Mass Extinction and You.

This year’s Earth Day got me inspired to write about something that, honestly, freaks me out more than any other subject: the sixth mass extinction of our planet. It’s something that I’ve been hearing about for years and there have been three articles in particular that have shaped my understanding of this scary and very real phenomenon, which I encourage you all to read. They’re quick, not-too-substantive pieces about different studies that have been conducted that demonstrate a general trend of the declination of planet and animal species throughout the planet. Unsurprisingly, a consistent finding in all this research is the relationship between human behaviors and activities, and these tragic problems. The most tragic thing is that it has gotten worse because people do very little to change their destructive habits.  I’ll cite each article in chronological order.

The first article discusses a study that was done between four universities in 2015 that found that vertebrates were disappearing at a rate 114% faster than usual, which according to the study’s authors, is based upon quite conservative assumptions. In fact, the article refers to another study (which may not be accessible because the academic gatekeepers need money) that found the current rate of extinction of eukaryotes (i.e. complex life) exceeds historic rates by 1,000 times. The second article in this depressing thread is about another study, called The Living Planet Report, done in 2014 that found that 58% of wildlife have perished since 1970. There are two important caveats about this study that the article points out: (1) That it doesn’t indicate extinction, but rather the mass death of animal species; and (2) That it is arguably overly-general. Stuart Primm, one of the authors of the aforementioned study about eukaryotes, pointed out that much of the data collected is skewed towards Western Europe. Primm stated that “[The authors are] trying to pull this stuff in a blender and spew out a single number.”  My unscholarly, barely-educated perspective is that those methodological concerns may be a little pedantic; the study is still meaningful and reliable. The authors are trying to distill a major issue into a comprehensible figure, which does require generalizing, but not so much that we can doubt its validity entirely. If you want to read the 2014 Living Planet Report for yourself, help yourself (it’s 180 pages and, frankly, I don’t have time for that).

The third article was the one that hit me the hardest. I read it at work and when I finished, it was totally surreal. It was a bizarre juxtaposition to read about one of the most dramatic and pressing topic in the world while sitting in a call center, one of the plainest and lamest places on Earth. This article discussed four studies done by an IGO (Intergovernmental Organization), The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), that found declinations of not just animal species, but plant species as well. Each study was focused on a geographic region – the Americas, Europe and Central Asia, Africa, and Asia-Pacific – to capture the global impact of this problem. The IPBES also published a study detailing the causes of these problems and potential remedies that was not mentioned in the article I cited.

Now that I’ve briskly laid out the evidence of this dramatic declination, I want to complain about how frightening and significant this is. It’s pretty self-evident why this is horrible news, yet it seems that very little is being done to curtail this destruction. That is totally disheartening. Resource usage is a political issue and sustainability is partisan for some reason, so there are great impediments to achieving public policy solutions. Moreover, individual habits and behaviors have an impact and contribute overall to many of these problems, including excessive consumption (especially of meat), development of land, ineffective disposal of waste, etc. Societies just weren’t designed to account for such external effects as ecological deterioration, climate change, or natural resource depletion. Basically, the problem seems way bigger than can be solved by governments, IGOs, NGOs (Nongovernmental organizations), and especially the private sector… So that just leaves us, we must do what we can to reduce our “resource footprint” and take responsibility for how we engage with the planet. Recycle and dispose of waste responsibly, consume less, use sustainably sourced energies and goods, and, of course, be vegan. The scope and scale of animal consumption is bewildering, and it is deeply problematic and destructive. From bacterial exposure from the bodily waste produced by farms and slaughterhouses that affect local ecosystems and air quality, to the immense the deforestation that decimates biodiversity, to the rapacious resource consumption (e.g. water and grains) that abuses nature, to the disproportionate greenhouse gas emissions. It’s all bad and it’s all directly linked with the zeitgeist that is causing incomprehensible harm to the world: animal agriculture.

When vegans talk about the immense destruction and problems brought about by this industry, it is very real. In fact, it has never been so real, because the world is undergoing some major, possibly catastrophic changes, and many of our activities have accelerated and intensified them. The problems associated with how we’ve exploited animals plays a significant role in this and adopting a vegan lifestyle leads one to consider the broader implications of one’s individual actions. A fundamental component of veganism is reflecting on how choosing to consume animal products has an effect on issues that are far and away from one’s individual actions. It’s also a radical way to take a stand, in that one literally changes one’s life – his or her behaviors, thinking, and beliefs – to rejects societal dogmas and unethical practices. It involves taking a major responsibility for oneself and demonstrates the power one has to defy such a horrible system. I think we all need that kind of philosophical liberation, to be able to zoom-out to see the big picture and connect the dots back to us. We also need to adapt our lifestyles to lessen our impact on these phenomena. Lastly, we all need to keep in mind the magnitude of these problems and the balances that need to be struck between modernity and ethical stewardship of nature.

It’s literally the least we can do as individuals, and it matters more now than ever before.

 

3 Comments

  1. Quite frankly, a mass extinction of the human race would be a good thing! Just look at all the garbage and ugly development humans have caused! The sad thing is that it’s very unlikely that humans will go extinct before they have caused the extinction of all that is beautiful in this world and it’s very likely that humans will so change the planet that nothing can live, except maybe some bacteria.

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    1. I agree that humans have had a unique, indelible, and negative impact on the planet, but I must always root for our survival. And I think that there is a possibility that we might improve things, but the likelihood depends on the extent of public policies and of individual behavioral changes.

      I’m glad you were able to get something out of this article. The extent of our culpability as humanity is a crucial question in this issue, so it’s good to see you thinking about it.

      Thanks for the input and keep the discussion going here and in your own life!

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      1. There is no way people will change, with or without public policies. History has shown that, plus humans are animals and unable to change their basic behavior — reproduction and territory — except for an unusual few. Even lemmings seem more intelligent about not over running resources, unless it isn’t self decided, but that they are chased off the cliff by bossier lemmings. In that case, we are the same and when push comes to shove, humans will just blow up or kill off competition.

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