Plants and animals make life worth living. They also make it possible.
If humanity cannot prevent the next mass extinction that looms on the horizon, then more than one trillion different species of animals, plants and microbes will be at risk. One in six species is expected to go extinct within the next century, according to “Accelerating extinction risk from climate change,” a Science magazine report by Mark C. Urban.
Humans do not have the same tolerance for extreme environments as some specially adapted species, but human intelligence might be enough to save itself from complete annihilation.
If only that same intelligence could be used to prevent this impending tragedy in the first place.
Problem is, nature has already accumulated too much “extinction debt,” an ecological term used to describe the future extinction of a species due to events in the past. There is no way the planet can pay his debt without defaulting unless humanity is willing to pay it back with interest. This means completely reversing the damage done from human industrialization across the planet.
Earth’s biosphere is a spinning top, each species helps maintain the ecological momentum of the whole system. Every time one goes extinct or a biome is destroyed for human development, the top slows its spin and destabilizes more.
Given enough time, the biosphere could restabilize if humans ceased all industries and practices that harm the environment. But there are powerful economic and political groups that whose profits either depend on or just happen to damage the planet. They fight any and all regulations meant to protect it.
Few things are powerful enough to completely upset the balance, such as catastrophic climate change from volcanic activity, asteroid impact or the advent of a new species that irrevocably changes the surface of the planet, such as when cyanobacteria, trees and human beings evolved.
Earth has experienced five major extinction events with minor extinction events occurring unevenly throughout, according to “Periodicity of extinctions in the geologic past,” a landmark paper published in 1982 by Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup. Previously, life had always managed to find a way to survive these apocalypses through a relatively few hardy organisms whose success is passed onto their decedents. Those that could not survive the changes died and biodiversity was greatly reduced. Survivors inherited the planet and would go on to diversify and fill in the voids in the web of life.
Mammals currently dominate the planet thanks to an ancient species of shrew-like creature that survived the extinction of (most) dinosaurs.
This time though, even the shrews are screwed.
If humans continue to upset the balance, the biodiversity of the life will be greatly diminished. When it comes to an ecosystem, the more species the better. Except for invasive species that have been introduced by humans, every animal species should be protected because all are important to maintain the health of the planet.
Different animals, plants and microorganisms have overlapping roles in their environment, so that if one goes the way of the dodo, another may be able to fill that gap. But the extinction of a species reduces the overall health and causes that environment to be more vulnerable to complete collapse.
Bees are one of the most important pollinators in the world and now one species from the U.S., the rusty-patched bumblebee, is listed as endangered thanks to the widespread use of pesticides that also affect bees. While there may be many other pollinators in the world, including bats, butterflies, moths, mosquitoes and more, plants can develop symbiotic relationships with specific pollinators. Without bees, most of the crops humans eat would die off and that would trigger mass starvation across the planet.
President Donald Trump is working to defund the Environmental Protection Agency and dismantle regulations meant to protect the land, sea and air in favor of entities that can survive in the most toxic of environments: corporations.
A lawsuit filed against the Trump administration by the Center for Biological Diversity seeks to halt the construction of the southern border wall due to the failure to complete an environmental analysis as required by the EPA. Before such a huge project can begin, a new analysis of the U.S.-Mexico border must be done since the previous one was done in 2001. Conditions may have changed significantly in the last 16 years. Building a solid wall between the U.S. and Mexico could not only be catastrophic to humans attempting the journey north, but would damage animal populations of both sides, since their populations would literally be cut in half.
California suffered an ecological collapse of its coastal kelp forests, which may fully recover one day. Sea otters are incredibly important for maintaining the health of kelp forests by preying on anemones and other creatures that graze on kelp. Fur hunters decimated sea otter population all along the California coast in the 1700s and by the time the International Fur Seal Treaty was signed in 1911, scientists estimated that only 13 small groups of sea otters existed between Mexico and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Hungry hunters also managed to wipe the Stellar’s sea cow off the map while pursing otters.
Loss of an important keystone predator like the otter caused a population boom of all the creatures that eat kelp. Combined with pollution from storm drains, overfishing of important organisms and sediments from human development, the huge kelp forests that once supported 800 different species have been reduced by 80 percent in the past 100 years.
These types of events are not isolated to the California coast.
Humans have ousted local apex predators again and again across the planet and in the aftermath of each ecological coup it was the environment that suffered most.
Large predators are some of the most important organisms for maintaining the health of an ecosystem, and human hunters are not an adequate substitute. Where there are few or no predators, like wolves or cougars, prey animals like deer overgraze and eventually starve themselves. When there are enough predators to control the population, there is more food for the prey and the health of the prey population improves since there are predators capable of targeting the weak, young and sick.
Earth and every species on it are at risk. Even species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature consider to be of “least concern” will disappear once the mass extinction event enters the home stretch. Even the most stable populations will be decimated because of the chain reaction of death.
Many people are worried about overpopulation, or specifically the overpopulation of nonwhite countries, as significantly contributing to the majority of ecological problems that the world is facing. In truth, technology and modern science has the capability to feed everyone.
But those advancements are only available to the wealthiest countries and poorer countries are forced to rely on techniques that produce less food and damage the environment more. Slash and burn farms in South America can only sustain a family for a few years before the soil becomes depleted of nutrients, which can take 10 years to recover. Plowing can eventually result in soil erosion and turn the dirt into dense hardpan, which prevents water from seeping into the ground.
We have the potential to feed everyone in the world, and yet people starve and die of thirst. No single species as large as a human has ever been as populous, and the environment has struggled to feed us. Technology has the capability to remove our reliance from the land by letting us grow foods within our cities and convert our farmlands back into wildernesses.
Almost half of all food produced in the U.S. is thrown away. Worldwide about a third of all food is wasted, according to research by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food waste decays in landfills to produce methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. If food waste were considered its own country, it would be the third largest source of pollution in the planet, behind China and the U.S.
Although life on Earth has bounced back from mass extinctions before, humans are a game changer. There might be no limit to how thoroughly and irreversibly humans can damage the biosphere of the planet.
Rising sea levels will threaten the 80 percent of people that live within 60 miles of the ocean, and many will be forced to evacuate or adapt to cities flooded by liquid hubris. It will result in a humanitarian disaster across the whole globe with the potential to trigger a third World War in which nations take up arms to claim the few patches of land that may escape the rising tide of ecological collapse.
Optimistically, humans, along with the best survivalists in Mother Nature or those lucky enough to be protected by humans, would withstand the environmental catastrophe that will take most living things with it. Eventually organisms would adapt to a flooded Earth choked with acid rain that knows no snow or ice and is much hotter thanks to all the greenhouse gases.
Pessimistically, the man-made damage to the planet would result in an atmosphere and ocean that is completely intolerable to all current forms of life that are not extremophiles, which are strange creatures adapted to conditions lethal to almost any other form of life. Maybe the atmosphere becomes poisonous or the oceans stagnate and become anaerobic, but it would mean that all life as we know it would be gone, and Earth would be more similar to an alien planet.
There must be a concerted effort to focus on combating all the various causes of climate change before it is too late. This change to a greener world starts with recycling and not littering, but it also includes voting for politicians who will work to create policies that force industries to become clean and punishing those that continue to harm the environment.
Humans have long struggled with shortsightedness, but preventing complete destruction of Earth’s biosphere is not something we can procrastinate on any longer.
Mother Nature sacrificed so much to help humans succeed and spread across her, and now humanity must sacrifice to restore the environment for the betterment of all.