The entire west coast of North America is very hot and very dry, and there are a truly staggering number of wildfires as a result. Still, it is ironic that you can see a news video like the one embedded in this Seattle Times article, "Burning Rain Forest Raises Concern About Future" - which begins with a shot of a huge old tree, smoke pouring out of a gigantic hole at the base. Obviously, the process of interior rot began long before this season's unprecedented drought and heat wave, and yet none of the firefighters interviewed seem to have any inkling that the forest has been dying for some years - not even the firefighter who says, a couple of minutes into the film, that the trees are rotted on the inside!
It would appear that nowadays people think it is normal for trees to be rotten. Perhaps we will soon get used to regular reports of fires raging out of control, and people dying in heat waves.
Following is the transcript for the 6th Dispatch from the Endocene, which aired on Extinction Radio on Sunday, July 5 (embedded below, starting at 6:54 in):
Hello Mike, and welcome, listeners, to the Sixth Dispatch from the Endocene.
No sooner had I finished my last Dispatch, when immediately a new paper was released - which proclaimed that hey, there really IS a Sixth Mass Extinction underway or, at least, the beginning of one. This publication ignited countless sensational headlines, even in mainstream media, and other silly version at Motherboard/Vice - “We Are 100%, For Sure, in the Middle of a Major Extinction Event”!
Probably anybody who is savvy enough to be part of the Extinction Radio audience is already aware of this research and its explosive impact in the past two weeks, but for convenience there will be links to some of the news articles and author interviews at the website, as for the other studies that will be part of today’s episode.
The unusual hoopla may have come as a surprise to those biologists and ecologists who have been shouting from the mountaintops for years, even the authors, including Paul Ehrlich and Anthony Barnosky - that human overpopulation is outstripping the earth’s ability to provide resources and absorb pollution. The primary warning - that humans are destroying essential habitat for other species, and hunting them to oblivion - goes back to ecologists like Aldo Leopold starting in the 1920’s, and even to Thomas Malthus over two centuries ago.
Just last fall, a study in Conservation Biology, titled “Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction" found that the natural, prehistoric rate of extinction had been overestimated. A summary of the research in PhyOrg stated that the prior estimate had “…skewed the current rate, making it appear to be only 100 times faster during human times. With the new data, the researchers hypothesize not only that current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than natural background rates of extinction but that future rates are likely to be 10,000 times higher.”
Nevertheless this newest assessment, titled “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction” subjected the data to rigorous analysis. In an effort to end criticism of biological alarmism, the authors used very cautious calculations to compare the prehistoric rate of extinctions for vertebrates with the current rate and found that, using the most extremely conservative parameters, it is now at least 100 times higher.
There is doubt it is far worse than that, if only because there are so many insects and other invertebrates and plants for which there is little data or that haven’t even been discovered and named - tiny populations that inhabit such a rare specialized niche we will never even know they existed before they go extinct.
Inevitably, even as the import of their research is obviously dire, the last line of the abstract includes the obligatory hopeful statement - that it’s not too late to reverse the trend, as long as we hurry up. In the discussion section, the authors even made the preposterous assertion that “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species, and to alleviate pressures on their populations - notably habitat loss, over-exploitation for economic gain and climate change.”
I had to laugh at the absurdity of qualifying “mass extinction” with the word “true”. “True” as opposed to, what, a “phony” mass extinction? A “pretend” mass extinction? A “fantasy, only in your nightmares” mass extinction?
Despite that cowardly disclaimer, the attention given their conclusions would seem to indicate their results hit a nerve within a rising crescendo of growing anxiety. Recently we have seen a slow collective awakening to overshoot and collapse that is reflected in contemporary literature, movies, and news about massive dieoffs that are becoming more difficult to avoid completely, because they are affecting a huge number of species, almost everywhere you care to look.
This causes me to wonder how long it will before the climate and environmental activist communities are forced to stop blaming public ignorance and corporate manipulation of the media. What or who will they blame for the conspicuous lack of action, when it eventually becomes clear that people DO know humans are causing mass extinctions, as well as creating climate chaos - but we simply aren’t willing to give up the conveniences and luxuries of modern civilization…no matter how badly our own offspring will fare in the aftermath?
