What it Means to be Human

The Fallout Mass extinctions are the rapid loss of biodiversity - of which includes both flora and fauna. A mass extinction can be defined as a loss of three quarters of all species across the Earth over a “short” geological period of time. This kind of species loss is not new. Throughout time, mass extinctions have come to fruition when global extinction rates rise. These extinction rates tend to occur over “short” periods of time; which, in a geological mindset, is what we would consider a significantly long period of time, but our scale of time is so minimal compared to geological time periods that our understanding of long or short is vastly different from Earth's time frames. Speaking to human time frames, since 1970 we’ve lost 68% of species. Only around 50% of the Earth’s surface is still considered intact, semi-intact or slightly degraded — this indicates that while some land is lost there is still the potential to recover some of the land’s health or productivity. Without healthy lands it is extremely challenging to maintain healthy biodiversity populations. While 15% of land is protected, 12% more is inhabited by Indigenous peoples who are thought to protect biodiversity better than the rest of us do. Together, this only adds up to 27% of Earth’s land as protected. This lack of land protection isn’t just bad news for biodiversity, it also is bad news for us. Humans rely on the diversity in the environment to help regulate our climate, help us prevent pandemics, produce natural resources, and help maintain clean air and water levels. During mass extinctions, there is a rapid collapse of the ecosystem. Today’s wildlife is only 3% of Earth’s land animals, while humans, livestock, and our pets account for the 97%. This is labeled a Frankenstein biosphere due to the huge increase in industrial agriculture and to a hollowing out of a diversity of wildlife. This loss of wildlife is in part due to hunting and global-scale habitat destruction. The overall extinction crisis, however, is thought to be largely due to the exploitation of the planet by people. There are many that state we are in a Sixth Extinction event. Global habitat destruction is happening rapidly as almost half of the earth’s land has been converted to farmland. While large fauna have decreased, insects like butterflies and moths have also declined by 35% since the 1970s . This loss is still ongoing: the rate at which species are dying out has accelerated in recent decades where around 173 species went extinct between 2001 and 2014. 173 species is 25 times more species than you would expect under the normal, background, extinction rates. Unfortunately it is thought that in the past 100 years, 400 vertebrate species went extinct. Compared to a normal extinction timeline that rate of loss would have taken up to 10,000 years. This timeframe is compared to other mass extinctions that have played out over tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands of years. Other mass extinctions in Earth’s history were the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous extinctions . When any of these mass extinctions hit, they eliminated both megafauna, niche ecosystems, and hardy organisms such as the easily identifiable clams, plants, and insects. It’s not just the loss of a singular species in an ecosystem that is worrisome. When one species in the ecosystem disappears, it sets off a domino effect that leads to the breakdown of the entire ecosystem; further influencing extinction of other species. It is thought that nothing is safe during a mass extinctions as these events kill almost everything that lives. Case and point where the largest mass extinction around 250 million years ago eliminated almost 95 % of all species. Looking at the extinction rate of current species loss, the estimated rate is between ten and 10,000 times higher than the background rate. When accounting for conservative estimates the rate of two extinctions per million species-years, the number of extinct species in the last century would have taken 800- 10,000 years to disappear. This supports the idea that Earth is experiencing more extinctions than anticipated compared to the background rate. Now, keep in mind that extinctions are preceded by a loss in population abundance and shrinking distributions. Looking at the number of decreasing vertebrate species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, 32% of known species are decreasing in abundance and range. Causes The Sixth Extinction is not just caused by loss of habit or land degradation. On a yearly basis fishing trawlers plow an area of seafloor twice the size of the continental United States. The integrity of these trawled areas are completely diminished in the process. Areas that used to team with sea life are converted into lifeless plains. Many land-based species are endangered or verging on extinction due to the wildlife trade. General species losses are influenced by direct and indirect human activities, such as the destruction or fragmentation of habitats, exploitation through fishing and hunting, pollution, invasive species invasions, and human-caused global warming. These pushing factors promote species loss but also set off wide-spread impacts. Such forcing factors can be caused by external factors such as climate change, lowering of sea level, and methane releases. These wide-spread impacts indicate the point at which an ecosystem’s nonlinear responses (also called tipping points) come to the forefront. These tipping points are like standing at the edge of a cliff with your toes over the edge… and then pushing your weight onto your toes. You’re going to fall off and succumb to an uncontrolled fall. Tipping points in ecosystem’s promote devastating changes that can be irreversible. These changes can damage the ability of species to survive, thus further impacting more species survival and ecosystem functions. It’s a nasty cycle to get in; and it is only complimented by an ecosystem response that drives the entire setup into nonexistence. Congratulations humanity, the Sixth Extinction is one of the best ways to analyze our impact. As if we didn’t have enough to “brag” about! These constant, massively detrimental impacts that we have on our Earth (and everything existing on it) should force us to reconsider what it means to be human. Are humans the all-destructing, selfish, chaotic breed we appear to be? So far, the answer is yes. And that answer should make us all feel ashamed. Skepticism There are some skeptics of the current sixth extinction. Since the current extinction is thought to be comparable to the other Big Five mass extinctions, it is thought that we are in the sixth extinction. However, “People who claim we’re in the sixth mass extinction don’t understand enough about mass extinctions to understand the logical flaw in their argument”, paleontologist Doug Erwin claims. Erwin thinks this is a misunderstanding of the current extinction that it is miscategorized as a sixth extinction. Erwin claims that individuals are speaking about it as a way of frightening people into action. He thinks that if we are already in the sixth extinction, there is no point in attempting conservation biology as he believes this is a “network collapse problem”. Whether the current loss constitutes a sixth mass extinction depends on whether the extinction rate is greater than the “normal” or “background” rate that occurs between mass extinctions. This so-called background rate explains how quickly a species is anticipated to disappear in absence of human endeavour. This is mainly measured using fossil records to count how many species died out between mass extinction events. Recovery Once a mass extinction is triggered it tends to take up to millions of years for all life to recover. When life is able to recover it tends to produce a new host of species. The best way to prevent extinctions from happening is protecting habitat. It is argued that 50.4% of land is necessary to prevent mass extinctions. That’s a large increase from 15.1% of land that is protected currently. Scientists have proposed creating a Global Safety Net in order to protect Earth’s land. This Safety Net is aiming to minimize the current mass extinction and to create a sustainable land protection scheme. This Safety Net is not intended to overlap with the built environment and existing agricultural lands. However, society needs to designate an additional 23% of land to protection. Out of lands now, 37% of land is dedicated to intensive agriculture, where 77% of said land grows food for livestock. So what does the future look like? Are we doomed to live through an ongoing mass extinction event? Frankly, it seems that way. Will we feel the impacts of species loss? Absolutely. Should we care and still continue to try? 1,000% and more. We are in large part the cause of these losses, and we still have control over our actions. So why wouldn’t we do our part to help reverse or mitigate what we can? It’s worth trying, or else we truly have to take into account that being human means a lack of regard for anything that isn’t as wonderful as the superior human species.

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