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Can We Stop the Sixth Mass Extinction?

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” ― Theodore Roosevelt There are...

A concept painting shows what a park featuring cloned mammoths might look like. (Image by Raul Martin/National Geographic Creative)

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

There are many problems arrayed against us in the midst of a human-driven sixth mass extinction, and many proposed solutions. What can be done in the face of it all, and what are the most important factors for those solutions succeeding? What must change? (Read all posts in this series.)

Certainly, more sustainable farming and living practices must be established. After having completed many sustainability projects in the Oceania region, I can personally attest to the importance of sustainable economic measures. They include many things, like correct grazing patterns on pasture land, non-toxic farming methods, locally purchased goods, and pushing for more renewable energy, all of which will have an impact on the health of our ecosystems in a multitude of ways. A reduction in consumerist culture would be a boon as well, as it would reduce waste at every step in the global economy; this means consumers choosing long-term, high-quality options rather than planned-obsolescence fads and throwaways.

Beyond simply improving economic and farming practices on a continuous basis, though, there are other options for restoring the integrity of our world. One possible solution is rewilding, which essentially seeks to take sections of land and completely remake them in their ancient, pre-human image as much as possible. National parks run along these lines. The Pleistocene Park in Siberia has successfully reintroduced a handful of animal species that had completely vanished from Russia since the arrival of man, with many more slated to be introduced as well.

The Asiatic lion is an endangered species and target for rewilding in Russia’s Pleistocene Park. (Photo by Rupal Vaidya, CC-BY-2.0)

Related to rewilding is de-extinction, the process of resurrecting extinct species, but it has its opponents. De-extinction is mainly criticized as being a misnomer (“clones” will never be exact copies of a species due to damaged DNA) and a potential drain on conservation (due to taking funding away from efforts to save what we have).

For supporters of de-extinction though, unfamiliarity with an animal in everyday life is not logical grounds for keeping it extinct. Our perception of what is normal, they claim, is in a frame of reference only decades and centuries long, rather than in the huge timescale the animal occupied until extremely recently. In this sense, proponents argue, saying that a mammoth doesn’t any longer fit into Siberia’s ecosystem could be akin to saying that a broken leg shouldn’t be healed when we have the technology. The possible restorative benefits to ecosystems just might be worth it, so perhaps resurrecting certain species isn’t as excessive as it first appears.

fuertes pigeon
The famous recently extinct passenger pigeon of North America is a prime candidate for de-extinction. Passenger pigeons populations are estimated to have been in the millions, but were commercially hunted down to the last bird in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Painting by Luis Agassi Fuertes)

It may be difficult to always understand how what we do will affect our environment, as in the many cases of invasive species transplanted across oceans to solve problems, but that then created problems instead. However, it is also true that rewilding and de-extinction are more of a restoration project than a transplant that the host environment might “reject.” Instead, it is the attempt to reconstruct the environment to its “pristine-before-humanity” state—essentially not unlike the movement to curtail global warming or to create reserves for endangered species.

Rewilding and de-extinction can only go so far, though, even if they succeed in restoring lost species to their previously held habitats. Imagine reestablishing mammoths in Siberia only to have local hunters (and medicine-market profiteers) immediately turn around and poach the new mammoths back into extinction.

This points to a fundamental truth about the sixth mass extinction as a whole: Good leadership and governance must be in place first. If an ecosystem has good human stewardship, there will be very little chance of it needing to be “rewilded” to begin with, and no restoration project can succeed without devoted leadership and oversight.

Both Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir (seen here at Glacier Point) were champions for establishing conservation areas at a time when environmentalism was a foreign concept. (Photo by Underwood and Underwood)

Ultimately, no matter the tactics, the true end solution to the destruction of species and environment is leadership. Even the vitally important “culture change” needed in various parts of the world can’t happen without leaders—leaders who live and breathe the culture they want to see implemented. Paleolithic hunters didn’t necessarily have overarching leaders to manage their land in a world sparsely populated by tribes, but we do.

So, how do we solve the problem of getting good leadership? A true question for the ages. A leader’s choices and wisdom (or lack thereof) determine the fate of their people as well as their environment.

The key is in teaching current and future leaders (and consequently their followers) that making good decisions leads to getting more of what they want, rather than being an imposition that is forced on them by an alien culture. When teaching someone to do what is best for their ecosystem, or anything for that matter, they have to be self-motivated. Once people see that there’s good reason for them to protect the environment for their own self-interest and future, suddenly they start finding ways to do it. Once this is accomplished, it becomes established culture and tradition.

“Eco guards” in Cameroon are among those actively fighting against the extinction of wild fauna. (Photo by Amcaja)

If the leaders that govern a wild space allow it to be used responsibly but safeguard it against future destructive influences, its people reap great benefits, ranging from ecotourism to a stronger domestic economy to having natural reserves to fall back on in times of distress. Instead, leadership is often so poor that resources end up being cannibalized in a desperate frenzy or sold to people who don’t care about the region’s future. This happens all over the world. The need for environmentally responsible leadership is universal.

Few are likely to think of the mammoth as a delicate flower caught in the center of a brittle web of life. However, given that the mammoths were all too easily lost, we, like our Paleolithic forebears, must learn to see animal species—as well as ourselves, in relation to them—in a different light. Humans must step forward and claim leadership over our activities and take responsibility for our impact on the environment. It certainly puts into perspective the difference that even just one of us can make. All that is needed is to stand for something and to act upon it.

Read All “Sixth Mass Extinction” Posts

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Meet the Author

Robert Coburn
I've lived and traveled all over the United States and the world. I've been in Germany, Holland, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. I've completed sustainability projects in the latter two countries and studied and written on advanced theoretical biology and technology topics, like artificial life and the search for alien organisms in strange places. People say I am very funny and entertaining. I suppose I am. I am very passionate about a lot of topics and great at analyzing things to an interminable depth. I'm highly imaginative and daydream a lot—not on the job, mind you. Writing has always been my primary focus and greatest area of expertise. I'm currently involved in writing a monograph on first-line HIV treatments, as well as a fictional novel. My interests include biological and geological history, travel (but who doesn't say that, right?), weight training, nature, photography, romanticized historical movies and books, exploration and investigation. I help National Geographic explorers and grantees to publish blogs live from the field, and write original posts covering their work as well.