Mass Extinction

Pandemics Ahead: Number 7 in a series looking at the link between animal protein and global health disasters.

Excerpt from Meat Climate Change: The 2nd Leading Cause of Global Warming by Moses Seenarine, (2016). Xpyr Press, 348 pages. ISBN: 0692641157.

Of all the species that have populated Earth at some time over the past 3.5 billion years, in excess of 95% have vanished, many of them in spectacular die-offs called mass extinctions. The permanent loss of large numbers of species over a relatively short period of geological time is known as a mass extinction. According to the fossil record, there have been five mass extinctions due to alterations in Earth's environment and atmosphere. Over half of all life on earth has been wiped out, repeatedly, during the past 500 million years. One cause is an oxygen-depleted ocean spewing poisonous gas as a result of planetary heating. 

The natural background extinction rate for mammals and birds is one species lost every 500 to 1,000 years.(869) Species extinction is occurring at 100 times the natural rate, and is expected to accelerate to between 1,000 and 10,000 times in the coming decades.(870) The current rate of extinction may already be as high as 10,000 times the natural rate.(871) At the upper annual rate of 0.7%, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a loss of 75% of species, or mass extinction, by 2200.

According to the UNEP, the Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of life. This is due to neoliberal development policies and practices, which are based on reductionist, short-sighted, utilitarian views of nature. About 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the "natural" or "background" rate.

The current rate of biodiversity loss is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65 million years ago. And the losses are occurring all over the planet, from the South Pacific to the Arctic and from the deserts of Africa to mountaintops and valleys of the Himalayas.(872) Precious life is being loss in the oceans, land and air. Up to 50% of known vertebrate species died off in the last 50 years. And, the remaining 50% could die off in the next 40 years. Threatened with extinction are 33% of reef-building corals, fresh-water mollusks, sharks, and rays. Plus, 25% of plants and mammals, 20% of reptiles, and 14% of birds.(873)

Of 3,000 wild species tracked since 1970, the overall decline in wildlife populations was 52%.(874) Once populations drop below 50%, this may culminate in unstoppable, irreversible, cascading extinctions and collapse. Over 75% of species loss is a mass extinction, and the Earth is rapidly approaching this point. The IUCN survey of species threatened with extinction catalogs over 17,000 groups. The list contains one in four mammals, one in three amphibians, and one in eight birds. 

The number is actually 50% higher because the survival of 6,300 non-threatened species depends on the existence of the threatened species cataloged. These figures may be much larger since only an extremely small proportion of possible and known species has been evaluated for threatened status. For land extinctions, the spread of agriculture has been the main driver, while overfishing and pollution have affected sealife. Species across land, rivers and seas are being decimated as humans kill for food in unsustainable numbers and destroy habitats. The fastest decline among the animal populations was in freshwater ecosystems, where numbers have plummeted by 75% since 1970.

The biggest declines in animal numbers were in developing nations. Conservation efforts in rich nations have seen small improvements, but the big declines in wildlife in rich nations occurred long ago. Even so, biodiversity is still in decline in developed countries. Case in point, farmland birds in the UK, such as gray partridge, have declined by 50% between 1970 and 2012, mainly due to an intensification in farming. 

In effect, by importing food and other goods produced via habitat destruction in developing nations, rich nations are “outsourcing” wildlife loss to the global South. This represents yet another aspect of global neocolonialism. Over a third of all the products of deforestation, such as animal carcass and soy for livestock feed, were exported to the EU between 1990 and 2008. A 2°C (3.6°F) rise in warming may cause 15% to 40% of species becoming extinct.(875) If one species becomes extinct, this can have a chain-effect on others it interacts with. And, the extinction of a keystone species may cause a cascade of further extinctions. 

Around US$25 billion is needed annually to achieve effective global conservation.(876) Biodiversity-related aid has been falling, and in 2002, five agencies spent only US$1.5 billion on conserving biodiversity. The World Bank, Global Environment Facility, IUCN, Nature Conservancy, and Wildlife Conservation Society spent half of this aid in the US alone.

At COP21 in Paris, Germany, Norway and the UK pledged to support rainforest conservation efforts with about $1 billion per year through 2020. While this is a great start, a sum of $10 billion per year is needed to fully protect the 1.5 billion acres of tropical rainforest remaining. This commitment level from the developed world is a good start, given tropical forest's potential to lower global warming. Conversion to alternatives to fossil fuels is necessary but will cost trillions of dollars. Conservation requires just a fraction of that total.

Chapter 23: 6TH MASS EXTINCTION, page 227

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