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planet burning extinction crisis


The Sixth Mass Extinction: An Inside Job

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has just announced the extinction of 23 new species of bird, mussel and fish – a harsh reminder of the human impact on global biodiversity. Additionally, around one million new species of flora and fauna are threatened, more than ever before in history. The sixth mass extinction is well underway.

About 98% of the organisms that ever existed on our planet are now extinct. Mass extinctions refer to the loss of 75% of species over a short geological time period, which can be up to 2.8 million years. There have been five since the start of life on Earth. However, comparative to previous mass extinction events caused by asteroids or the end of the ice age, this sixth mass extinction is the work of humankind. Research suggests that without human interference, species that have already perished could have persisted for another 800 to 10,000 years. This mass extinction event is occurring at an accelerated rate to any one preceding it.

“Never before has a single species been responsible for such destruction on Earth”

The Natural History Museum

Most believe this mass extinction has been caused by climate change and to an extent, this plays a large role. However, the most devastating loss of biodiversity is caused by urbanisation and forcing animals out of their natural habitats. This event is the result of human encroachment on true wilderness, pressuring our natural ecosystems and shifting organisms to less than optimal geographic ranges. Since 1900, native species have shrunk to 20% in land-based habitats from habitat fragmentation and biproducts thereof, such as soil degradation, deforestation and pollution.

Furthermore, unique to this mass extinction event, we are recording the disappearance of our larger vertebrate species such as whales, sea turtles, and birds. In the last 45 years alone, the vertebrate population has plummeted to 52%. Most species of which are mobile and able to shift their geographic range, yet leave behind sessile species that rely far more heavily on specific environmental conditions.

Thousands of whales are killed each year due to human interference in their habitats. They are deeply affected by habitat loss, often caught by large fishing nets, or massacred for their meat and body parts.

Nearly all species of sea turtle are now on the endangered list, slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells. They also face habitat destruction and are often caught in bycatch from human fishing activities.

The irony of this, is that no species is safe, including us. Loss of species will be detrimental to our society, due to the loss of ecosystem services and the benefits we obtain from our surrounding environment, which make human life both possible and worth living. Consequential effects may be seen in the future in the form of provisioning services such as food and water, or regulatory services such as storm protection.

The rest of the century does not look promising, with natural disasters exacerbating habitat destruction. Despite a large focus of the climate change initiative focussing on individual efforts, loss of natural resources and habitat degradation is largely owed to a small proportion of individuals and companies. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect all business activity to suddenly stop for the sake of the environment but luckily, such an extreme solution is not necessary to save it. However, it is also no longer enough to merely ‘raise climate awareness’, if the world is not ‘aware’ by this stage, then we really are doomed.

Instead, our focus should be to develop concepts such as sustainable finance, travel, and agriculture to give them a clear meaning with high standards and non-negotiable limits. By doing this, we place our environment at the forefront, with all human activity able to endure only to the extent that it respects the flourishing of nature. This will result in the reshaping of human habits in line with the very pleasant realisation that a healthier environment means better business, enhanced travel, and more abundant agriculture. It is all about balance.

Unlike the end of an ice age or asteroid event, humans can be reasoned with. With intense and rapid change in attitude and activity, we have the capability of curbing the annihilation of thousands of species. And quite honestly, if we want to survive, we do not have a choice. What we humans sometimes fail to understand, is that nature will not suffer, but survive without us. We, on the other hand, need nature and cannot survive without it. Thus, if we want to flourish, nature must flourish.