Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Humanity Getting Ahead of Itself: A Mass-Extinction Event Already Underway

Around 252 million years ago, the “Great Dying” took out 90% of the world’s species. About 66 million years ago, a meteor caused the extinction of three out of four species, including those known to us as dinosaurs.[1] After 1.8 million years of existence, our own species is triggering yet another mass extinction event, according to a study in the journal Science by Stuart Pimm and Clinton Jenkins. According to Pimm, species are now going extinct at about ten times faster than scientists had thought. Prior to the arrival of homo sapiens (i.e., our species), the extinction rate was about 0.1 out of a million species per year; as of 2014, the rate had climbed to 100 to 1000 species per 1 million.[2] Behind this evolutionarily abrupt bump is not only the complicity of our species, but also unforeseen consequences that could easily take homo sapiens out of the equation.

Beyond the positive correlation of our species and the rate increase, Pimm and Jenkins posit a causal relationship, pointing in particular to habitat loss due to the territorially expansive attribute of an expansive human population globally. Climate change and overfishing, both of which are related to the increase in the human population, are also salient factors.

As observable as this leap in the extinction rate is, the implications may elude our cognitive grasp, and thus be especially dangerous for our species. In other words, our collective failure to manage our population level may result ironically in the downfall of the species.
In another study in 2014, Rodolfo Dirzo points to the overexploitation of resources and habitat destruction as examples of human activities responsible for the rise in the extinction rate of species. Since 1500, 322 terrestrial vertebrates had gone extinct, with the remaining species declining in numbers by an average of 25 percent; for invertebrates, the typical decline in population is a whopping 45 percent.[3] With these stark changes naturally come unforeseen consequences. “We tend to think about extinction as loss of a species from the face of the Earth, and that’s very important, but there’s a loss of critical ecosystem functioning in which animals play a central role that we need to pay attention to as well,” Dirzo said in a statement.[4] Even amid all of our advanced technology, we are a species that lives within ecosystems; the collapse of such a system means all bets are off in things like food supply that we take for granted.

For example, “(w)here human density is high,” Dirzo continues, “you get high rates of [animal decline], high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission. It can be a vicious circle.”[5] Rodents and pathogens can of course hit our food sources as well as us. Ironically, our own technological advances can exacerbate the potential harm.

Air transportation, for example, could turn the massive spread of the Ebola virus in Africa during 2014 into a worldwide pandemic. Even as we were congratulating ourselves on finally accepting what climatologists had been telling us for over a decade concerning the harmful impact of our carbon-dioxide emissions on the planet’s temperature, we were blissfully unaware of the contribution being made by methane, a gas with ten-times the “greenhouse” effect as carbon dioxide, through leaks in extracting and distributing natural gas—the “clean” gas—as well as in the melting of the permafrost around the Artic. With the kind of scales to which our technology can be applied, both the unforeseen impacts and the damage can be much greater than we know. Put another way, we have increased the size of our footprint so much as a species that we cannot get our minds around all of the unintended consequences.

In short, we have gotten too big, both in population and the scales in which we chose to operate, for our own good. While our genes are doubtlessly quite pleased with their success in replication, they are clearly not smart enough for their own long-term survival. The human brain seems naturally inclined to assume the absence of unforeseen implications rather than holding as a default that they exist “out there” even if we have not yet detected them. As superior as our species’ brain is, it sports a major flaw in having or adopting a schizogenic (i.e., a variable that maximizes itself without limit) mentality rather than one that is homeostatic, or steady-state (e.g., ecologizing).[6] This explains why we have been so hesitant as a species even to reduce the increases in our carbon footprint, let alone bring it down to a level at which the warming of the planet will allow for the continued survival of our species. In short, we tend to be all about maximizing—even as if it were an end in itself—in line with our greed and hubris rather than valuing the achievement of equilibrium in line with, rather than puncturing, the ecosystems within which we live and breathe.

[1] Seth Borenstein, “World on Brink of Sixth Great Extinction, Species Disappearing Faster than Ever Before,” The Huffington Post, May 29, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Sara Gates, “Earth Is in the Early Days of a New Mass-Extinction Event, Researchers Warn,” The Huffington Post, July 25, 2014.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] On this distinction, see Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind.