There is little doubt left in the minds of professional biologists that Earth is currently faced with a mounting loss of species that threatens to rival the five great mass extinctions of the geological past. As long ago as 1993, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is currently losing something on the order of 30,000 species per year — which breaks down to the even more daunting statistic of some three species per hour. Some biologists have begun to feel that this biodiversity crisis — this “Sixth Extinction” — is even more severe, and more imminent, than Wilson had supposed.
How is the Sixth Extinction different from previous events?
The current mass extinction is caused by humans.
At first glance, the physically caused extinction events of the past might seem to have little or nothing to tell us about the current Sixth Extinction, which is a patently human-caused event. For there is little doubt that humans are the direct cause of ecosystem stress and species destruction in the modern world through such activities as:
•transformation of the landscape
•overexploitation of species
•the introduction of alien species
And because Homo sapiens is clearly a species of animal (however behaviorally and ecologically peculiar an animal), the Sixth Extinction would seem to be the first recorded global extinction event that has a biotic, rather than a physical, cause.
We are bringing about massive changes in the environment.
Yet, upon further reflection, human impact on the planet is a direct analogue of the Cretaceous cometary collision. Sixty-five million years ago that extraterrestrial impact — through its sheer explosive power, followed immediately by its injections of so much debris into the upper reaches of the atmosphere that global temperatures plummeted and, most critically, photosynthesis was severely inhibited — wreaked havoc on the living systems of Earth. That is precisely what human beings are doing to the planet right now: humans are causing vast physical changes on the planet.
What is the Sixth Extinction?
We can divide the Sixth Extinction into two discrete phases:
•Phase One began when the first modern humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago.
•Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago when humans turned to agriculture.
Humans began disrupting the environment as soon as they appeared on Earth.
The first phase began shortly after Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and the anatomically modern humans began migrating out of Africa and spreading throughout the world. Humans reached the middle east 90,000 years ago. They were in Europe starting around 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals, who had long lived in Europe, survived our arrival for less than 10,000 years, but then abruptly disappeared — victims, according to many paleoanthropologists, of our arrival through outright warfare or the more subtle, though potentially no less devastating effects, of being on the losing side of ecological competition.
Everywhere, shortly after modern humans arrived, many (especially, though by no means exclusively, the larger) native species typically became extinct. Humans were like bulls in a China shop:
•They disrupted ecosystems by overhunting game species, which never experienced contact with humans before.
•And perhaps they spread microbial disease-causing organisms as well.
The fossil record attests to human destruction of ecosystems:
Wherever early humans migrated, other species became extinct.
•Humans arrived in large numbers in North America roughly 12,500 years ago-and sites revealing the butchering of mammoths, mastodons and extinct buffalo are well documented throughout the continent. The demise of the bulk of the La Brea tar pit Pleistocene fauna coincided with our arrival.
•The Caribbean lost several of its larger species when humans arrived some 8000 years ago.
•Extinction struck elements of the Australian megafauna much earlier-when humans arrived some 40,000 years ago. Madagascar-something of an anomaly, as humans only arrived there two thousand years ago-also fits the pattern well: the larger species (elephant birds, a species of hippo, plus larger lemurs) rapidly disappeared soon after humans arrived.
Indeed only in places where earlier hominid species had lived (Africa, of course, but also most of Europe and Asia) did the fauna, already adapted to hominid presence, survive the first wave of the Sixth Extinction pretty much intact. The rest of the world’s species, which had never before encountered hominids in their local ecosystems, were as naively unwary as all but the most recently arrived species (such as Vermilion Flycatchers) of the Galapagos Islands remain to this day.
Why does the Sixth Extinction continue?
The invention of agriculture accelerated the pace of the Sixth Extinction.
Phase two of the Sixth Extinction began around 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture-perhaps first in the Natufian culture of the Middle East. Agriculture appears to have been invented several different times in various different places, and has, in the intervening years, spread around the entire globe.
Agriculture represents the single most profound ecological change in the entire 3.5 billion-year history of life. With its invention:
•humans did not have to interact with other species for survival, and so could manipulate other species for their own use
•humans did not have to adhere to the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, and so could overpopulate
Humans do not live with nature but outside it.
Homo sapiens became the first species to stop living inside local ecosystems. All other species, including our ancestral hominid ancestors, all pre-agricultural humans, and remnant hunter-gatherer societies still extant exist as semi-isolated populations playing specific roles (i.e., have “niches”) in local ecosystems. This is not so with post-agricultural revolution humans, who in effect have stepped outside local ecosystems. Indeed, to develop agriculture is essentially to declare war on ecosystems - converting land to produce one or two food crops, with all other native plant species all now classified as unwanted “weeds” — and all but a few domesticated species of animals now considered as pests.
The total number of organisms within a species is limited by many factors-most crucial of which is the “carrying capacity” of the local ecosystem: given the energetic needs and energy-procuring adaptations of a given species, there are only so many squirrels, oak trees and hawks that can inhabit a given stretch of habitat.
Agriculture had the effect of removing the natural local-ecosystem upper limit of the size of human populations. Though crops still fail regularly, and famine and disease still stalk the land, there is no doubt that agriculture in the main has had an enormous impact on human population size:
•Estimates vary, but range between 1 and 10 million people on earth 10,000 years ago.
•There are now over 6 billion people.
•The numbers continue to increase logarithmically — so that there will be 8 billion by 2020.
•There is presumably an upper limit to the carrying capacity of humans on earth — of the numbers that agriculture can support — and that number is usually estimated at between 13-15 billion, though some people think the ultimate numbers might be much higher.
This explosion of human population, especially in the post-Industrial Revolution years of the past two centuries, coupled with the unequal distribution and consumption of wealth on the planet, is the underlying cause of the Sixth Extinction. There is a vicious cycle:
Overpopulation, invasive species, and overexploitation are fueling the extinction.
•More lands are cleared and more efficient production techniques (most recently engendered largely through genetic engineering) to feed the growing number of humans — and in response, the human population continues to expand.
•Higher fossil energy use is helping agriculture spread, further modifying the environment.
•Humans continue to fish (12 of the 13 major fisheries on the planet are now considered severely depleted) and harvest timber for building materials and just plain fuel, pollution, and soil erosion from agriculture creates dead zones in fisheries (as in the Gulf of Mexico)
•While the human Diaspora has meant the spread, as well, of alien species that more often than not thrive at the detriment of native species. For example, invasive species have contributed to 42% of all threatened and endangered species in the U.S.