Most people I come across don’t even bother with active denial, they simply ignore the warnings - because they understand at a visceral level, perhaps even better than scientists and green activists, that to "do something" about those problems would require a huge personal sacrifice, and nobody is willing to do that (not even the scientists and the activists). Nobody wants to give up lights, planes, iphones, electronic toys, reproducing, cars, and strawberries in winter. As for the billions of people that can’t access those options yet, they aspire to have them.
And it is worth repeating that the sixth mass extinction is not being driven, at least not yet, by climate change.
Here is how one academic posed the issue in an article published in TheConversation.com in 2013:
“What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems.”
“Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question in a number of different places, and the answers usually converge on this: we would still wreck Earth’s ecosystems. And what’s more, we’d still wreck them on a timescale similar to the trajectory that we’re on already.”
“The reason is that climate change is A problem, not THE problem. At the moment much of the focus is on climate and there’s no doubt this is a problem that requires emergency action now to see if we can avoid the worst of the tipping points. But there are many “showstoppers”, any and all of which can bring humanity and biodiversity to a sticky end.”
“Without biodiversity in all its forms, which creates the complex web of interrelated systems that hold the biosphere in homeostasis, things that we take for granted such as temperature, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere or the even concentration of salt in the sea, will no longer support the life we know.”
“Something other than climate change is driving the current mass extinction. The impacts of climate change, though potentially catastrophic, are in the main yet to come – albeit sooner than we have previously expected.”
“The current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on. These activities are all a function of the vast amount of energy we have at our disposal. We have too much and, as we use it, we damage ecosystems.”
Speaking of having enough oxygen to support the life we know, you will find a link to new research that traces a serious depletion in the concentration of oxygen due to a variety of human activities, including producing fertilisers essential to feed the billions of people already on earth.
One prominent scientist not associated with that Sixth Mass Extinction study we began with, but who has been in the forefront of extinction warnings over a very long and distinguished career, is Professor Eric Pianka of the University of Texas at Austin. He is one of the world’s experts on herpetology and an evolutionary ecologist, soon to be conferred the well-deserved title of Eminent Ecologist, by the Ecological Society of America, next month. He has had a fascinating career, doing extensive field work in the Great Victoria desert of Australia and the Kalahari in Africa.
Some of you might recall a sordid episode in 2006 when Dr. Pianka’s acceptance speech upon receiving the “Distinguished Texas Scientist of the Year” award, was twisted out of all recognition and distorted to imply he favored a global Ebola epidemic, to cull the human race. If you missed it, the outlines of the controversy are actually a good introduction to his perspective, so a link about that, plus others to his writing will also be found on the Extinction Radio website.
Being familiar with some of Dr. Pianka’s essays as well as his endorsement of Reg Morrison, author of Spirit in the Gene, I emailed him seeking a less sugar-coated scientific assessment of the prospects for biodiversity - given the general unwillingness of people to rein in their consumption. Specifically, I asked him what he thought the odds were the human species will make it to, say, 2050 - and he replied:
“We blew right past our chance to ease into a sustainable existence decades ago in the mid-1980s and we are well into the anthropocene sixth extinction.”
“Collapse is now inevitable but it’s impossible to predict exactly when this will happen. It will differ in different places, depending on populations and resources, especially water.”
In another message, Dr. Pianka later added the following:
“For me, the disparity between what we are, and what we could have been, is the greatest tragedy.”
and he reflected, further:
“For the first and only time in the long history of life on Earth, a product of natural selection has understood the process by which we became to be what we are: we actually learned to understand our hard-wired instincts and fathom our subconscious mind but we have failed to find the willpower to overcome those instincts.
We also learned a lot about matter and energy, and even managed to date our cosmos.
As a scientist, I treasure human knowledge. We got SO close, but then we blew it.
Some think that intelligence inevitably destroys itself.
We humans could have been God-like stewards of planet Earth.”
If you check out only one link I encourage you watch the youtube video where Dr. Pianka discusses and then reads James Dickey’s poem, “For the Last Wolverine”. It is a presentation filled with both love and grief that encompasses all the pathos implied in our battered world. The poem is even more heartbreaking for having been written in 1966.
