Below, my article as it was published in the Irish Times last month, with some referencing added back in. To borrow one of my own lines, “A solitary species has, in a heartbeat of geological time, overturned and routed half a billion years of evolutionary history”. That, rather than the extinction of yet another species of charismatic megafauna, is what this story is really about.
NATURE IS falling silent. From the once-common cry of the curlew to the roar of lions, buzzing of bees and the cacophonous chatter and chirping of countless billions of creatures and critters, now an ominous, ever-expanding wave of stillness is spreading across the natural world like a slow tsunami.
This week’s news of the death of the world’s last remaining northern white rhino in Kenya caused a mild ripple of interest in an ocean of public indifference and incomprehension. While everyone agrees it is sad that another iconic species has disappeared, media attention quickly shifted back to “the real world” of economics, politics and social media.
At the dawn of the agricultural era some 10,000 years ago, humans accounted for just 1 or 2 per cent of the mass of land mammals on Earth. Today, we and our livestock and pets comprise in excess of 97 per cent of the world’s mammals by weight. A solitary species has, in a heartbeat of geological time, overturned and routed half a billion years of evolutionary history.
This new era, known variously as the Anthropocene or the Sixth Extinction, has been gathering pace over the last century, but has exploded into its exponential phase since around 1970. In less than 50 years since then, vertebrate populations of wild animals have declined by nearly two-thirds, while in the same period, human numbers doubled and global GDP quadrupled. This vast increase in human prosperity was made possible by rapidly plundering the natural world for “resources” for our consumption, while using it a dump for our wastes.
Every year at least 10,000 species disappear forever, a rate some 1,000 times higher than the natural or “background” rate of expected extinctions. While the disappearance of a telegenic giant such as a rhino makes the news, most extinctions occur stealthily, their significance only grasped in hindsight.
Last October, a landmark study of flying insects in Germany revealed their numbers had plummeted by an astonishing 76 per cent in just the last 25 years. Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, a member of the research team for the study, noted: “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth, but there has been some kind of horrific decline…we are on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.”
Wipe out bugs, and bird populations are doomed. A study published in recent days on French farmland birds tracked catastrophic collapses in populations right across Europe. Agricultural practices, including the intensive use of herbicides and pesticides to support monocultural farming “is turning our farmland into a desert”, Dr Benoit Fontaine of France’s Museum of Natural History told the Guardian newspaper. “We are losing everything, and we need that nature, that biodiversity – agriculture needs pollinators and the soil [needs] fauna. Without that, ultimately, we will die.”
Despite its carefully cultivated “green” image, Ireland is well on the way to being another biodiversity wasteland. “Overall, I think the situation here is dire,” ecologist and author Pádraic Fogarty told me. “People think the extinction crisis is happening somewhere else, but it’s here as well.” Fogarty’s research has pinpointed some 115 species that have become extinct in Ireland since humans first arrived here.
Greed and unsustainable practices have destroyed much of our once-rich marine life, with the oxymoronic “sustainable intensification” of agriculture taking us down the same path, he reckons.
More than 90 per cent of Ireland’s supposedly “protected” habitats, which include native grasslands and peatlands, are in poor condition, according to the 2017 National Biodiversity Forum. It tracked major declines in already threatened bird species, while noting that one-third of Ireland’s wild bees face extinction.
The forces driving this collapse in biodiversity include intensive agriculture, commercial forestry, peat cutting, invasive species, water and air pollution as well as the ongoing disruption to natural systems caused by climate change.
From mountain tops to the ocean floor, every ecological niche on Earth is facing extinction crises. Some of the better-known critically-endangered species include orang-utans, mountain gorillas, Amur leopards, Sumatran elephants and tigers, vaquitas, turtles, bluefin tuna, penguins and many species of bats, frogs and butterflies. Most are in truth already functionally extinct, having lost so many numbers and so much habitat.
A paper in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences last year introduced the term “biological annihilation” to describe the rate and scale of global biodiversity loss. One of the study authors explained the choice of words: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language,” according to Prof Gerardo Ceballos. The study concluded: “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”
To find any historical analogue for today’s epic global mass extinction event you have to go back 66 million years, to the moment a massive asteroid, 10-15km in diameter, slammed into the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, wiping out 80 per cent of all life on Earth. Buckle up: this time, we’re the asteroid.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
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Oh dear better make a nice cup of tea.
You are almost almost as cheerful as grumpy old Mayer Hillman in the Grauniad!
” ……. national action is also irrelevant “because Britain’s contribution is minute. Even if the government were to go to zero carbon it would make almost no difference.”
Instead, says Hillman, the world’s population must globally move to zero emissions across agriculture, air travel, shipping, heating homes – every aspect of our economy – and reduce our human population too. Can it be done without a collapse of civilisation? “I don’t think so,” says Hillman. “Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?””
Oh dear better make another nice cup of tea!
You’d better get the kettle on alright, Roger! We as a species find ourselves caught in the perfect trap, a trap of our own construction. Our only chance of escape is to do the very thing (give up all the baubles and trappings of consumerism, overnight and forever) there is precisely zero chance of people volunteering to do, or even governments being able or willing to compel their citizens to do.
It’s a values trap from which I see no prospect of release. So yes, tea would be good alright – or maybe something a little stronger!
The ant population is so diverse and so widespread that it was once observed by Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionist, that the mass of all the humans in the world and the mass of all the ants in the world, if placed in a cubic mile of space, would be equivalent. I don’t know if that is still true, given the depletion of insects mentioned in this article..
Governments have given up on it, but the solution has to be smaller families and frugality. Get the human population down to two billion max.
I watched you on “The Big Question” (10 June 2018).
It is the first program that I really enjoyed (quite often watch TBQ) with several knowledgeable speaker (and of course, those with agenda’s). Watching most discussions is normally a very depressing affair of people with set/paid opinions, down right misinformation which none is willing to challenge (Israeli PM saying the Syria was 96% Sunni!), etc.
You are about the only person who mentioned the removal of the Iranian prime mimister in1953(?) by the American & British because of oil. Your views on what was happening with the environment was captivating.
Thanks Sreeprakash, very much appreciate your comments on my recent appearance on the BBC. I welcomed the editorial space the programme was prepared to give to cover the overarching ecological framework within which all our systems of governance, politics and economic activity operate, and the acute limits this places on our lofty ambitions. In my experience, it’s rare to get a clear opportunity like this, as the so-called ‘green’ perspective is usually pushed to the outer margins and framed as a fringe concern being largely pursued by anti-capitalist ideologues with agendas. So hats off to Nicky Campbell and his team on this one. JG