we all fall down
September 12, 2018 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Humanity has left a world-wide mark on the planet, in trees, rocks, coral, and lifeforms. We can call this era the Anthropocene, a period of time distinguished by our presence and effects. And one of most terrific results is our head-long plunge into the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines, Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo, PNAS July 25, 2017 114 (30) E6089-E6096;
Population extinctions today are orders of magnitude more frequent than species extinctions. Population extinctions, however, are a prelude to species extinctions, so Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume. The massive loss of populations is already damaging the services ecosystems provide to civilization. When considering this frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization, one must never forget that Earth’s capacity to support life, including human life, has been shaped by life itself (47). When public mention is made of the extinction crisis, it usually focuses on a few animal species (hundreds out of millions) known to have gone extinct, and projecting many more extinctions in the future. But a glance at our maps presents a much more realistic picture: they suggest that as much as 50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are billions of populations. Furthermore, our analysis is conservative, given the increasing trajectories of the drivers of extinction and their synergistic effects. Future losses easily may amount to a further rapid defaunation of the globe and comparable losses in the diversity of plants (36), including the local (and eventually global) defaunation-driven coextinction of plants (3, 20). The likelihood of this rapid defaunation lies in the proximate causes of population extinctions: habitat conversion, climate disruption, overexploitation, toxification, species invasions, disease, and (potentially) large-scale nuclear war—all tied to one another in complex patterns and usually reinforcing each other’s impacts. Much less frequently mentioned are, however, the ultimate drivers of those immediate causes of biotic destruction, namely, human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich. These drivers, all of which trace to the fiction that perpetual growth can occur on a finite planet, are themselves increasing rapidly. Thus, we emphasize that the sixth mass extinction is already here and the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most (11, 48). All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.
There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity's existence.

We are missing our chance to stop the sixth mass extinction
Ehrlich and his colleagues recognise the hierarchy of the solutions. They describe a need for ‘rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations – notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change’. The Ripple study more specifically recommends addressing poaching by increasing the effectiveness of law enforcement and criminal penalties, monetising wildlife for local communities through ecotourism, and reducing demand for trafficked wildlife through market mechanisms, education and cultural shifts. The study also endorses focusing conservation efforts on ‘hot spots’ of high biodiversity. It, too, does eventually raise the issue of climate change, but given the brutal destruction wreaked by direct take, many of the world’s most recognisable animals – rhinos, elephants, lions and tigers – may not last long enough for changing climate to be a significant factor.
Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction
“Many of those making facile comparisons between the current situation and past mass extinctions don’t have a clue about the difference in the nature of the data, much less how truly awful the mass extinctions recorded in the marine fossil record actually were,” he wrote me in an email. “It is absolutely critical to recognize that I am NOT claiming that humans haven’t done great damage to marine and terrestrial [ecosystems], nor that many extinctions have not occurred and more will certainly occur in the near future. But I do think that as scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons.”

I had a chance to sit down with Erwin after his talk at the annual geology conference. My first question—about a rumor I had heard from one of his colleagues that Erwin had served as a sort of mass extinction consultant to Cormac McCarthy while the notoriously secretive author was constructing the post-apocalyptic world of The Road—Erwin coyly evaded. But on the speculative sixth mass extinction, he was more forthcoming.

“If we’re really in a mass extinction—if we’re in the [End- Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago]—go get a case of scotch,” he said.

If his power-grid analogy is correct, then trying to stop a mass extinction after it’s started would be a little like calling for a building’s preservation while it’s imploding.
'A reckoning for our species': the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene

In the Last Decade, Four Birds Went Extinct and Four More Are Likely Gone
Eight bird species are first confirmed avian extinctions this decade - "Most of the extinctions were caused by deforestation in South America, a new study of endangered birds shows"

10 Recently Extinct Reptiles
Globally Extinct Reptiles
Current extinction rates of reptiles and amphibians, John Alroy

The Amphibian Extinction Crisis - what will it take to put the action into the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan?, Bishop et al.
The current mass extinction episode is most apparent in the amphibians. With approximately 7,000 species, amphibians are dependent on clean fresh water and damp habitats and are considered vulnerable to habitat loss (deforestation), changes in water or soil quality and the potential impacts of climate change, and in addition many species are suffering from an epidemic caused by a chytrid fungus. Because of their sensitivity and general dependence on both terrestrial and aquatic habitats they are often regarded as indicators of the health of the environment. The latest figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species™ show that there are nearly as many species of amphibians categorised as Threatened as those of Threatened birds and mammals put together, with an estimated 40% of amphibian species in danger of extinction. Furthermore, although amphibians have survived multiple previous global mass extinctions, in the last 20-40 years precipitous population declines have taken place on a scale not previously seen.
Amphibians facing 'terrifying' rate of extinction
Listening for the amphibian apocalypse
What we lose when we lose the world’s frogs
Worldwide Amphibian Declines: What is the scope of the problem, what are the causes, and what can be done?

