The Sixth Extinction

Most people like animals. Whether those animals are pets, wild, or zoo dwellers we feel some sort of connection with them. I think we have this connection because, even though we may not want to admit it, we are also animals. Of course, we are unique in the sense that morals, thoughts of the future, and money engulf our everyday lives. Human beings have inhabited every corner of the earth and are the most invasive species in the history of this planet. No other animal has changed the landscape and physical world like humans. We can cross oceans in a few hours, treat infections with antibiotics, eat junk food, and stare into bright screens throughout the entire day. Sadly, our ability to master our environment has led many of our fellow animals to become extinct. So many animals have become extinct during the reign of humans that scientists are calling our presence “The Sixth Extinction.” The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert dives into this scary predicament.

The earth has experienced five major extinctions prior to us coming on the scene.  The earth is about 4.5 billion years old; plants and animals came into the picture about 500 million years ago. The last 500 million years can be divided into these geological periods: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Palogene, Neogene, and Quaternary. You can remember these with this mnemonic-Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak and the Pain Never Quits. The five extinctions occurred at the end of the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous. These extinctions were caused by major changes in the environment. The most famous extinction was the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. For a long time, people didn’t even know animals could go extinct. This is because the average extinction rate of a species was only 1 every 1,000 years; meaning it would be rare to see an extinction in a human lifetime.

Fast forward to today. The Sixth Extinction. Just in one human lifetime it is estimated that “one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all fresh water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward extinction.” What is causing all of these extinctions? The answer is the big three: global warming, ocean acidification, and habitat loss. Global warming is caused by the release of carbon into the atmosphere which subsequently traps heat. This changes the amount of polar ice and the micro-climates that species live in throughout the planet. Carbon also is absorbed by the ocean which causes the water to become more acidic. This acidification creates pronounced problems for all sorts of marine species. Finally, habitat loss decreases specie diversity and destroys symbiotic relationships between small and large organisms alike. Using conservative estimates for global warming, it is estimated that by 2050 a unbelievable 24 percent of all species on earth will be headed towards extinction. That is 1 MILLION SPECIES that will be dead forever in our lifetime!!! 

Does this have to be our future? Should we just throw our hands in the air and give up? I know it is an immense problem but we can make a difference.”Alfred Newton described the slaughter that was occurring along the British coast; the result was the Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds. John Muir wrote about the damage being done in the mountains of California, and this led to the creation of Yosemite National Park. Silent Spring exposed the dangers posed by synthetic pesticides, and within a decade, most uses of DDT had been prohibited.” These are only a few examples of what individual people did to help improve the environment. So what can you do to help the environment? There are multiple ways to protect our fellow creatures. Here are a few ways you can contribute:

  1. Recycle and reuse as much as you can
  2. Purchase a fuel efficient vehicle-Prius anyone?
  3. Become an Essentialist and stop being a Consumer.

We can make a difference by taking care of our environment right NOW. Humans may have conquered the confines of evolution but we are still dependent on the earth’s biological and geochemical systems. This puts our own species at risk for extinction because we all depend on the intricate partnerships of nature. If past extinctions teach us anything, it is that there is no discrimination when it comes to wiping out species. Don’t feel depressed, feel informed. Do your part to make this planet a better place.