The Greatest Extinction

Did you know that we are living through the greatest extinction period in history? It is true, and it is happening 100x faster, with a wider scope, than when the dinosaurs went extinct. I was appalled, and truly angry, when I first learned about the rate in which human activities are reducing the diversity of life.

In A.J. Jacobs book, “The Know-It-All,” the author reads an entire set of Britannica encyclopedias, from A to Z, in an (admittedly misguided) effort to become the smartest person in the world. His idea was to start at the front cover, read through the introductory information, through letter A, and continue to read every volume, in order until reaching the letter Z. Upon reaching the letter P, Passenger Pigeons were the topic of concern. He learned that humans hunted these plentiful birds for food, but over time, they hunted them completely out of existence. He learned that in the 1800’s there were, in fact, billions of them. Yes, billions.  Now they are extinct. Jacobs includes a quote from Audubon (which was in Britannica) that puts “billions” in perspective:

“The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots not unlike melting flakes of snow…the people were all in arms…For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons. The atmosphere, during this time, was strongly impregnated with the peculiar odour which eminates from the species…Let us take a column of one mile in breadth, which is far below the average size, and suppose it passing over us without interruption for three hours, at the rate mentioned above of one mile in a minute. This will give us a parallelogram of 180 miles by 1, covering 180 square miles. Allowing 2 pigeons to the square yard, we have 1,115,136,000 pigeons in one flock.”

I can not imagine seeing such a spectacle of wildlife. A billion birds in a single flock? How many flocks of Passenger Pigeons were there in the world? The idea that such a robust species has been destroyed by humans should make anyone stop and consider their choices in life. Yet many thousands of species are lost every year. Most annual extinctions are microorganisms (bacteria and the like), but I have seen estimates indicating as many as 27,000 species of life are going extinct every year.  Nobody knows exactly how many species we are losing simply because modern science has not yet documented all forms of life, let alone been able to determine the health of all individuals, of all species, on the planet.

Some would say that species will naturally go extinct through the normal evolutionary process, which would be true. However, researchers have been able to establish a normal background rate in which species have gone extinct through the analysis of fossil records. For example, historically one mammal species will go extinct every 200 years. This is called the “Background Extinction Rate,” and it is fairly consistent throughout the fossil records. Unfortunately, we have recorded the loss of 89 mammal species in the last 400 years. It is a significantly different number that begs the question, “What is happening in modern times, that is different than the past ten thousand years?” The answer seems obvious. Our clever minds, and our powerful machines are wreaking massive destruction throughout all other life systems on earth.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the most recognized authority on the state of species (though there are other well recognized organizations as well). In 2008, IUCN reported that a full 25% of mammals are threatened, which is just one category below extinct. I would encourage anyone to visit it and see if your perceptions are true to what is actually happening.  There are 65,000 species being tracked on this list, which is an incredibly difficult task to undertake. There are many, many organizations that support their efforts. Just a few of these organizations are listed here: I was recently moved by the dissapearance of the Western Black Rhino, which followed the extinction of the Yang Tze River Dolphin. Both were amazingly complex beautiful creatures, whose history extends millions of years. The IUCN Red List provides a complete list of recently extinct animals if you’re curious.

Edward L. McCord offered his thoughts on the matter with a book entitled, “The Value of Species.” I’ve included a link to his book in the “goodreads” widget to the right of this blog. He wrote:

                        “It is well to lay out these points with care and accuracy. There is too much at stake for any confusion here. This is not a crisis concerning the practical values inherent in all living species, but a failure to recognize the values of perceptions that distinguish our human imagination from all others. We stand alone as a form of life that is able to reflect upon the natural world with wonder and to realize new orders of gratification in pursuits of that awareness. It is a form of life that resists submission to stereotyping and pragmatism to seek out the awesome dimension that natural things genuinely represent. But we must now awaken to the fact that our civilization is destroying species throughout the world at a devastating scale. Indifference to this destruction of the life of our planet is patently unconscionable when our distinguishing qualities of intellect and imagination are considered. To be indifferent is to deny one of the most salient features of humankind.”

When given the choice between land development and causing the extinction of a spider it would seem that there is a choice to be made. Lost income, and inability to provide additional jobs may be the result of not developing into endangered habitat, yet those things are temporary inconveniences that usually are corrected for in other ways. The spider, on the other hand represents something completely different. It is something much more profound than lost revenues. A spider:

“…is a staggering phenomenon billions of years in the making whose full story we can scarcely glimpse. It is an artifact of untold ages of earth environments, just as we are of those same ages. It is not “ugly.” It is not “to blame”. Much like us, a spider is a consummately marvelous form of life, carrying forward through its brief and extraordinary existence a flame of life that is almost as old as our planet.”

He explains that all of life shares genetic information that has been developed over millions, even billions, of years. To let thousands of species go extinct every year is creating huge gaps in the genetic history of life, of which our children’s children will not be able to re-create. They will not be able to piece together the historical network of relationships among species to fully understand human history and their place in the natural world. We only have begun to understand it now, and this destruction simply alienates us from ourselves. The thousands of free services that the world provides for us (like clean air, water, and oxygen), are important for the survival of the human race, but there is another uniquely human reason to not let the web of life get diminished. We are the only species that have the ability to reflect upon the magnificence of the universe, yet we are also the only species with the power to destroy it. In our continued destruction, we are not being true to our most salient purpose for being on this planet.



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