going dodo


No, not doo-doo. “Dodo,” as in the dodo bird, which was driven to extinction by humans in 1681. Though by the end of this post, you will probably conclude we are in deeper doo-doo than we’ve ever been before.

Over the past half-billion years, there have been at least twenty mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on Earth has suddenly and dramatically contracted. Today 99.9% of all species that have ever existed on Earth—estimates run as high as fifty billion species—are ancient history.

Five of these extinctions—the so-called Big Five—were so devastating that they are usually put in their own category:

The Ordovician-Silurian extinction (about 439 million years ago) due to a drop in sea levels as glaciers formed, and a subsequent rise in sea levels as glaciers melted. During this extinction 25% of marine families and 60% of marine genera (the classification above species) were lost.

The Late Devonian extinction (about 364 million years ago), cause unknown. Because it appears that warm water marine species were the most severely affected, many paleontologists believe it was caused by global cooling. Glacial deposits in northern Brazil  suggest another glaciation event on Gondwana, the land mass of that time. It appears that 22% of marine families and 57% of marine genera were lost.

The Permian-Triassic extinction (about 251 million years ago) was Earth’s worst extinction event, and was probably caused by volcanism in present-day Siberia. Evidence suggests that 95% of all species, 53% of marine families, 84% of marine genera, and an estimated 70% of land species of plants, insects, and vertebrate animals were killed in this catastrophe.

The End Triassic extinction (about 199-214 million years ago) was most likely caused by massive flows of lava erupting from the central Atlantic magmatic province, triggering the breakup of Pangaea, the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, and deadly global warming. Rocks from the eruptions now are found in the eastern United States, eastern Brazil, North Africa, and Spain. It appears 22% of marine families, 52% of marine genera, and an unknown percentage of vertebrate deaths resulted.

The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction (about 65 million years ago) was famously caused by the impact of an asteroid which created the 4-mile-wide Chicxulub crater now hidden on the Yucatan Peninsula and beneath the Gulf of Mexico. During this extinction, 16% of marine families, 47% of marine genera, and 18% of land vertebrate families, including the dinosaurs, were killed.

A majority of scientists believe that a sixth mass extinction is underway. They’ve even given it a name: The Holocene extinction event.

This isn’t Bible-thumping prophesy. There’s empirical evidence that the present extinction is happening right now and is going faster than that which wiped out the dinosaurs. Animals are going extinct 100 to 1,000 (maybe even 1,000 to 10,000) times faster than at the normal background extinction rate, which is about 10 to 25 species per year. Since 1900 alone, 69 mammal species are believed to have gone extinct, along with about 400 other types of vertebrates. Evidence for species lost among nonvertebrate animals and other kinds of living things is much more difficult to come by, researchers say, but there’s little reason to believe that the rest of life on Earth is faring any better.

Though it’s difficult to put a precise figure on the projected losses, it is estimated that if current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of Earth’s species will be gone. And unlike a meteorite or large volcanic eruption, the cause of this extinction event is us.

Specifically, five major human activities are to blame:

Habitat destruction including human-induced climate change;

Pollution with carbon emissions that drive climate change and ocean acidification and toxins that alter and poison ecosystems;

Introduction of invasive species;

Human overpopulation including land clearing for farming, logging and settlement; and

Over-harvesting (hunting, fishing, and gathering).

Of the five activities above, human-induced climate change and pollution have gotten the most attention.

We are all familiar with the argument that high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) trap heat from the sun. Other human activities such as habitat destruction and fragmentation are making the earth inhospitable to life. Through global trade and international travel, humans have transported countless species into ecosystems that are not prepared for them. Invasive/aliens species displace native species through predation, competition, and disease organisms.

Chemical plants fix more atmospheric nitrogen than all natural terrestrial processes combined, and fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the temperate coastal waters of the oceans. We have pumped enough carbon dioxide into the air to alter the climate and to change the chemistry of the oceans.

Farming, logging, and building have transformed between a third and a half of the world’s land surface, and even these figures probably understate the effect, since habitat not being actively exploited may still be fragmented. Most of the world’s major waterways have been diverted or dammed or otherwise manipulated—in the United States, only 2% of rivers run unimpeded—and people now use half the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff.

Such dramatic ecological change and biodiversity loss will also put humans in danger within just three generations, particularly if we also lose crucial pollinators such as the honeybee.

Though these facts have been known at least from the early ’90s, researchers released another report in June of this year in an attempt to provoke action. “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” said one of the lead researchers, Gerardo Ceballos from the Universidad Autónoma de México.

“We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on,” said Paul Ehrlich, another researcher.

Their results are published in the journal Science Advances.

But it’s not all bad news—the researchers remarked that we could still avoid such steep biodiversity loss through intense conservation action. “But that window of opportunity is rapidly closing,” they conclude.

Another of the researchers, Anthony Barnosky, says there are a few key steps people can take:

Reduce your carbon footprint—this is to hold back climate change from falling below critical levels and to prevent altered conditions which can ravage fragile ecosystems.

Never buy products made from a threatened or endangered species—this includes items like ivory, animal furs and rhino horns.

Eat less meat—40% of the Earth is currently under cultivation, and if the lands used to feed livestock were used to grow crops for people, there would be 50% to 70% more calories available for humans to eat, which is enough to feed an additional billion people. It would eliminate the need to clear natural ecosystems like rainforests for farmland.

Are we going to do enough to fix the situation? Probably not.

