The sixth mass extinction event is upon us, warn scientists

Human overpopulation and consumption are to blame for “biological annihilation”

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You may remember a cheery piece I wrote two years ago, where Stanford University research suggested we were on the cusp of the sixth mass extinction event. Having heard nothing since you may have assumed that was a false alarm, but given that the fifth in the hexology that nobody asked for occurred 65 million years ago, I think we can excuse a 730 day miscount.

That’s right, a new study from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Stanford University suggests that we’re now well underway in this mass extinction event, highlighting the alarming rate at which populations of species are reducing. And we’re not just talking about species you’d typically view as endangered – in fact, the scientists found that a third of the thousands of species dropping in numbers aren’t considered endangered by the Union of Conservation of Nature. Yet. The barn swallow, for example, is in the "low concern" category, because it numbers in the millions despite a worrying decline. 

On top of that, of the 177 species of mammals covered by the study, more than half had lost over 80% of their distribution between 1900 and 2015.

It’s serious enough that the paper uses chilling phrases like “biological annihilation” leading to a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation.” Indeed, the paper’s conclusions is particularly stark: “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences,” they write. “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

According to the study’s lead author Professor Gerardo Ceballos, this kind of language is necessary to underline the seriousness of our plight. “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language,” he told The Guardian. While turning the decline around is possible in the next two to three decades, the researchers are very much in the “glass is basically empty” camp. “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life,” they conclude.

Why such a dismal picture? Well, bluntly because the main causes of mass extinction seem to be driven by humans. While we can plausibly wash our hands of the disease and species invasion part of the mix, we certainly have a hand in climate change and habitat conversion. But all of these are small fry compared to the main issue: “human overpopulation and continued population growth, and over-consumption, especially by the rich.”

If you’re looking for any positives in this – and you really have to squint to make it work – it’s that some species wouldn’t exist without human intervention. As this piece in The Conversation explains, the apple fly evolved in America due to colonisation from Europe. “We also know that the Big Five mass extinctions of the past half billion years ultimately led to increases in diversity. Could this happen again? It seems so because the current rate at which new animals and plants (such as the apple fly, the Italian sparrow and Oxford ragwort) are coming into existence is unusually high – and it may be the highest ever,” the piece adds.

Perhaps this could be seen as bending over backwards to put a positive spin on bad news (“this does not let us off the hook”, the piece is keen to emphasise), but with news as depressing as this, you’ve got to take the positives where you can.

Image by Jon Feinstein and Max Borge used under Creative Commons.

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