By Debra Chase
“So mankind gobbled in a century all the world’s resources that had taken millions of years to store up, and no one on the top gave a damn or listened to all the voices that were trying to warn them, they just let us overproduce and overconsume until now the oil is gone, the topsoil depleted and washed away, the trees chopped down, the animals extinct, the earth poisoned, and all we have to show for this is seven billion people fighting over the scraps that are left, living a miserable existence—and still breeding without control. So I say the time has come to stand up and be counted. But doing something means that people must change, make an effort, use their minds, which is what most people do not like to do.”
Harry Harrison wrote this work in his 1966 science fiction novel, Make Room! Make Room! depicting a dystopian society set in 1999, a world so overpopulated with humans that fresh food was only to be had by the very wealthy or corrupt politicians and public servants while the rest of society was relegated to eating “soylent” wafers. The wafers came in a variety of colors. The most desired and sought after were the soylent green wafers which we discover late in the novel to be made from “people.” (His work was adapted for film in 1973 bearing the title, “Soylent Green” and has since become a cult classic.)
Humanity’s footprint upon the earth is the great elephant in the room these days. What we have done and are doing to the planet, other lifeforms – and essentially, to ourselves – has come to the forefront of our existence. During the past two centuries, human activity has become the primary driver of most of the major changes in Earth’s topography and climate. The explosion of the human population began in the middle of the 17th century, reaching 1 billion by 1800. It then grew quickly to 6 billion by the year 2000 (not far off of Harry’s mark), and today the world human population is 7.4 billion. If we keep this up there will be a staggering 9 billion humans on the planet by 2045, 11 billion by 2050. The majority of humanity alive at that time could be living under conditions of severe drought, extreme weather, terrible famine and widespread homelessness.
Most consider the natural world or “nature” something that is seen outside of the living room window or perhaps in a city park. The natural world though is far larger, more diverse and more mysterious than the average person realizes. The notion then, of the natural world experiencing a great extinction, passes by the sight of people without a glance. After all, humans are not on the list so what’s the worry?
The worry is, this one is moving far faster than the Darwinian evolution of natural selection and, when combined with the massive CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are warming the planet, the conditions for life on earth are dramatically changing. Startlingly and without much global awareness, humans are on the way to creating new conditions for a new kind of life. As Michael Tennesen states in his book The Next Species – “We have become a deadly virus to nature.”
The Anthropocene – reflecting the excesses of humans, with the exploitation of energy, raw materials and other lifeforms, most likely began with the advent of the industrial revolution and the spread of commercial farming practices in the late 18th century. As scientists show us in a January 2016 paper in Science, the research team, “Waters et al., review climatic, biological, and geochemical signatures of human activity in sediments and ice cores. Combined with deposits of new materials and radionuclides, as well as human-caused modification of sedimentary processes, the Anthropocene stands alone stratigraphically as a new epoch.” We must hope that such an ecosystem collapse is far enough down the road for us to forestall it. Unfortunately, there are early signs, such as habitat fragmentation and species loss in rainforests and reefs, combined with rapid sea level rise – and these are not good signs.
For many people, mass extinctions, climate change and other environmental degradations are often laid out as an abstract concept with uncertain costs, distant in space and time. The Earth’s ecosystems are connected by a complex web of interactions that are not always fully understood and the loss of one species can have unforeseen consequences for many others. Often these great slow-moving events require encouragement and incentives that fall outside of everyday life, and do not motivate individual action. Psychologists suggest that this is an especially dangerous combination, sure to make people underestimate the grave risks involved.
The most immediate impact would be food chain disruption. To put it in a context most people can relate to, humans are at the top of the food chain – when everything below the human species on the chain is eradicated, humans will eventually be gone too. Many scientists are already warning us that other species can live just fine without humans (in fact, they thrive), but humans cannot live without other species. There is no “planet B.” The oceans and the fish protein, that is consumed by humans, are especially vulnerable. As ocean temperatures rise many species of plankton are disappearing. If the plankton diatoms and krill were to go entirely extinct, it would impact larger creatures, such as fish and whales, who consume it as a major food source. In turn, if those larger marine animals have less to eat, and as their own populations decline, it would cause a chain reaction throughout the food chain, ultimately reducing human food sources of fish protein, and human-made fish “farms” will not be able to cope with the high demand for fish food. There will simply be too many people to feed.
The other important area of impact is medicine. Many of today’s medicines are derived from plants, and many of the plants rely on insects for pollination. The pollinating insect population will invariably decrease – man-made chemicals a likely threat – and that decrease in pollinating insect populations would cause these plants to struggle to reproduce. This creates an environmental Catch 22: fewer pollinators, fewer plants – fewer plants, fewer pollinators. This would hurt all species involved, including many amphibians whose skin is used to create some medicines.
A paper published in the Harvard School of Public Health warns us – “Despite great advances in rational drug design, in which new medicines are synthesized based on knowledge of specific molecular targets, most prescribed medicines used in industrialized countries today still are derived from, or patterned after, natural compounds from plants, animals, and microbes. This is particularly true for drugs that treat infections and cancers.”
Medicine is not the only thing that helps humans to stay healthy. There are several buffer species that help to contain outbreaks from spreading to other animals. One such example of a buffer species is the opossum’s ability to ward off Lyme disease. Their claws are well-suited to picking off the irksome ticks that try to bite them, that carry the Lyme disease. As these buffer species lose habitat – the opossum from human development – their ability to create the buffer declines sharply. This places humans in the line of fire for contracting these diseases.
We seem indifferent to the mass extinction we’re causing, yet we lose a part of ourselves when another animal dies out. A supreme example of this is happening within the Parsi community in Mumbai. These people have traditionally exposed their dead to vultures in “towers of silence,” as they’re called in English. Now the vultures are disappearing. Estimates suggest that 97 to 99 percent of the birds have gone in the last few decades. So the Parsi community is left in a very difficult position of trying to figure out how to appropriately and respectfully take care of their own dead in a world without vultures. Often called the “Great Garbage Disposal,” the vulture has also played an important role in containing diseases of various kinds and controlling the number of predators that feed on those carcasses and spread other diseases, like rats or dogs. This in turn could lead to a rise in the number of scavengers and in the rise of diseases such as rabies and anthrax in India.
The world economy will be impacted by these mass extinctions, from job losses due to the food chain disruption such as the rapid decline of the tuna and swordfish, to the loss of bees – which will have a big impact on agriculture and medicine production, both of which depend on pollinators. Eco Tourism will also dramatically decline – especially if large losses of the big creatures, the elephant and the tiger, continue through hunting and habitat loss.
A new study, published in the journal Science Advances, shows that even with extremely conservative estimates, species are disappearing up to about 100 times faster than the normal rate between mass extinctions, known as the background rate. “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” said lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autónoma de México.
Extinction is the gravest conservation problem of our era. Indeed, it is the gravest problem humans face. Today, there are approximately 41,415 species on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, and 16,306 of them are endangered species threatened with extinction. This is up from 16,118 last year. This includes both endangered animals and endangered plants.
Earth as a self-regulating system – in which biology, geology, physics and chemistry maintain conditions suitable for life – has had a huge influence on the way we see our planet. We can no longer see the world as a giant Darwinian grocery store, ever flowing with unlimited stock of food and other natural resources for humans to consume. Instead, the focus should be on how humans can pull back on high levels of consumption and destruction and learn to live harmoniously with all other life on the planet.
“This new rupture with nature is different in scope and kind from salmon tins in an English stream. We have changed the atmosphere and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and this is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning—without it there is nothing but us.”
Bill McKibben, The End of Nature