The 6th Mass Extinction in Earth’s History is Underway

Scott Deshefy

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With record-breaking droughts, deluges, floods, high winds, and wildfires as commonplace in America as fatal shootings, I suggest meteorologists stop referring to climate change natural disasters as 100-year or once-in-a-decade events. It’s as offensive to TV viewers, reeling from successions of damaging storms, as it is to repeatedly hear “unsettled” to describe and forecast them. Each year, life-or-death stakes of global warming and climate change become increasingly clear, as do their price tags. Weather events causing over $1 billion in damages, once rare, now occur on average every 20 days, and a landmark government report recently calculated that extreme weather conditions cause roughly $150 billion in damages each year. Those costs fall disproportionately on poor and middle classes. In response, Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) investments of $282 billion to date have been a major catalyst for clean energy projects, producing (according to Goldman Sachs) hundreds of such initiatives and 175,000 alternative energy jobs to boot. Unfortunately, despite a battery manufacturing plant in Georgia, Arkansas solar complex, and wind turbine facilities in Colorado, corporate backlash against environmental, social and governance investing (ESG) has hindered faster progress. Despite the urgent gravity of climatologic prospects, here and throughout the world, the U.S. set an output record for oil production last year, and remains on pace to exceed its average daily supply by 1.4 million barrels, much of which is sold overseas

Before Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring appeared on bookshelves in 1962, awakening us to toxic chemical “biomagnifications” and devastating long-term effects of pesticides on the environment, it was excerpted in The New Yorker. Immediately, chemical industries went on the attack, branding Carson a communist and trying to discredit the book (to which she devoted years of corroborative research). Absent scientific evidence of their own, facts were undermined by sexist innuendos labeling Carson a spinster, “hysterical,” and “over-empathetic” towards nonhuman life, as if compassion were a flaw. Even suggesting she was an USSR agricultural propagandist, pesticide companies, engaged in such slander, threatened to sue Carson and her publisher. In essence, they used the same kind of “rube baiting” common in today’s politics, ranging from demonstrably false premises to absurd disconnects from facts and logic that attract low-information Americans away from reality, turning them into cult worshipping partisans. Fortunately, that didn’t stop the Kennedy administration from ordering studies on long-term effects of DDT and other pesticides, using Silent Spring as an impetus. Carson herself appeared before a Senate subcommittee in 1963. She was 56, dying from breast cancer, and barely able to walk to her seat to testify. Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening (D) addressed Carson directly at the hearing. “Every once in awhile in the history of mankind,” he said. “A book has appeared which substantially alters the course of history.”  A decade later, President Nixon banned DDT and, among other environmental accomplishments, passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), one of jewels in the crown of U.S. history and world governance.

The ESA was designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction due to “economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” Nixon signed the legislation into law 50 years ago, December 28, 1973 to be exact. Since its passage, 1,662 U.S. and 638 foreign plants, mammals, fish, insects and other nonhuman animals have been listed as threatened or endangered by extinction. Readers may recall the poignant 2018 photo of 26-year old Joseph Wachira lying beside and comforting Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino in the universe, moments before he passed away that March. The picture is testimony to human failure and just how devastating and alarming this anthropogenic mass extinction is. While the ESA has pulled nearly 300 species back from the brink of oblivion, among them high-profile animals such as bison, grizzly bears, bald eagles, humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, whooping cranes, American alligators, gray wolves and the California condor, only 54 species have sufficiently recovered to be taken off the ESA list completely. Furthermore, federal government data reveal striking disparities in allocation of money among biological classes and phyla. Of $1.2 billion spent annually on threatened and endangered species, roughly half goes to salmon and steelhead trout on the West Coast and tens of millions to large aforementioned icons including spotted owls, manatees, gopher tortoises, and right whales. While commercially important fish get 67% of funding, mammals are second at 7%, birds 5%, plants 2% and insects a mere 0.5%. Stephen’s kangaroo rats, Montana stoneflies threatened by climate change, Panama City crayfish, California tiger salamanders and scrub lupine go unassisted, comparatively neglected and teetering near extinction for decades. In fact, more than 200 imperiled plants and nonhuman animals have had nothing spent on their behalf to date.

To understand the ESA’s importance and inexplicable funding limitations let’s focus for a moment on the philosophical collisions occurring in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an intellectual halcyon and enlightenment period upon which corporate America and radical right alliances have been throwing shade for decades. It was a heady time scientifically, highlighted by Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon (1969), showing how Earth, seen 239,000 miles away, seemed a small world after all. E.O. Wilson wrote The Insect Societies in 1971 and Sociobiology in 1975. Australian philosopher Peter Singer gave us Animal Liberation (1975) describing the scope of carnage and range of suffering we inflict on other sentient beings with which we share this planet. Ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich published The Population Bomb (1968), yet to fully detonate only because fossil fuels have unsustainably boosted agriculture to the detriment of soils, water and energy conservation, not to mention climate. British ethologist Desmond Morris provided The Naked Ape (1967) comparing behaviors of the human species to those of other animals, and Richard Dawkins provided The Selfish Gene (1976) building on the principal theory of George C. Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966).

Equally important, in 1969, ecologist Robert Paine introduced the concept of “keystone species” studying Pisaster starfish and their impacts on rocky Pacific tidal pools. Paine made a profound discovery ─ some species in an ecological community or ecosystem exert undue influences on stability. When Paine removed Pisaster starfish from experimental tidal pools, leaving adjacent areas unperturbed as controls, his findings were counterintuitive. Species diversity and stability were much higher when Pisaster, the apex predator feeding mostly on mollusks, was present rather than excluded. When the starfish were absent, acorn barnacles (Balanus glandula) filled every available tidal pool crevice, crowding out most other species. Then, months later, California mussels (Mytilus californiensis) overran the barnacles. Even algae were displaced, except those attached directly to the mussels. Species were impacted whether starfish prey or not.

After a conversation with Paine while investigating Pacific coast kelp forests, ecologist James Estes identified one of the most potent impacts of keystone species on surrounding environments. Without benefit of the ESA and Richard Nixon’s Marine Mammals Protection Act (1972), unprotected sea otters from Alaska to Southern California were nearly hunted to extinction by the late 19th century, mostly for their fur but also by abalone fishermen with whom they competed in kelp forests where abalone abound. The ecological result of the hunting was catastrophic. Kelp forests are dense masses of large algal vegetation anchored to the sea bottom which often figured prominently in episodes of Lloyd Bridges’ syndicated TV series Sea Hunt. Moreover, when healthy, they’re home to a vast number of shallow marine species and nurseries for many deep-water species as well. Estes realized that, along the entire west coast, the only kelp forests that hadn’t been reduced to desolate, unproductive “sea urchin barrens” were offshore an island at the remotest tip of the Aleutians. As it turned out, this was refuge for the one remaining sea otter population that hadn’t been devastated by hunting. Estes would prove sea otters fed heavily on urchins, and sea urchins fed voraciously on kelp. When sea otters were killed, the spiny invertebrate populations exploded, turning thick kelp forests and vast stretches of ocean floor into barrens. Wherever sea otter populations were rigorously protected and ultimately began to expand, sea urchins declined enough for kelp forests to return, abalone included. Although Paine, Estes et al envisioned “high trophic status” (i.e., top or apex) predators to be consummate keystone species, we now know many other animals, including herbivores, can fit the bill. Forest elephants and wildebeest, for instance, while not at tops of African food webs have been shown to be critically important keystone species. John Terborgh, who studied islands created by the Lake Guri dam and reservoir project in Venezuela, not only identified jaguars as keystones in flooded jungles, but also army ants that controlled defoliating leaf cutter ants. Leaf-cutters, 100 times more abundant than army ants, strip large swaths of forest without their control.

Circa 1970, the world was awakening to the idea that all things were possible if science and moral philosophy were given higher priorities than profit-making and wholesale destruction of life. Hunting apex predators to near-extinction had long been a ploy to manufacture consent for designating their prey as “game.” The idea of protecting keystone species, especially those designated endangered, such as wolves, bobcats, foxes, and mountain lions, was thusly anathema to hunters and other benefactors of wildlife management fallacies which, when applied to ecological communities (e.g., Arizona’s Kaibab plateau), historically destabilized them. Corporations were also quick to fund disinformation campaigns to undermine protections of species, such as the California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) and snail darter (Percina tanasi), whose fates were linked to old-growth Northwestern forests and the Tellico dam and reservoir project in Tennessee. Part of the fallout from Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo, attempting to reassert corporate power and take back decision-making ceded to environmentalists, academia and citizens at-large, were “think tanks.” The Heritage Foundation, Cato and American Enterprise Institutes were established expressly to legitimize corporate interests and to advance conservative agendas against consensus scientific opposition. Environmental gains have thusly been hard-fought. In the case of keystone species, it’s taken decades to undo the harm produced by hunting or poisoning apex predators and other important wildlife. The current politically motivated claim that offshore wind farms are killing whales across the globe is not only unsubstantiated, but takes time to dismiss, despite not a single shred of hard evidence to support it.

Just this week, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a ruling favoring youth plaintiffs in a climate lawsuit after a district judge ruled Montana regulators had to consider carbon emissions before issuing fossil fuel development permits. The decision was reached in a lawsuit by 16 young plaintiffs alleging dire ramifications of climate change and global warming are already being realized. Recently, for instance, it’s been established that Canada’s Mackenzie River is driving intense CO2 emissions in the Arctic Ocean. Despite being Earth’s smallest ocean, the Arctic plays a major role in affecting climate change, annually absorbing as much as 180 million metric tons of carbon per year in its cold waters, making it one of the planet’s critical carbon sinks. A NASA study, however, has revealed  that thawing permafrost and carbon-rich Mackenzie River runoff is causing more CO2 release than the Arctic Ocean can absorb ─ one of those tipping points about which we scientists frequently warn.

Desperate struggles, historical or fictional, are most compelling when we summon our resolve to face daunting, seemingly inevitable outcomes and tragically insurmountable odds. We ponder the ill-fated Franklin expedition, Jack London’s protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” lionize Robert Falcon Scott and his frost-bitten, scurvy team pulling sledges of meager rations and rock samples through subzero gales and glacial snowdrifts to their doom. Their failures can empower just as much as the crew of the aptly named Endurance led by Ernest Shackleton, dismantling their Antarctic ice-trapped ship, building small boats from its wreckage and crossing the Southern Ocean against all odd or Capt. William Bligh, set adrift by HMS Bounty mutineers, sailing 3,618 nautical miles to Timor and safe haven. Even Robert Redford’s tour de force performance in All Is Lost (2013) can, quoting Kipling’s “If,” “force our heart and nerve and sinew to last (us) long after they are gone.” When generators and sump pumps work overtime due to 40 years political indifference to anthropogenic climate change and global warming, comfort can be found in Redford’s sailor. After colliding with a shipping container on the Indian Ocean, and despite resourceful efforts to the contrary, he repeatedly confronts his mortality, calmly eating what could be his last meal before abandoning ship to face storms and starvation in a raft. In Life of Pi (2012), based on Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, the unusual alliance of a teenage boy and Bengal tiger is similarly tasked.

Then there’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Austrian-born German Carl Stephenson (1893-1983). Originally published in 1938, it’s the tale of a Brazilian plantation owner, Leiningen, battling a swarm of army ants. Given that a chunk of former rainforest is at stake, perspectives have changed considerably since I first read the story in the mid-1960s. Still on my list of 40 or so greatest short stories, the ants, a super-organism, now seem much more sympathetic as an antagonist. Given that human development, meat industries and agriculture destroy or degrade upwards of 160,000 acres of tropical rainforest each day, I can side with a Hymenopteran defender of rainforests. Before the first Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, the rate of extinction was about one species per million species per year. Now, all due to human activities, ranging from habitat destruction and hunting to pollution and population growth (also invasive species), the estimated rate of extinction is about 1,000 times higher. Every expansion of human activity reduces populations of more and more species of plants and animals, increasing vulnerabilities and rates of extinction further. A survey by hundreds of experts worldwide analyzed the status of the 25,780 known species of terrestrial vertebrates in 2010 (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians). One-fifth of them were confirmed threatened with extinction of which less than 20% were stabilized by conservation.

The 6th mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway, and we’re the driving force of its expansion. Yet, nary a priest or pastor, rabbi or minister, much less a politician, talks about its moral ramifications or “Edenic” conditions during a mere month of “anthropause.”  Not only did gas prices plunge during COVID-19 lockdowns, spring of 2020, due to decreases in “modern human activity.” Atmospheric carbon emissions and other air pollutants also dropped significantly. Wildlife even rebounded, some curious animals even strolling streets of Paris, Rome and other urban areas, investigating the sudden reductions in noise, automobiles and other human disturbances. Clearly, conservation works! A 2006 study, for instance, found extinction of birds slowed nearly 50% over the last century.  Conservation efforts admittedly were too late to save dodos, passenger pigeons, elephant birds, great auks, and 465 other known bird species (10-20% of avian species in the last 50,000 years) lost primarily to hunting. And while Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock might have found solace in the findings, levels of conservation effort currently applied fall woefully short of what’s needed to save the natural world.

Extinction rates may vary among groups of organisms ─ before humans, one species per half million per year in mammals, one species in 6 million for echinoderms. But the relationship between area of habitat and number of species it can support (i.e., its diversity index) is fairly predictable. Although extant population sizes, reproductive rates and longevity (i.e., population viability) are also factors, as forest, grassland or stream system habitats shrink, the number of species they supports, in nearly all cases, drop between the third and sixth roots of areas remaining. If meager conservation measures remain at current levels and rates of deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction continue, it’s tragically safe to conclude at least 1/5 of all plants and animals will be gone or committed to extinction by 2035 and 1/2 or more by century’s end. Because prospects of worsening global warming and anthropogenic climate change would only accelerate habitat loss, this is our desperate struggle against all odds, and by extension, the Biosphere’s. Eden, once occupied by humans, has been a slaughterhouse. If not for ourselves, than for countless others, known or not yet assigned a scientific name, we must somehow mitigate and ride out this storm. Tweaking something George Carlin once said, it’s a choice between those who side with life and the living versus those who think only of property, gadgets and gizmos, and cell phones that make crepes Suzette.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.