The Earth is currently facing the alarming prospect of a sixth mass extinction event. In contrast to the five previous extinction events, the sixth is unique because it is primarily driven by the excessive growth of a single species: Homo sapiens, or human beings. Unlike past events, this extinction poses a significantly greater threat because, in addition to rapid species loss, it results in a swift distortion of the tree of life.
Whole branches and groups of species are being eradicated, along with the critical ecological functions they perform. Furthermore, the conditions required for human civilization to thrive are being compromised. This sixth mass extinction is an irreversible threat to both the continuity of life and the prospects for human existence.
Accelerated Extinction Rates
Researchers have issued dire warnings based on a new study published on September 18th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This study, referred to as “PNAS,” reveals that the sixth mass extinction on Earth is already underway and is accelerating at an alarming rate.
The researchers point out that over the past 500 million years, previous mass extinctions rapidly pruned branches from the tree of life. However, it took millions of years to generate functional alternatives to the extinct species.
According to the study, out of the 5,400 vertebrate genera containing 34,600 species that they examined, 73 genera have gone extinct since 1500 AD. The current rate of mass extinction, primarily driven by human activities, is far more severe than previously estimated. It is occurring at a rate that is 35 times higher than the natural, background rate of extinction that prevailed over the last million years when human impacts were absent. Previously, under natural conditions, it took approximately 18,000 years for genera to go extinct.
The researchers predict that the current elevated rate of mass extinction will significantly accelerate in the coming decades due to human-driven factors such as habitat destruction, illegal trade, and disruption of the climate.
Distortion of the Tree of Life
This distortion of the tree of life and the consequent loss of ecosystem services provided by biodiversity poses a grave threat to the stability of civilization. The study’s lead author, Gerardo Ceballos, emphasizes that the collective extinction of animal species represents the erasure of the evolutionary history of the planet and its potential. This has profound implications for humans. Life on Earth depends on plants, animals, and the ecosystems they form.
Ceballos further explains that essential aspects of human life rely on plants and animals, including the crops humans use for food, the mix of gases in the atmosphere that sustains life on Earth, and the active compounds used in pharmaceuticals. All these aspects have some dependence on plants and animals.
He concludes that by losing entire branches of genera, we risk losing the Earth’s ability to support life in general and human life in particular.
The Role of the International Community in Preventing Mass Extinction
The international community plays a critical role in preventing the sixth mass extinction. Efforts should encompass the following actions:
The international community must collaborate in raising awareness about the significance of preventing mass extinction and the critical importance of preserving biodiversity. Public education campaigns, documentaries, and international conferences can all contribute to this.
Enacting Legislation and Policies
International agreements and treaties must be established to restrict human activities that contribute to environmental destruction. These agreements should prioritize the conservation of endangered species and their habitats.
Enhanced collaboration among nations and international organizations is essential. Joint research efforts, resource sharing, and the sharing of best practices can help combat mass extinction more effectively.
Financial aid should be provided to countries facing unique environmental challenges and in need of support for biodiversity conservation. Funding can be allocated for the preservation of critical ecosystems and the restoration of habitats.