As long as corporations and other players who profit from the exploitation of the earth continue to promulgate disinformation, skeptics and deniers will continue to accuse most of us of wearing foil hats. There will continue to be asshole dentists who have to bag just one more trophy before they’re all gone (in the last couple days, a Minnesota woman who vandalized the dentist’s sign was arrested by the long arm of the law). Poachers will continue to kill rhinos for their horns so Asian men can get hard-ons (as it turns out, a myth). Escape to another planet is probably a pipe dream; anyway, who would have us? As long as there are people like me who are relieved we’ll be dead before the bill comes due, humanity’s extinction is assured.

At least we know what’s going to kill us. It will be death by a thousand cuts.

But maybe some kid will come along and change the whole thing. You can always hope.





Weather Report

96° and Clear

8 Responses to “going dodo”

  1. 1 peterloudon
    October 6, 2015 at 6:37 am

    Sooner or later, Dan, somebody has to call it. The earth is overpopulated. Along with your three good suggestions, we also need to take the difficult steps that are necessary to curb population growth and then get the numbers to start moving in the opposite direction.

    It may theoretically be possible to accommodate many more humans on the planet, but what for? Do we really want to end up with a vegetarian culture that is so densely packed that even beds are shared in eight hour cycles? Granted, that won’t happen in our time, but why follow a trend in that direction?

    I really think the narrative has to change to one that stops viewing (exponential) population growth as a given.

    • October 6, 2015 at 7:35 am

      What “difficult steps” do you suggest? It is my observation that people of every stripe are obsessed with sex, greed, and consumption… and damn everybody else. It takes at least six or seven decades to outgrow these tendencies, but by then the damage is already done and compounded.

      • 3 peterloudon
        October 6, 2015 at 8:37 am

        I have seen coherent but radical suggestions about imposing something like a “conception tax” in which parents must prepay (to a trustworthy government offering meaningful state services) future children’s entitlements (healthcare, food, education, basic housing) before conceiving those children. Where individual couples cannot afford this, groups or philanthropists can back them.

        Obviously this is a long way from current reality, in which most of humanity finds it impossible to agree on just about anything, but the idea, and others like it, appeals to me.

        I’m not naïve about the complications involved in implementing anything like it, but I’m also not blind to the consequences of current and projected population levels.

      • October 6, 2015 at 9:01 am

        Oh, Peter… “radical” but not rational. How many times have you heard guys boasting that they’ve never paid for sex? What gives you hope that anyone but unwed mothers would end up getting stuck with such a “conception tax?” The alternative is forcing women unable/unwilling to pay the tax to have abortions, which of course will unleash a shitstorm from religious fundamentalists all over the world. For all the trouble you’d have to deal with, you may as well just cross the line and advocate genocide as a means of controlling population. I agree with you that we need to change the narrative, but it would be easier to just give up meat, milk, cheese, and eggs. Then the world would be so boring, there’d probably be a spike in voluntary suicides. Mission accomplished!

      • 5 peterloudon
        October 6, 2015 at 9:53 am

        If we just give up meat, milk, cheese, and eggs, then all we do is postpone the problem. The planet fills back up to its new capacity and it becomes the problem of the generation living at that time (unless of course your mass suicide idea kicks in and works).

        There is an argument that says that, as the population density increases, so the likelihood of something akin to a plague breaking out increases, and this may in fact be the mechanism that brings population under control.

        The context of the suggestion of a conception tax is that, as population increases, so the circumstances “on the outside” become less and less pleasant, and people “opt in” voluntarily to a prepaid entitlement system. Of course this relies on being able to control the movement of populations, so that there is an inside and an outside (unlike what is happening in Europe right now).

        The conception tax would have to be backed up by an abortion regime, and the religious shitstorm would have to be weathered. From where I sit, it seems that you (in the USA) have to weather that storm continuously anyway (except when the real radicals come to Africa and promote hair-brained schemes like executing homosexuals in Uganda).

        I am aware that the whole idea flirts dangerously with genocide. However, it is not a proposal for genocide, or for any kind of early termination of life other than by abortion (which I dislike, but not as much as I dislike an overpopulated planet).

        There is actually a precedent for this kind of restraint in Ancient Greece, when the marriage age was postponed in order to contain population growth. The primary driver in that case was the sub-division of land caused by inheritance (as I recall).

        In the end, I think we will probably see a mixture of disease, war and restraint solve the problem, mainly because humans won’t address it until forced by the other two factors.

        Just for interest, one of the ideas put forward for controlling conception is to perform a kind of reversible vasectomy on every male born. A “tap” is implanted and is only turned on when the tax is paid, and off again when conception has happened.

      • October 6, 2015 at 10:14 am

        I’m not going to vent my frustration on you anymore. You’ve suggested several very constructive ideas, and I truly appreciate it. But I do feel like my head’s going to explode.

        Last night I got an email from an expert who said cows don’t even fart, and that the producers of Cowspiracy cooked the argument against meat… so my personal willingness to fall on the vegan blade would be a futile gesture. I don’t know what to do.

        Go ahead and pass a tax on new offspring. Put a spigot on guys’ semen. It won’t make any difference to me, anyway. I’m past the age that any woman of child-bearing capacity would be interested in me, and I have not left any biological kids in my wake, either. So maybe I’ve already done my bit, but obviously it hasn’t been enough.

      • 7 peterloudon
        October 6, 2015 at 10:43 am

        You’re more than welcome to vent, Dan. We’ve known each other long enough.

        I have also left no biological children, and won’t. I honestly would not want to condemn any additional people to what I see as the future.

        I really do think, though, that we (humanity) need to stop fighting each other and wake up to the real emergency that faces us in the environment. That is a forlorn hope, though.

        For anyone who is interested, the ideas that I have referred to are being worked out and implemented here:


        I would also suggest looking at The Venus Project.

        (Hopefully this has not elevated your frustrations any further!!)

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