Generally, when we reflect on the topic of ‘mass extinction’, we visualize the Cretaceous-tertiary Extinction which is the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago or the dramatic disaster movies that gained worldwide notoriety in the 1970s and in 2012. Though there is truth to this assumption, mass extinction is a little more complicated and is influenced by multiple factors that arise over an extended period of time.
Like with any nuanced phenomena, things that influence extinction are geographically specific, influenced by climate change and in contemporary times- human activities which have varying levels of influence on an extinction event. The earth has witnessed five mass extinction that were in one way, or another influenced by dramatic fluctuations and changes in the climatic conditions of the earth combined with grand changes in environmental compositions such as acidic rain and intense volcanic activity, climate change, as well as the more commonly noted asteroid impact. Within the scientific community, these events are called; the End Ordovician, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic, and End Cretaceous. Can we assume that we are experiencing the gradual accent into the sixth mass extinction?
The Gravity of the Anthropocene; Scaling our impact
Denoted by the symbiotic relationship between speed and magnitude, mass extinction is when there is an abnormal decline-to-incline ratio that favours the former- simply put when biodiversity declines much faster than it is replenished. Accelerated by human activity, the extinction rate of biodiversity is alarming because of the dramatic changes in climatic conditions and temperatures around the globe. It rests at an average of 200 (lower estimates) to 100,000 (higher estimates) extinctions per year and climbing. This drastically differs from the background extinction rate before increased human influence and activity which falls at 10,000 species every 100 years. The Background extinction rate presents how fast biological and geographic variability plummeted before human contribution.
The Anthropocene era, still a subject of ongoing scientific debate regarding its exact commencement, is characterized by significant impact of human activities on the environment and society. This impact becomes evident through unregulated resource extraction, greenhouse gas emissions, intensive pastoral farming, transportation systems, and deforestation. These activities amplify climate volatility, endanger habitats, and threaten countless species. Unfortunately, this unhealthy relationship with our environment is pushing us at an alarming speed towards untreatable biodiversity loss has already signalled an incline towards the peak of the 6th mass extinction, e.g.: overfishing has led to one-third of chimaeras, rays and sharks being included in the Red List for their high risk of extinction.
As shown above, it is often discussed how the Anthropocene era is driving us towards the sixth extinction and the dire state of biodiversity, but this does not mean we should give in to nihilism or anxiety. There are ways that we can slow and manage our impacts on the environment and reduce the speed at which we are approaching the sixth extinction. For one, we can adopt more sustainable business practices such as carbon trading and integrating sustainability values into policy and strategy. When businesses can embed sustainability and regenerative practices into their infrastructures, they’re able to demonstrate that they can identify the various implications that they have on the environment and subsequent effects on the status of various species within their sphere of operation and can react accordingly.
This initiative of greener living can extend into more niche areas of our lives, for instance, adopting living practices that consider long-term prosperity, the protection of biodiversity within our communities, and managing our pollution without compromising the utility of the things we do. A clear example of such an adjustment can range from reducing your meat intake to discourage rigorous pastoral farming that triggers unprecedented biodiversity loss over time, and the regenerative practice of growing indigenous trees in your communities.
Overall, it is imperative for us as the global community to address the sixth mass extinction by reducing the level of contribution and increasing the ways we can stimulate conservatory efforts through for example, supporting domestic conservatory organizations such as Friends of Karura in Kenya whose mandate is to protect the native biotic species within the area. When we collectively decide to divert resources and policy towards conserving our bio-variability, we can avoid being responsible for a mass extinction.
Corso, J. D., Song, H., Callegaro, S., Chu, D., Sun, Y., Hilton, J., Grasby, S. E., Joachimski, M. M., & Wignall, P. B. (2022). Environmental crises at the Permian–Triassic mass extinction. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 3(3), 197–214. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00259-4