Recently, we celebrated Mother’s Day, a day to commemorate and contemplate how wonderful our mothers are and to acknowledge their love—past and present. Additionally, as inhabitants of this planet, we should be encouraged to commemorate the “mother of us all”, our Mother Earth, and our place in it as human beings.
Worryingly, the “Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” (IPBES) recently released a preliminary report on May 6th about the current alarming rate of extinction for nearly one million species heading for demise—what scientists are calling the “sixth extinction”—from the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) headquarters in Paris, France.
Why the “sixth extinction”, you might ask? Well, there have been 5 mass extinctions of life on earth over millions of years of evolution. While our understanding of “extinction events” is somewhat incomplete from the fossil record, paleontologists generally agree at least five such events occurred on a massive scale.
The first happened around 450 million years ago with the “Ordovician-Silurian Extinction Event” which wiped out almost 70% of life on earth. Imagine the Earth being dominated by shallow seas and life commanded mostly by squid-like creatures (cephalopods), snail-like animals (gastropods), clam-like creatures (pelecypods) and trilobites (a segmented-insect-like swimming arthropod), corals (coelenterates), and sponges (Porifera). In another one-hundred million years, there was the “Late Devonian Extinction” (360 m.y.a), which some paleontologists believe lasted for as long as twenty-million years, causing again approximately the same loss of life among clam-like, snail-like, and segmented-bodied insect-looking creatures.
Approximately, one-hundred million years later was the “Permian-Triassic Extinction” (250 m.y.a.), also known as the “Great Dying”, or the worst extinction in Earth’s geological history, killing off about 90% of Earth’s animal species. It was when only about 5% of sea creatures survived and almost all trees were eradicated. During this period, there were strange reptilian-mammalian-like creatures roaming the planet. Some are known as “synapsids”, canine-looking lizards with sailfish fanned-backs, and dog-sized “dicynodonts” with turtle-like beaks and males sporting large toothy-fangs along with the Lystrosaurus, a flat-faced pygmy-hippo-like animal with protruding tusks, and the Dinogorgon, a ten-foot long, Sabertoothish-looking reptile. Among paleontologists, it is still a mystery as to the direct culprit to this massive extinction. Some believe the atmosphere may have been poisoned by volcanic gases and a prevalence of acidic rains.
With continent separating, intensive volcanic activity, and Pangea rifts, came the “Triassic-Jurassic Extinction” (200 m.y.a.) when almost ¾ of Earth’s species were wiped out. This was a time of giant salamander-like vertebrates called Metoposaurus and Temnospondyls, large-skulled crocodilian-salamander-like, perhaps amphibious beasts, wandering around primordial swamps.
Then after almost 140 million years (66 m.y.a.) was perhaps the most famous extinction, the end of the “dinosaur” era, the “Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction”. When those beasties made famous by Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park (1990), and Steven Spielberg film adaptation, were resuscitated: Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, Parasaurolophus, and Argentinosaurus. In all likelihood, a giant asteroid struck the Earth at the tip of the present-day Yucatán Peninsula, known as the “Chicxulub Crater”.
Of course, “megafauna”, from the last “Ice Age” in the transition period from the Pleistocene to Holocene around 13,000 (B.C.E), became extinct, such as: Mastodon (Mammut americanum), Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), Giant Ground Sloth (Megatherium), Saber-toothed Tiger (Smilodon), and Woolly Rhinocerus (Coelodonta antiquitatis). Nevertheless, the Holocene extinction continues to the present. Some climatologists and paleontologists distinguish the present era as a time shift named the “Anthropocene” as beginning with the “Agricultural Revolution” around 15,000 years ago, or more recently with the first successful test of the nuclear bomb in 1945 A.D. Doing so, underlines the advent of human causation of climate change and the irreversible role of Homo sapiens affecting the planet.
In returning to the recent IPBES report, it characterizes the drivers of the so-called “sixth extinction” for numerous combined reasons. For example, “75 per cent of global food crop types, including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and almonds, rely on animal pollination”. Alarmingly, insect pollinators like bees are dying out on an unprecedented scale, a fact known for some time with causation from a variety of factors such as ubiquitous usage of “pesticides and fungicides” and from pathogenic viruses and “parasitic mites” in beehives.
Furthermore, coastal ecosystems and coral reefs have been devastated across the planet. Such habitat losses create greater risks to human life from flooding and hurricanes through the lack of natural barriers.
According to IPBES statistics: “Seventy-five per cent of the land surface is significantly altered, 66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands (area) has been lost.”
More specifically, according to the IPBES World Team of Scientists, Sandra Diaz, Josef Settele, and Eduardo Brondízio, et. al.: “Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before. An average of around 25 per cent of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened, suggesting that around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.”
This prestigious scientific team points to five major drivers to today’s extinction, which are: 1) land and sea alterations from human management; 2) widespread exploitation of organisms; 3) unprecedented climate change; 4) large-scale pollution; and 5) pervasive invasions from alien species into new habitats.
As biological beings, we are dependent on the Earth and its wellbeing. If Nature is in peril, and it is, we are in dire jeopardy as well. Our survival as a species on this planet is wholly dependent on the survival of other species and the ecosystems which support them.
If anyone doubts the veracity of species extinction, and whether or not losing only one species really makes any difference, take the example of “re-introductions” of grey wolves (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and the evidence for ecosystem habitat renewal and transformation. In scientific terms this is called a “trophic cascade”. According to the likes of Ripple and Beschta (2004), it begins from the top of the food chain, with leading predators such as grey wolves, and trickles down the food pyramid with the culling of herbivores such as elk (Cervus elaphus), thereby allowing for recuperation of flora as willows (Salix spp.), for example, and over time, even modifying the course of rivers. It is a natural knock-on effect with healthier elk populations and tree species recoveries such as aspens (Populus tremuloides), while also resulting in the return of beavers (Castor canadensis) to the park.
There are some artists who have captured our chaos and our propensity for self-destruction better than others. In my view, a prominent one is the cinematographer, Ron Fricke with his avant-garde time-lapse photography, resulting in kaleidoscopic journeys around the world, depicting varieties of human religions and human experiences, as well as disturbing examples of human violence and colossal destruction, and stunning visions of nature and the natural world, in juxtaposition with mind-numbing human exploitation.
His best works are: Koyaanisqatsi (1982, a Hopi word for “life out of balance”), Baraka (1992, a Hebrew word meaning “blessing” and in Arabic “God’s life force”), and Samsara (2011, a Sanskrit word meaning “cyclical change” or “life cycle”). Such visual mnemonic devices demonstrate to popular audiences just how precarious the human predicament really is—beyond scientific reports and warnings from United Nations umbrella-organizations.
As the eminent and emeritus Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, once stated that the ultimate irony of humanity’s evolution is: “…that in the instant of achieving self-understanding through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations.”
Yet, we should not fail to lose hope. As Elizabeth Kolbert (2014), remarked in her book, The Sixth Extinction: an unnatural history: “Another possibility—considered by some to be more upbeat—is that human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion.”
Certainly, we must take such reports as the one from IPBES seriously. Not only pondering the existential threat we have created for ourselves, and not because the peril extends to other species, but because the peril is for the very fate of humanity itself, and whether or not our own extinction inevitable.
By J. P. Linstroth, author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) .
J.P. Linstroth has a PhD from the University of Oxford in Social and Cultural Anthropology and is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil.