Extinction by people, for people and eventually, of people
We humans are uniquely blind to our being a part of the larger tapestry of life. We overwhelmingly behave as though we are entitled to hold the reins of who and what goes and stays on the planet – be it plants, animals, other life forms as well as spaces which creatures, other than humans, consider home. We kill animals for food or for fun, we tame plants and animals for our purposes, wipe out entire ecosystems for human needs – whether for food, industry or to serve as our dwelling places. Not only do we obliterate life but we do it very well and very fast. We have been so tragically effective at extinguishing various kinds of life that we have driven an entire classification of life to "half-death" – a point after which they would most likely disappear – forever.
And as if we needed to feel even more that we are life’s bosses, we also generally are impervious to facts. No matter how many grounded studies scientists do to reveal the catastrophic effects of our actions to the living systems of the planet, we still all generally behave as if things were normal. A recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences exposes us to certain biological realities that give us a perspective that may (hopefully) just shatter most people’s view of "normal."
"Biological annihilation" is the term that the researchers of the study used to name what we humans have bestowed on the planet. They said that maybe we are not ringing alarm bells because we do not care as we really do not understand what the disappearance of species means for you and me and that we think species are saying goodbye to humans. Maybe science should emphasize that these creatures are not just saying goodbye to humans – they are saying goodbye to time. They are saying goodbye. Period.
Dinosaurs were a dime a dozen on many parts of the planet from over 250 million years ago until about 65 million years ago. They are no longer here except in the movies and museums as digital renditions or fossil remains. No matter what creationists tell you, the scientific facts have not put humans in the scene when dinosaurs were around. But some massive event – most likely an asteroid fall to earth – made them disappear for all time. The mighty dinosaurs roamed the Earth for over 150 million years and it took an extraterrestrial object to obliterate them. We humans have been around for only about 200,000 years and in the last 150 years, have managed to make the scale of human-caused destruction to life on the planet reach the level of a mass extinction – the 6th in the planet’s 4.6 billion-year history.
Humans have evolved into the scene and we are now part of the Earth’s complex system. Powerful and esteem-boosting as it may be that you could think that humans were especially injected into the scene, evidence just says otherwise. We come FROM the world and NOT unto it as Carl Sagan had reminded us. We are because we were; and that history hangs by life-support tapestry that we are now breaching.
We naturally have an effect on the existence and disappearance of other life forms just as other life forms have their way with us. So far we have done such a sweeping job of causing other species to vanish. We are such effective and efficient annihilators armed with sleek and sophisticated tools and reasoning to justify our actions over other life forms.
According to the study, this is our track record as celebrated terminators. We have obliterated 200 vertebrate species in only 100 years – a number which, if we based "natural" rates of extinction last 2 million years, could have taken 10,000 years to lose. It is impossible to study everything to realize something. That is why there is a scientific way.
The study used mammalian vertebrates as a representative sample of animal life as these are most studied in terms of their populations and ranges and their intricate role in the ecological cycle are better understood than other life forms. It means that if we are doing a great job pushing vertebrates – the kind whose importance we know and understand better than other life forms - to extinction, then it is highly likely that we are doing the same or worse for other life forms, including plants.
In the last 115 years according to the study, we have also have eliminated over 30% of the sample vertebrates studied both in population and in the range of places that they consider "home". That is like saying you are getting rid of about 6 of the 16 cities of Metro Manila and its inhabitants with a shrug of your shoulders. Based on the robust sample of 177 mammalian species they studied, the study found that 30 per cent have lost their geographic range (the extent of the places they are found) and that 40% have had severe population decline ("severe" means that their population has declined more than 80%). The mammals of south and southeast Asia, where all of the large-bodied species of mammals like Orangutans live, have lost more than 80% of their geographic ranges. Severe population extinctions of mammals have also been found in the Cape and Sahara regions in Africa, central Australia, the eastern United States, and the Atlantic forest in South America.
And because we are such terminators, we are also "overshooters". Next month on August 2, at the rate at which current earthlings are living this year, we would have breached what the Earth can naturally sustain and renew for the year. We are living as if we had 1.6 planets to sustain us. Unless, another planet becomes totally feasible for us humans, we only have 1. Do the math. If we go on, we will pretty much pull the bio-carpet beneath us and eventually cause our own extinction. Then we would have really, definitively, made our case as the ultimate terminators. Hurray for death.
I know someone who does a weird comical thing when asked by her husband if she can hear the clanging sound of their car as they are riding it. She would turn up the radio volume so she would not hear the sound which could be a signal that something was wrong, maybe seriously wrong, with the car. I think this is what happens to most of us when we hear the word "science", "species", "geographic range". We pretend we don’t care, thinking the problem was "academic" and would just disappear. We let the words and our misconceptions about science get in the way of understanding what matters to us in life. "Biological annihilation" is life disappearing, FOR ALL TIME. How could that not seriously matter to the living? – Rappler.com