The poets seem to have known for longer than science what we have lost. Another is Robinson Jeffers, author of The Purse Seine, written in 1937. Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel, California and witnessed the over harvesting of the once fabulously vast schools of sardines off the shore of Monterey. The image of the fish trapped in the net was not unlike humanity trapped in crowded cities, divorced from nature, and he ended that poem with the lines,
“…There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”
To see Dr. Pianka’s evident sadness at our failure to be stewards of the Earth brought to mind the original Wizard of Oz book, where all residents and visitors in the Emerald City were required to wear green glasses - because it wasn’t really emerald. Most people live their lives wearing the equivalent of tinted lenses, blinded to reality by believing in dreams and spirits, souls and immortality, irrational hope and denial.
Once that layer of wishful fantasy is removed, it is common to experience profound despair and regret, and then, to attempt to find meaning amidst the spectacular and insane festering waste we have rendered our only precious, splendid home, Earth. Often the first reaction is an intense desire to do something about the impending catastrophes…and then finally, after a period of time, to realize there is nothing to be done. Often people are desperate to believe that there could have been better outcome, and so they blame capitalism or agriculture.
From an article in the Washington Post about how we have exceeded boundaries beyond which the ecosystem can cope, I found this observation - “Humanity may have run into trouble with planetary boundaries even in prehistoric times, said Richard Alley, a Penn State geoscientist…The invention of agriculture may have been a response to food scarcity as hunting and gathering cultures spread around, and filled up, the planet, he said. “It’s pretty clear we were lowering the carrying capacity for hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago,” Alley said."
Jared Diamond wrote in a paper some time ago (1987!) called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”:
“As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth…Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”
It's been about 15,000 years since we hunted the megafauna to extinction. We turned to agriculture, nearly simultaneously and independently all around the world, because of a continual process of overpopulation and migration, until eventually we filled even the most marginally habitable places and then overpopulated them as well. In order to survive, people started to grow food and domesticate livestock. We can no more divest ourselves of that proclivity than we can shed mysticism and the use of tools, language, symbols and expressions of art.
The people who began agriculture no more knew (or cared) that it would ultimately devastate ecosystems than the hunter/gatherers knew (or cared) that they would eat dozens upon dozens of slow-moving tortoises, flightless birds, and large herbivores to the point of extirpation. Similarly, most people now are still blissfully unaware that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and that humans are causing it.
What did Jesus say?
"...forgive them; for they know not what they do."
Personally I find a lot of comfort in the philosopher Camus. Life is absurd; it has no intrinsic meaning; so make your own.
I should add - dance, dance, dance, and sing. Kiss the sky. Hug your loved ones. Bear witness to the fleeting beauty that still lingers on our blistered planet. Spare some time to admire the trees, being choked and poisoned by atmospheric toxins.
And thanks for listening to this Dispatch From the Endocene.
http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full extinction paper by Gerardo Ceballos, Paul Ehrlich, Anthony Barnosky, and others.
The Real News video interview with Gerardo Ceballos
Aldo Leopold and Malthus
2014 study by Jurriaan M. de Vos in Conservation Biology, "Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction."
http://www.i-sis.org.uk/O2_Diving_Towards_Danger_Point.php oxygen depletion
Links for Dr. Pianka:
His rendering of the poem “For the Last Wolverine”, probably the most important link in this post https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t62vT5ALEug
His video “Domino Effects” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmwzeRlCIAE
http://www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/Thoc/VanishingBook.html - The Vanishing Book of Life
Dr. Pianka’s explanation of the speech: http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~varanus/Controversy.html
Reg Morrison - Spirit in the Gene: http://www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/Thoc/enigma_code.pdf
Source for Richard Alley quote: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/scientists-human-activity-has-pushed-earth-beyond-four-of-nine-planetary-boundaries/2015/01/15/f52b61b6-9b5e-11e4-a7ee-526210d665b4_story.html
Jared Diamond on Humanity’s Worst Mistake: http://www.sigervanbrabant.be/docs/Diamond.PDF