The 6th Extinction Spasms & Defaunation
Causes, Concerns & Actions
Everyone has heard the rumours – a climate crisis, a looming mass extinction… but when will the rumours become realization? The facts have been available for years and the science is only becoming clearer. Is ignorance really bliss when the future of humanity is on the line? When exploring the facts and theories surrounding the 6th mass extinction, three major themes have stood out: why species are going extinct at such high rates, why this should concern us, and how we can prevent this from continuing.
Such high rates of extinction are unprecedented throughout human history, and this is no coincidence – as the global population and consumerism soar, so do the factors causing this mass extinction (Attenborough, 2020). Monastersky (2014), states that the largest cause of extinction has been the overexploitation of species. A prime example is overfishing – evidence of this can be seen in Canada’s east coast fisheries. In 1992, cod fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador was suspended due to the dwindling population, and cod still have not made a full recovery (Thompson & Ahluwalia, 2012). Furthermore, poaching is another huge exploitation issue. The white rhino, for example, was poached for its ivory horns to be sold in the illegal wildlife trade, leaving only three individuals in the world (Attenborough, 2020). According to Monastersky (2014), the next two largest contributors are habitat degradation and habitat loss. Agriculture is a major player in habitat degradation as huge monocultures deplete soil nutrients and disrupt the nutrient cycle, impeding the growth of native species. Deforestation for agricultural land (primarily for cattle, soy, cocoa, and palm) has been a major cause of habitat destruction and has rendered many landscapes inhospitable to native species as well (Attenborough, 2020). Additionally, as global temperatures increase from climate change, many species are forced to shift their habitats either poleward or to higher altitude areas, which often leads to populations going extinct. Additional factors influencing the rate of extinction include an increased amount of pollutants, invasive species, and disease (Monastersky, 2014).
It goes without saying, this is a lot to take in. Clearly, since humans are responsible for wiping so many species off the planet, I would consider it safe to say that we as a species are failing our moral and ethical obligations as living beings on planet Earth. When presented with a moral dilemma of such gravity, it appears that many people’s coping strategy leans towards ignorance over action. Perhaps there is comfort in believing that although other species are struggling, at least it will not affect humans much. Rest assured, however, that if this thought resides in your mind, you are lying to yourself. Humans are intertwined with the natural environment – we depend upon biodiversity. Take this for an example: the loss of biodiversity is greatly decreasing agricultural yields. Less biodiversity in soils slows nutrient cycling since there are less detritovores to decompose organic matter, creating soil unsuitable for agriculture. Furthermore, the loss of pollinators is already greatly decreasing crop yields (Attenborough, 2020). The ecotourism industry is also of huge economic importance to many communities and countries, and the loss of biodiversity would clearly have a negative impact on this industry. These are just a few examples of the unfathomable amount of ways in which we depend upon biodiversity.
Clearly, something must be done to steer clear of this slippery slope of extinction that we are headed down. We owe it to our kids, our kids’ kids, and so on and so forth. Yet how do we address such a complex and widespread crisis? Firstly, limiting population growth is certainly in our best interest. In his documentary, A Life on Our Planet, Attenborough (2020) points out that as a country’s quality of life increases, their birth rate typically decreases. On the other hand, developmental countries typically have a much higher birth rate – this has much to do with women having less life opportunities, and a lack of access to birth control. Therefore, it is imperative not only from a moral standpoint to increase quality of life in developing countries, but doing so is also a pivotal solution to limiting population growth. Secondly, we must also address the exploitation of species, habitat degradation, and habitat destruction. Zimmer (2017) mentioned that increasing aquaculture could provide alternative protein sources to cattle and soybean which could prevent further deforestation for agricultural lands. As agricultural technologies increase to become more land and water efficient, there is no need for further habitat destruction – there is already enough agricultural land to sustain the entire planet if used efficiently (Attenborough, 2020). To attain both the above, and the many other changes required to prevent further extinction, there will need to be policy changes and laws imposed on international levels. A proposed idea to address consumerism and to hold corporations accountable for harming the environment is to impose environmental tariffs (Attenborough, 2020). These are certainly daunting tasks, but as more and more people become educated about the issue, and technology continues to advance, we still should have hope for the future of the human race – but we must act now.
One of these topics which challenged me to rethink my understanding about human relationships with the environment is the topic of why biodiversity loss should concern us. More specifically, when learning about this topic, I discovered how human actions are increasing the likelihood of pandemics – this is something that I have not previously considered. Turns out, as human-animal interactions increase from expansion, agriculture, animal markets, and so on, we are exposed to more and more viruses (Attenborough, 2020). This is a topic that hits close to home, as many of us have struggled through the current COVID-19 pandemic losing loved ones and jobs. I certainly never want to experience a pandemic like this again, nor would I want my future kids to have to do so. Therefore, to me, learning this fact stressed the importance of addressing how humans are interacting with our natural environment even more so than before.