checked them lately, there are lists of critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and near threatened species. But heading all of these lists, there should be one other: homo sapiens sapiens. With human extinction now possible by 2030 – see ‘Why is Near Term Human Extinction Inevitable?‘ – we do not have much time left to respond powerfully. Humans, as many ecologists have been noting for decades, are only one part of the web of life. Our fellow species make the Earth habitable. We cannot live here without them.
So the key question is not ‘Do you really want to live in a world without elephants?’ The key question is ‘Do you really want to live?’
If you do, then you need to act. At the simplest level, you can make some difficult but valuable personal choices. Like becoming a vegan or vegetarian, buying/growing organic/biodynamic food, and resolutely refusing to use any form of poison. But if you want to take an integrated approach, the biggest impact you can have as an individual is to systematically reduce your own personal ‘ecological footprint’ in consideration of our fellow species.
If you wish to consider such an approach, you are welcome to ponder joining those participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth‘ which outlines an easy series of steps for reducing your consumption in seven key resource areas by 10% per year for 15 successive years while simultaneously building your self-reliance. You can also consider signing the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘ which obviously includes nonviolence towards our fellow species.
In addition, you can participate in ongoing campaigns by a multitude of organisations that campaign to preserve one or more threatened species from extinction. If we can save enough other species, we might just save ourselves.
Extinction might be howling outside our door but we don’t have to cower waiting for someone else to save us. What you do personally makes a vital difference.
And here’s one final thought. Four billion years ago there was no life on Earth. Then, in what can only be described as a miracle (and you can decide your own preference about the nature of that miracle), a single cell came to life. Perhaps this miracle was then repeated in subsequent years.
But however and how often it occurred, every living organism since that time, including every organism that lives today, is linked in an unbroken chain with that first living cell (or those first living cells). Four billion years of evolution which includes you as a unique individual.
There may be life elsewhere in the Universe. But it does exist here, on Earth. And it has had time to evolve to a complexity that includes us.
Until we understand, as Gandhi understood, that all life is one, we live disconnected from the most fundamental truth of our existence. If we kill something else, we kill a part of our self.