‘A different dimension of loss’: inside the great insect die-off
In the decades since Fisher started making expeditions to Madagascar, deforestation has accelerated, and today only 10% of its virgin forests remain intact. Fisher says that “in 50 years I can’t imagine any forest left in Madagascar”. According to Wendy Moore, a professor of entomology at the University of Arizona, who specialises in ant nest beetles, “There is a sense of running out of time. Everyone in the field who is paying attention feels that.” Because many insects depend on a single plant species for their survival, the devastation caused by deforestation is almost unimaginably huge. “Once a certain type of forest vanishes, thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of species will vanish,” Erwin told me. “Deforestation is taking out untold millions of species.”

While we still don’t have a clear idea of what’s happening to insects at the species level, we are in the midst of a crisis at the population level. Put simply, even if many kinds of insects are holding on, their overall numbers are falling drastically. The alarming new data from Germany, which was based on tracking the number of flying insects captured at a number of sites over 35 years, is one warning sign among many. According to estimates made by Claire Régnier of the French Natural History Museum in Paris, in the past four centuries, as many of 130,000 species of known invertebrates may have already disappeared.
Insects Are In Serious Trouble
More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas, Hallmann, et al. - "We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline. This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape."
Without Bugs, We Might All Be Dead

Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says
Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean, McCauley et al. Science 16 Jan 2015
Wildlife populations in the oceans have been badly damaged by human activity. Nevertheless, marine fauna generally are in better condition than terrestrial fauna: Fewer marine animal extinctions have occurred; many geographic ranges have shrunk less; and numerous ocean ecosystems remain more wild than terrestrial ecosystems. Consequently, meaningful rehabilitation of affected marine animal populations remains within the reach of managers. Human dependency on marine wildlife and the linked fate of marine and terrestrial fauna necessitate that we act quickly to slow the advance of marine defaunation.
A New Warning Says We Could Run Out of Fish by 2048
10 Recently Extinct Fish

In 200 Years Cows May Be the Biggest Land Mammals on the Planet
Mammal Population Losses and the Extinction CrisisGerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich
Multiple Causes of High Extinction Risk in Large Mammal Species, Cardillo et al.
Climate Change Has Claimed Its First Mammal Extinction
One in five British mammal species could be extinct within a decade

Study reveals plant extinctions and new discoveries
State of the World's Plants

The paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals - "A widespread opinion is that conservation efforts disproportionately benefit charismatic species. However, this doesn’t mean that they are not threatened, and which species are “charismatic” remains unclear. Here, we identify the 10 most charismatic animals and show that they are at high risk of imminent extinction in the wild. We also find that the public ignores these animals’ predicament and we suggest it could be due to the observed biased perception of their abundance, based more on their profusion in our culture than on their natural populations."
Looking Beyond the Charismatic Megafauna

Climate-Related Local Extinctions Are Already Widespread among Plant and Animal Species, Wiens, John J.

This post is heavily sourced from the podcast Ashes Ashes, episode 34: Irreplaceable, by Daniel Forkner and David Torcivia.
posted by the man of twists and turns (34 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
posted by MtDewd at 9:17 AM on September 12

A lot of extinctions are slow until they are fast. But slow is geologically relative. Humans also assume in a mass extinction, we'd be the last to go, but maybe the last to go will be lizards or something, after we're long gone. The only thing certain is humans probably have only a few more hundred years, at the most. It's been a good run!
posted by agregoli at 9:23 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


posted by lalochezia at 9:34 AM on September 12

I don't believe that humans are destined for extinction any time soon.

I do believe though, that if we don't stop making everything else extinct, that may well be the case.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 9:45 AM on September 12

What is "soon?" We are absolutely destined for extinction VERY soon, relative to the reign of past extinct animals.
posted by agregoli at 9:47 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]

It's interesting that many of these articles predict big trouble in about 200 years. 222 years from now will be the year 6000 in the Jewish calendar. Many orthodox Jews believe this will mark the beginning of the Messianic Age. Maybe they're right?
posted by ubiquity at 9:53 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

It's interesting that many of these articles predict big trouble in about 200 years. 222 years from now will be the year 6000 in the Jewish calendar. Many orthodox Jews believe this will mark the beginning of the Messianic Age. Maybe they're right?

posted by lalochezia at 10:22 AM on September 12 [23 favorites]

Soon being the few hundred years mentioned above. Which does seem likely if we keep destroying the environment, just not certain or destined.

