Currently holding center stage among environmental concerns is Climate Change. Climate Change threatens climate stability in the near future, indeed, even now. Global Warming from increasing CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gasses primarily from the human burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for rising seas, coastal flooding, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, disappearing polar ice caps, warming atmosphere and oceans producing erratic and increasingly severe weather patterns. This leads to bigger storms, droughts, forest fires, and more storm surge destruction, damage to crops, heat stress, and ultimately, avoidable human suffering and deaths. Unknown to most people, however, is that Climate Change has an Evil Twin: Mass Extinction. This less visible threat is even more critical and a greater danger to the world as we know it.
The loss of biodiversity, that is, the variety of living things, has reached proportions that define this time as the greatest Extinction Event since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Professional conservationists say we are now in the 6th Mass Extinction event our planet has ever known. In the past they were caused by natural events, including volcanoes and asteroids. And the process of those extinction events lasted thousands of years, and by the way, took the earth millions of years to recover. In contrast, this time the Mass Extinction is caused by human activity and is happening over mere decades.
Forces have been at play for many generations that work against a wholesome, vibrant natural environment on our earth. Humans have been extracting natural resources and converting wild places into farms, ranches, suburbs and cities, at an ever-growing rate. Natural habitats have been destroyed, and continue to be destroyed, on an enormous scale. Huge tracts of land in Indonesia and South America have been converted, replacing amazingly rich and intricate biodiversity with monocultures of Oil Palms, Soy Beans, and other agriculture. The most beautiful and unusual species of wildlife have been hunted for their skins, horns, tusks, antlers, organs, and bones – killing them in such large numbers that some of them have gone extinct and the rest are in danger of extinction. The concepts of conservation, and the professionals trained to implement them, have been working to assess and improve the situation for the last couple of generations. While much good and important work has been done, it can be stated that overall, they have failed. The advent of climate change, continuing habitat destruction, and the rapid decline of our most cherished species is not the picture of success. The march of our style of civilization has been punching holes in the Web of Life, and soon it will be in tatters, unable to sustain most living things. It is now believed that 25% of all wildlife species are in danger of extinction within the next 20 years; 50% by mid-century.
The causes include habitat loss, pollution, human overpopulation, climate change, affluence, invasive species, and over exploitation. With habitat loss from cities & suburbs, roads, mines, ranching & crops, 70% of the earth’s surface has already been transformed to produce human goods and services. The 30% remaining that is considered to be inhabitable by people, and not already set aside as preserves, is slated to be developed. 10% of the land is proclaimed as protected in preserves, but it contains only 5% of all species. Does anyone think this situation is sustainable?
Human population growth went from 3 billion in 1960 to 7 billion by October 30, 2011. It is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2042. Thanks to modern technology, some of those people have high standards of living with many comforts and conveniences. Thanks to that same progression of technology, the rest of the world knows about it and wants it too, for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Where will the natural resources required to produce that standard of living for so many more people come from?
The point has to be made that extinction is forever, it is not reversible. Climate Change can be minimized with major changes in our energy generation systems. It can be slowed, even stopped. It can be reversed. We can replace fossil fuels with renewable fuels. We can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. We can even remove carbon from the atmosphere. Forests, which serve as carbon sinks, can be regenerated. New technologies may be developed to aid in carbon removal, or even stabilize the climate. However, while species extinction can be slowed, and potentially virtually stopped, it can not be reversed.
The picture is complicated, because when a species dies out, much more than a single species is lost. Each species evolved to fill a niche in the environmental community. It has relationships. It has predators. It has prey. They can be as large as whales, or in previous eras, dinosaurs. Or they can, and most certainly do, include the smallest parasites, bacteria, and viruses, all of which impact many other members of the community. So for every species that disappears, those relationships are damaged. Those damages can generate population setbacks, that in turn, effect other animals, or they can destroy symbiotic relationships that cause the loss of still more species. A phenomena known as “extinction cascade” can occur leading to the collapse of an entire community of species, from the removal of a single one.
There is another complication. Species represent genetic diversity. The Web of Life is essentially a bank of genetic riches. More diversity is good. Less diversity is bad. Genetic diversity provides adaptability to environmental changes, allowing for survival and success under new environmental conditions. It leads to new, sometimes more successful species. Large populations of a species contains more genetic variability, and therefore, greater adaptability for that species. When a species is allowed to be reduced to low numbers, most of that genetic diversity is gone. The surviving members of that species may be rescued, and the population slowly built up again, but the new population will be less vital, less able to defend themselves against disease or stressful environmental conditions. While recovering an endangered species is better than nothing it is still far less desirable than protecting the original “normal” populations. Each species we call threatened or endangered already represents a tremendous loss.
Through evolution we humans have developed a trait in our natures that has now become a flaw. We are short-sighted. It has been to our advantage throughout most of our evolution to recognize immediate threats, and ignore future, slow, background threats. Immediate threats, as in an attack by a predator, need to be responded to quickly, in order to survive. To ascertain immediate threats, we have to filter out things that are not immediate threats – like future threats. So you can say we have evolved to not think too far ahead. It is in our nature. This time, perhaps for the first time, this trait endangers the survival of our species. We have to overcome it. How do we do that?
We must change the direction of our civilization, developing new, environmentally sustainable ways to live. That is a large and complex challenge. It will require a motivated public to insure the institutions of society support this new direction. We need to involve the public. As a responsible and caring individual, one’s only option is to become an activist. By deciding to get physically and financially involved in fighting species extinction, one can maintain some release from the grip of grief over what we have done in the past as a civilization, and take some comfort in knowing that, together with others, we are making it better. There can be new, better ways to obtain and use natural resources, while protecting life’s genetic diversity and enjoying the riches of biodiversity on earth. We must find and develop them. As an individual activist you must do three things: 1. learn, 2. share, and 3. act. Keep learning more about this issue. Share what you learn with others. Do something about it – participate: donate time and money. There is no other way for survival of the human race. There is no time to put this off to another day. Fighting Climate Change is not enough! We must also defeat Climate Change’s Evil Twin: Mass Extinction!
About the author: Ken Jones is Founder and CEO of the conservation nonprofit for young people called, A-Team For Wildlife. He also hosts and produces a conservation podcast, “Jungle Deep”. In past years he has won recognition and awards for his volunteerism in support of Earth Day. Jones also founded and served as Director of the Tropical Rainforest Museum, during which time he brought wildlife education to California schools in nearly 1,000 assemblies.
Photo © Will Burrard-Lucas