Climate Change Tracker: The sixth mass extinction is accelerating
Over 500 species will go extinct in 20 years because of human beings, a process that would have normally taken 10,000 years
In 2016, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014) was voted No.1 in The Guardian’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of all time. Not without reason. Kolbert had shown lucidly, with clear examples, how human beings are causing the sixth great extinction event on the planet. The previous five, over the past 450 million years, including the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, were all due to natural events.
A new paper, Vertebrates On The Brink As Indicators Of Biological Annihilation And The Sixth Mass Extinction, which was published on 1 June, lays out the severity of our impact in starker terms. Published in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences (PNAS), the study shows that 515 species of vertebrates (out of 29,400 evaluated) are on the brink of extinction, with less than 1,000 individuals. They will be lost in 20 years. It’s irreversible—the researchers have found that populations on the brink go extinct 94% of the time. They also state that over 400 vertebrate species went extinct in the past 100 years; in normal evolutionary time frames, this would have taken about 10,000 years.
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Homo sapiens are to blame, beginning with the development of agriculture 11,000 years ago. There were about one million people worldwide then, now there are 7.7 billion. Extinctions have accelerated since the 1800s, as we have used our greater industrial and technological prowess to indiscriminately destroy biodiversity and, as a result, the earth’s ecosystem services. The authors say that the issues of habitat destruction, climate change, pollution and wildlife trade must be addressed.
The extinction of each species affects others in the same environment, creating a domino effect. And ultimately, this leads back to humans, who get less sustenance from nature, and on another level, are open to threats like covid-19. Behaving the way we are, we are dooming ourselves to extinction.
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