Land of walking dead

“There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially the walking dead,” said Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich. “We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on.” He was talking about the Sixth Extinction, the huge loss of species that is underway right now. It has been discussed in public before, of course, but what Ehrlich and other scientists from Stanford and Princeton universities and the University of California Berkeley have done is to document it statistically.

“There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially the walking dead,” said Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich. “We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on.”

He was talking about the Sixth Extinction, the huge loss of species that is underway right now. It has been discussed in public before, of course, but what Ehrlich and other scientists from Stanford and Princeton universities and the University of California Berkeley have done is to document it statistically.

Animals and plants are always going extinct, usually to be replaced by rival species that exploit the same ecological niche more efficiently. But the normal turnover rate is quite slow, according to the fossil record: about one species of vertebrate per 10,000 species goes extinct each century. Ehrlich and his colleagues deliberately raised the bar, assuming that the normal extinction rate is twice as high as that — and still got an alarming result.

In a study published this month in Science Advances, they report that vertebrates (animals with internal skeletons made of bone or cartilage — mammals, birds, reptiles and fish) are going extinct at a rate 114 times faster than normal. In a separate study last year, Professor Stuart Pimm of Duke University estimated that the loss rate may be as much as a thousand times higher than normal — and that includes plants as well as animals.

“We are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” said Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, lead author of the Science Advances study. “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on.” Indeed, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has estimated that at the current rate of loss, half of Earth’s higher lifeforms will be extinct by 2100.

The previous five mass extinctions, all during the past half-billion years, each wiped out at least half of the existing species of life. Four of them were probably caused by drastic warming of the planet due to massive, millennia-long volcanic eruptions.

The warming eventually made the deep oceans oxygen-free, allowing sulfur bacteria to emerge from the muds. As they took over the oceans, they killed off all the oxygen-based life — and when they finally reached the surface, they emitted vast quantities of hydrogen sulfide gas that destroyed the ozone layer and directly poisoned most land-based life as well.

The fifth and most recent mass extinction, at the end of the Cretaceous era 65 million years ago, was different. It was caused by a giant asteroid that threw so much dust up when it hit Earth that the Sun was effectively hidden for years. First the plants died, and then the animals. But the cause of the sixth extinction is a single species: us.

It’s fair to say that we are the victims of our own success, but so is the entire biosphere. There were one billion of us in 1800. We are now seven and a half billion, on our way to 10 or 11 billion. We have appropriated the most biologically productive 40 percent of the planet’s land surface for our cities, farms and pastures, and there’s not much room left for the other species.

They have been crowded out, hunted out, or poisoned by our chemical wastes. Their habitats have been destroyed. Even the oceans are being devastated as one commercial fish species after another is fished out. And still our population continues to grow, and our appetite for meat causes more land to be cleared to grow grain not for people, but for livestock.

All this even before global warming really gets underway and starts to take huge bites out of the ecosphere. We are on the Highway to Hell, and it’s hard to see how we get off it.

In a way, climate change is the easiest part of the problem to fix, because all we have to do is stop burning fossil fuels and reform the way we farm to cut carbon dioxide emissions. More easily said than done, as the history of the past thirty years amply demonstrates, but certainly not impossible if we take the task seriously.

Maintaining the diversity of species (some of which we haven’t even identified yet) that provide essential “ecosystem services” is going to be far harder, because the web of interdependence among apparently unrelated species is very complex. At the very least, however, it is clear that we must restore around a quarter of our agricultural land to its original “wild” state and cut back drastically on fishing.

It’s far from clear that we can do that in time and still go on feeding all of the human population, but the alternative is worse. James Lovelock put it very bluntly in his book The Revenge of Gaia.

“If we continue business as usual, our species may never again enjoy the lush and verdant world we had only a hundred years ago,” he wrote. “What is most in danger is civilization; humans are tough enough for breeding pairs to survive … but if these huge changes do occur it seems likely that few of the teeming billions now alive will survive.”

Dyer is a journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Just Posted

Alberta’a chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday that there are more than 328,000 vaccine appointments booked over the next seven days. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta surpasses 2 million doses administered of COVID-19 vaccine

Red Deer down to 835 active cases of COVID-19

RCMP file photo (Photo by Jeff Stokoe/Advocate staff)
RCMP investigating shooting near Maskwacis

Maskwacis and Wetaskiwin RCMP are seeking public assistance after a shooting has… Continue reading

Alberta has made a more detailed framework for those looking to acquire an exemption to the mandatory indoor mask bylaw. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Alberta changes requirements for mask exemptions

Masks wearing has been recommended for almost a year and provincially mandated… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools is projecting a $4-million budget deficit for 2021-22 school year. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Red Deer Public Schools prepares $124-million budget

$1 million COVID recovery plan to assist students

(Black Press file photo).
Central Alberta’s ‘screen-based storytellers’ can apply for $5,000 grants

Calling all filmmakers, gamers, educators, and videographers… TELUS STORYHIVE released its first… Continue reading

Bo’s Bar and Grill owner Brennen Wowk said the hospitality industry is looking for more clarity from the province around what conditions must be met to allow for restaurants reopening. (Advocate file photo)
Frustated restaurant owners want to know government’s reopening plan

Restaurant owners feel they are in lockdown limbo

A man wearing a mask walks out of a Canadian Tire store in Toronto on Wednesday March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Demand for bikes and barbecues ratchets up Canadian Tire’s profit and sales

Demand for bikes and barbecues ratchets up Canadian Tire’s profit and sales

A man works in the broadcast centre at the TMX Group Ltd. in Toronto, on May 9, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
North American stock markets rebound from three-day losses; loonie falls

North American stock markets rebound from three-day losses; loonie falls

The symbol for Aurora Cannabis appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the Canadian company lists on October 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Richard Drew
Aurora Cannabis reports $164.7 million loss in Q3, launches cost efficiencies plan

Aurora Cannabis reports $164.7 million loss in Q3, launches cost efficiencies plan

Adam Feller reacts as he gets his Pfizer-BioNTech shot at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Montreal. Quebec has become the latest province to stop giving Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot as a first dose.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Ontario keeps stay-at-home order; Quebec pauses Oxford-AstraZeneca shots

Ontario has announced it’s keeping its stay-at-home order in place until at… Continue reading

The flag of the Supreme Court of Canada flies outside the building following a ceremony in Ottawa, Monday March 15, 2021. The owners of a horse that was disqualified after initially winning the Canadian Derby more than three years ago might have run out of legal room to reclaim the title. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Supreme Court won’t hear appeal from horse owners over derby dispute

OTTAWA — The owners of a horse that was disqualified after initially… Continue reading

People take part in a protest called 'Justice for Joyce' in Montreal, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, where they demanded justice for Joyce Echaquan and an end to systemic racism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Quebec coroner’s inquest into death of Joyce Echaquan begins as her family testifies

MONTREAL — The husband of an Indigenous woman who was subjected to… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, centre, speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec tables revamp of French-language law, toughens rules for businesses, schools

MONTREAL — The Quebec government reasserted the right of Quebecers to live… Continue reading

Permanent residency
Canada announces new pathway to permanent residency for families of crash victims

Ottawa is launching a new policy to help the families of victims… Continue reading

Most Read