Of course, on a a geological or cosmological or whatever timescale we may well end up only as a blip.
Still, unlike all other creatures we know of, as humans we can change and adapt our methods of production. Is there any other single species that has lived across as many different circumstances as humans? Maybe, but we have the ability to decide, what we're doing isn't working, or won't keep working, but other strategies might.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 10:25 AM on September 12

I have to apologize, this was going to be a much more comprehensive post.

I found myself unable to continue.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:36 AM on September 12 [43 favorites]

Humans have gone from an exceedingly vulnerable 10k breeding age individuals to 7.6 billion in a mere 250,000 years. Barely a bat of the celestial eye. We aren't going anywhere. We are essentially a virus. We have adapted ourselves to every inhabitable environ on earth and then some. No matter what the cosmos or our own stupidity might wrought, we as a species will persist until our sun dies. Civilization, however, is another matter...
posted by jim in austin at 10:39 AM on September 12 [8 favorites]

I found myself unable to continue.

My dearest friend, I could not even force myself to read all of the text, let alone visit the links. It's a bit too scary and a bit too painful. Thank you for taking the time to do this. This is a very useful post that I'm sure I will come back to for references later.

Just the decline in insect biomass, jesus, not even worrying about extinction really just that there are so much less insects than there were....
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:49 AM on September 12 [22 favorites]

Not that I doubt any of these studies, nor disagree with the overall thinking of this post, but let's not forget that Paul Ehrlich is a congenital pessimist who has sometimes been proven wrong.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:49 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

My family and I went camping in Pinery Provincial Park a month ago, and one lovely afternoon as I sat reading a book on our site I realized I hadn't seen or heard any birds in a while. So I concentrated on trying to spot one, and reader, it took a lot longer than you might expect.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:50 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:51 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Ah, and as an afterthought, don't forget about the loss of parasite biodiversity.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:52 AM on September 12

and we can drill down into the delicate networks that underlie such things we take for granted as chocolate, coffee, and vanilla...
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:55 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

but maybe the last to go will be lizards or something, after we're long gone.

The thing about mass extinction events is... well, the planet has already had five of them (at least), and life went on. The survivors grew and changed to fill the niches that were left empty, and they kept growing and thriving and branching into new forms until the next extinction event, and then the cycle happened again, and again. Humans themselves wouldn't exist if all those extinctions hadn't happened. Nothing alive today would.

There are organisms on this planet that live in boiling deep-sea vents or buried feet deep in arctic ice. There are organisms that eat stone and organisms that can put their own bodies into stasis and organisms whose spores can stay viable for thousands of years. You would have to completely destroy the planet in order to exterminate all of its life.

None of this means that the Anthropocene extinction isn't a tragic disaster. But even in the most hideous worst-case scenario, humans aren't going to cause the end of all life on Earth. That's giving us too much credit.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:56 AM on September 12 [11 favorites]

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

posted by aihal at 11:20 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

posted by Thorzdad at 11:34 AM on September 12 [5 favorites]

[Couple comments deleted; 'who cares' is really not a worthwhile direction to explore here. If you don't think it matters, that's fine but just skip this and read something else.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:09 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

What interests me in the coming years is what lifeboats will float. There are folks in universities and R&D labs all over the world who are finding methods to cope with the change and finding ways to engineer an entire planet to stave off the extinction of the human race. C4 rice in India, Southeast Asia and China, seaweed cattle feed in the U.S, hydroponic agriculture towers in Singapore, Scandinavia and Las Vegas, mass oyster farms in the Puget Sound, Aquaculture towers also in Singapore, ocean fertilization in the Pacific Northwest, the reforestation of the Sahara, ocean and groundwater filtration all over the world. These developments and their progress will ultimately make the difference between food shortage and starvation/annihilation for the human race. As humanity enters the Anthropocene age, there's a good chance that humanity will live through it. It won't be utopia, the world's life systems will need tens of thousands of years to fully adapt and grow, but I personally can't look at the great necessity the world faces and not see it as a mother of radical invention.

As for the non-human world... well, I don't like to think about it.
posted by Philipschall at 12:29 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]

Hard to turn it all around with changing "our little ways". From "2040", Jorgan Randers;
"In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development put the idea of sustainability into these words:
A sustainable society is one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Hard for us to even pronounce the word; sustainable...
We would have to slow down, essentially....
posted by peskywabbit at 1:35 PM on September 12

The things that we know about the past are generally things that happen over time scales that are difficult to comprehend. Even the extinction that happened to the Dino's et al (the K-T extinction I believe) didn't happen within the time of the entirety of human civilization, even if it was triggered by a single event (this is controversial I know).

