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The Causes Big and Small of the Sixth Mass Extinction

Though the causes of past extinctions within human history are still shrouded in some mystery, the modern stretch of the sixth mass extinction is undeniably a human affair. As we reach out across the planet and attempt to exploit it, for better or worse, the cost of our activities appears ever more burdensome. What could be driving...

Cave paintings record the now vanished giant cave lion in Chauvet, France, shown here in a reproduction in the Anthopos Pavillion of the Moravian Museum. (Photo by HTO)

Though the causes of past extinctions within human history are still shrouded in some mystery, the modern stretch of the sixth mass extinction is undeniably a human affair. As we reach out across the planet and attempt to exploit it, for better or worse, the cost of our activities appears ever more burdensome. What could be driving such an obviously risky enterprise for our species?

It seems that humanity is directly responsible for everything happening to the natural world at the moment. It is perhaps strange, though, that we should be so quick to defend our ancestors against culpability and to blame ourselves for almost everything in the present. Take climate change, for instance. Though evidence strongly suggests that humans are having some lesser or greater impact, it is worth noting that climate has changed drastically many times in the past, and it has managed to do so without human help. Perhaps, just as in the case of studying our ancestors’ effects on ancient animals, extreme conclusions shouldn’t be drawn so hastily.

There is, at least, a direct connection between global species loss and human activity, but the impacts are different for us compared to our ancestors. What might the neolithic cavemen who saw mammoths disappear from their lives have thought about it—mammoths they would never see return? Did they believe that there were inevitably still mammoths elsewhere, in some distant land, or did they believe that the mammoths had finally left them for good? What did they feel when they finally realized they wouldn’t have access to this vital part of their culture and livelihood anymore, one that had defined their existence for untold generations?

Though we currently all “know” how important biodiversity is, we have never experienced our entire world being remade as the shoulders that bear it collapse into the dust, as some of our ancestors did with mammoths—not to mention many other “keystone” species around the world.

Maasai tribesmen perform a traditional jumping dance. (Photo by Brutere, CC0 1.0)

It isn’t impossible to reverse this trend, of course. Recently, Maasai tribesmen have been put to work protecting lions they formerly would have killed in the Lion Guardians program. At what appears to be a turning point, they now take great cultural pride in defending their wild lion populations, and have been gaining good results.

However, the Maasai example illustrates something very important: An environment likely won’t be cared for properly until the people who occupy it defend and improve it on their own initiative. This includes keeping foreign interests under control, no matter what they offer to pay for natural resources, as well as tending the land responsibly for its peoples’ own needs.

In contrast to such hopeful projects, Madagascar and the “sky islands” of Africa are burning. Their forests are put to the torch for what nutrients can be eked out of them for cash crops, despite the fact that jungle soil is widely known to be good only for a season or two. After only a small number of crops are harvested, more jungle must be burned, making it highly unsustainable—and in places that have some of the highest rates of biodiversity and endemism in the world.

The questions will always reappear: “What about these people who are trying to survive? Aren’t they more important than a patch of woods?” Naturally, humans will always be more valuable to us than animals and shrubs. Yet, if humans depend on a healthy environment to continue surviving themselves, what does this say about them destroying it? The reaction might instead be that not stopping unsustainable destruction will ultimately be much more dangerous to humanity.

The southern white rhino is a great story of conservation success, but of the northern white rhinos there is now only one male alive. (Photo by Joonas Lyytinen and Käyttäjä Joonasl, CC-BY-2.5)

Should a government be blamed for mistreating its people if they languish because it wouldn’t allow them to misuse their environment? Should it be blamed in equal measure if, by allowing the environment to be damaged, its people then suffer because they have few natural resources left, and far more mouths to feed after years of unsustainable usage? A simplified example, but you get the point.

There’s poverty, global inequality (from diverse causes), fear, and ignorance, but then there’s the “less necessary” cause of mass extinction: Greed. Interests in Asia, particularly China, are pushing animals toward extinction that were previously (at least somewhat) safe, mostly for the sake of highly-coveted traditional medicine and social prestige in the form of ivory. This much is fact. The climbing rates of poaching in Africa and elsewhere are testimony to it.

Illegal traditional medicine trade goods continue to be available in China, including tiger paws and goat horns. (Photo by avlxyz, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Companies and countries in the West are also to blame, of course; the oil and coal industries are just two examples out of many. While great strides have been made in safety and accountability, pollution itself is still a major concern. Are tiger paws absolutely necessary for curing various ailments? Is oil in such demand that extremely strict safety procedures shouldn’t be enforced?

Naturally, in depth and scale of environmental degradation, we modern humans win hands-down over our ancestors. However, ancient humans may or may not have been the environmentally conscious guardians of the environment that we often imagine them being. It’s impossible to say that our forebears were always driven by necessity (killing off an entire mammoth herd to win trophies and bragging rights in a Stone Age community might have been quite appealing, for instance), but it’s hard to picture them not maintaining animals responsibly when their everyday survival depended on it. Then again, the possible extinction of mammoths at human hands could just as easily have been a slow and unintentional process over many disconnected generations.

The saiga antelope, with its distinctive nose and spiral horns, is still found in Asia, but is critically endangered. (Photo by Tiarescott, CC BY-SA 3.0)

And, it appears remarkably little has changed since the Stone Age, if indeed climate only played a small role in extinctions. The sixth mass extinction is still a matter of consequences not directly impacting their perpetrators, of greed, ignorance and worry over resources fueling their continuing misuse. These all sound like big, vague ideas, but what we are witnessing proves them to be more than philosophical.

This is the dilemma of both ancient and modern humans: Though we wish to thrive and can’t always see how our actions will impact the planet, we are also ultimately responsible for the consequences, which all too easily spiral out of control.

The only solution is to learn from our past so as not to repeat it, and to try to repair the damage done. How can that be accomplished in the middle of such a crisis? Is it already too late? Find out in the final installment.

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.