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Background: Climate & Evolution

The Sixth Great Extinction

Vertical: % marine life becoming extinct at given time. Horizontal: millions of years ago

There is reason to believe the Earth was never more resplendent than it was when human consciousness awakened in the midst of the unnumbered variety of living forms that swim in the seas and move over the land and fly through the air. In our times, however, human cunning has mastered the deep secrets of the Earth at a level far beyond the capacities of earlier peoples. We can break the mountains apart; we can drain the rivers and flood the valleys. We can turn the most luxuriant forests into throwaway paper products. We can tear apart the great grass cover of the western plains and pour toxic chemicals into the soil and pesticides onto the fields until the soil is dead and blows away in the wind. We can pollute the air with acids, the rivers with sewage, the seas with oil - all this in a state of intoxication with our power for devastation, at an order of magnitude beyond all reckoning.[1]

Major extinction events have occurred in the Earth's history, 440, 360, 245 and 208 million years ago. Then the last of the dinosaurs vanished in one such event, 65 million years ago ending the era of reptiles and beginning that of mammals. This was the Cretaceous-Tertiary event, the fifth massive biological extinction in geological history. It is thought to have originated with a giant meteorite impact at the Mexican Yucatan peninsula, but recent geochemical and micropaleontology evidence indicate that took place in the context of more than a million years of environmental perturbations and climatic stress.  

Now a sixth spasm has begun, this one a result of human activity.  Although not ushered in by cosmic violence, it is potentially as hellish as the earlier cataclysms. If left unabated, it could be the primary cause of extinction of a quarter of the species of plants and animals on the land by mid-century. [2]

The International Union for Conservation of Naturehas identified 17,000 endangered plant and animal species in its Red List of Threatened Species. They include 1 in 4 of the world's 5490 mammalian species, 1 in 8 bird species, one third of amphibian species (the most endangered group on the planet), 3,120 species of freshwater fish, 7615 species of invertebrate animals and 70% of the world’s assessed plant species. The global extinction rate now exceeds the global species birthrate by a factor of a hundred. It is soon to be a factor of 1,000.

Some time while you read this page
or the next one, a species—
like you, with your grandmother,
your dozen eggs, your walk in the park,
a species as vast as your life
and the lives of all your ancestors
chasing bison across Old Europe
or huddled around a fire—will disappear.
A species that has found its own
ways of eating, of moving, of
hiding from predators; a species
that meets itself and makes love
in the bark of a tree or on the leaves
of the canopy or in the humid dirt.
And it has come with us for millions
of years, for millions of years,
it has watched the night
and day follow each other, it has breathed
with the frogs, it has wrapped
the stars around it like a blanket,
a patterned music, a map.
At the beginning of this page
there may have been three or four left,
but now there is only one.
And if you read this page again,
it will be another one, another species,
another story of four billion years
telling itself for the last time.
Wherever life began—a word, a wish
breathed into water, a seed falling
through space—it was all of us
there—as it is now
in this unknown last one.
It has bored into wood, it has carried
water on its back, it has drunk
the dew from its back in the desert,
it has fed its young with strips of
leaves, it has built homes out of bark,
it has carved the sky into a song,
it has spoken in ways no man has heard.
It has emerald wings
it has sapphire wings
it has wings of night
you will never see it
it is already gone.

Sam Taylor

"The scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis continues to mount." states the IUCN, "It is time for governments to start getting serious about saving species and make sure it's high on their agendas, as we're rapidly running out of time."  Biodiversity is integral to our daily lives since it concerns not only the loss of species but that of vital resources which underpin the wealth and health of us all.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report warns that our neglect of the natural services provided by biodiversity is an economic catastrophe, an order of magnitude greater than the global economic crisis. Year after year, irreversible loss of natural diverse genetic resources impoverishes the world and undermines our ability to develop new crops and medicines, resist pests and diseases, and maintain the plethora of natural products on which humans rely.

Essential ecosystem services include the generation of oxygen, the decomposition of waste and removal of pollutants, those natural buffers that allow us to manage drought and floods, the fertility of the soil itself, and the breeding nurseries for oceanic fisheries. It is the capacity of forests, bogs, salt marches, tundra, coral and ocean plankton to sequester carbon that is the greatest ally in managing our fossil carbon emissions. 

An unprecedented effort to find a sustainable relationship between human society and nature is urgently needed. This is not simply a scientific or environmental matter—it is a social, ethical, inter-generational issue of the highest order. If present trends of global warming and loss of habitat to deforestation, agriculture and urbanization continue unabated, half of all species of life on Earth will die out this century, in an Anthropocene extinction event. From a Buddhist point of view, this needless, avoidable destruction of life-forms and ecosystems is an immeasurable loss, spiritual as well as biological. As the Dalai Lama explicitly states:

We are facing the most massive wave of extinction in 65 million years. This fact is profoundly frightening. It must open our minds to the immense proportions of the crisis we face…This blue planet of ours is a delightful habitat. Its life is our life; its future our future. Indeed, the Earth acts like a mother to us all. Like children, we are dependent on her. In the face of such global problems as the greenhouse effect, individual organizations and single nations are helpless. Unless we all work together, no solution can be found.  Our mother Earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility. [4]

1. Thomas Berry The Dream of the Earth.
2. Edward Wilson [2002] The Future of Life.
3. Dalai Lama [2007] Collected Statements on Environment.

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