Elizabeth Kolbert's book has been discussed here on the blue before, but it's pretty thin on remedies. My take-away was that Humans are a very successful, and recently pretty toxic, invasive species that has the potential to wreck life on the planet as we know it but every living being on this planet right now is the descendant of survivors of the first 5 extinctions, so life will go on, with or without us, in all likelihood. I can't see industrial society coming to enough of a halt to stop what we're doing, so we'll ride it out until the tipping point and then hope against hope our species can survive what we've wrought. Pretty depressing.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:41 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

We all know the only thing left will be cockroaches....
posted by BlueHorse at 3:15 PM on September 12

"Burying the dystopian lede, in a fascinating interview with Chinese scifi writer Cixin Liu"
posted by kliuless at 3:24 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

caution, rant:

The Nuclear Promise:

I always chuckle when people talk of what life forms will survive/thrive if humans were gone because there will be none.

if we break the nuclear Promise: if we allow any discontinuity in civilization's management of our hundreds of nuclear power stations, fuel and waste depots, weapons and nuclear powered craft then we will sterilize the oceans atmosphere and lands of the earth.

While it is true that there are some organisms that can tolerate and survive some types of radiation at some dosage levels during a few acute exposures, and that some small leaks have been tolerable, we have produced so much radioactive material of so many different isotopes that their dispersal en masse if not continuously cooled, contained and monitored would be fatal to all life.

Like the Pharaohs of old, we will take everything with us on our journey to the afterlife and the irradiated world will be our silent tomb for at least thousands of years.

Take for example radioactive cesium-137, at 44micrograms per kg of mammalian body weight it kills 100% within 33 days. it would take about 44kg to kill 10billion people assuming a generous 220 lbs average body weight. The US alone produced 672kg each year from power plants alone as of yr 2000).

The odds that we can feed everybody alive and in the pipeline over the next 25 years with the variablity of weather and a changing climate are about 50-50 (i.e global grain yields in the worst year plus stored food is greater than population on climate model runs for 3C world (optimistic). We get 90% confidence interval that global yields will fail to meet demand at some point in next 50 years. Even aggressive remediation models and optimistic assumptions about distribution and storage reach that result at 60 years, let alone odds for 2 consecutive yeild failure years.

When that happens, we will strip the earth of all edible mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish and plants and draw down biomass of large insects precipitously. And many hundreds of millions will starve to death and maybe we won't nuke each other and some well guarded massive supplies of seed will survive to replant for the next year. But yeah, its over. Its been too late for a dozen years or more. No non zero emissions pathways remain to avoid 2C and the few for avoiding 3C for now are wildly optimistic about simultaneous global technological and economic transformation and assume massive atmosphere scrubbing not yet invented.

Be good to each other, enjoy what life and life forms are left. Let go of the future you were imagining for yourself. Take actions now to slow and reduce the damage, to prepare for hard times, and to ensure the continuity of our management of our nuclear time-bomb.

Thank you, that is all.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 12:55 AM on September 13 [9 favorites]

It's good to see the Ashes, Ashes people linked here; they've been doing great work.

Episode 7, Last Gasp is an excellent overview of the health hazards that are posed by excessive atmospheric CO2. These effects have convinced me that it's time to start thinking in terms of survival of the species, rather than trying to save the entire biosphere.

I hope someone out there is designing some serious easily-sustainable habitats capable of providing air, food, and water to a community indefinitely, because our planet simply isn't going to be human-habitable for much longer.
posted by MrVisible at 5:20 AM on September 13

One book that grapples with this subject—and made me feel a little optimistic!—is The Mushroom at the End of the World. Super great read!
posted by Gymnopedist at 4:48 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

So . . . resorting to cannibalism is a civic duty, when you really think about it.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:16 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Take for example radioactive cesium-137, at 44micrograms per kg of mammalian body weight it kills 100% within 33 days. it would take about 44kg to kill 10billion people assuming a generous 220 lbs average body weight. The US alone produced 672kg each year from power plants alone as of yr 2000).

this is much much much less dangerous than these numbers and your breathless tone would suggest.

let;s say you released all of this 670kg in one go, and it was evenly distributed over the topsoil in a perfectly thin layer. forget about the atmosphere or absorption or halflife......or the fact it has to actually be a concentrated dose in one go....

distributed across the biosphere = 1mg per square MILE. you'd have to eat 3 square miles of land before you got to your fatal dose.

the earth is really big and global warming can fuck it beyond recognition.

a MASSIVE, ww III level nuclear exchange can fuck it beyond recognition.

a few dozen nuclear powerplants? locally...sure. disaster time. GLOBALLY? not even close.
posted by lalochezia at 6:21 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]

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