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MOTHER OF US ALL

J. P. Linstroth (June 3, 2019 )

Recently, we celebrated Mother’s Day, a day to commemorate and contemplate how


wonderful our mothers are and to acknowledge their love—past and present. Additionally, as
inhabitants of this planet, we should be encouraged to commemorate the “mother of us all”,
our Mother Earth, and our place in it as human beings. Worryingly, the “Intergovernmental
Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” (IPBES) recently released a
preliminary report on May 6th about the current alarming rate of extinction for nearly one
million species heading for demise—what scientists are calling the “sixth extinction”—from
the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) headquarters
in Paris, France. Why the “sixth extinction”, you might ask? Well, there have been 5 mass
extinctions of life on earth over millions of years of evolution. While our understanding of
“extinction events” is somewhat incomplete from the fossil record, paleontologists generally
agree at least five such events occurred on a massive scale.

The first happened around 450 million years ago with the “Ordovician-Silurian Extinction
Event” which wiped out almost 70% of life on earth. Imagine the Earth being dominated by
shallow seas and life commanded mostly by squid-like creatures (cephalopods), snail-like
animals (gastropods), clam-like creatures (pelecypods) and trilobites (a segmented-insect-like
swimming arthropod), corals (coelenterates), and sponges (Porifera). In another one-hundred
million years, there was the “Late Devonian Extinction” (360 m.y.a), which some
paleontologists believe lasted for as long as twenty-million years, causing again approximately
the same loss of life among clam-like, snail-like, and segmented-bodied insect-looking
creatures.

Approximately, one-hundred million years later was the “Permian-Triassic Extinction” (250
m.y.a.), also known as the “Great Dying”, or the worst extinction in Earth’s geological history,
killing off about 90% of Earth’s animal species. It was when only about 5% of sea creatures
survived and almost all trees were eradicated. During this period, there were strange reptilian-
mammalian-like creatures roaming the planet. Some are known as “synapsids”, canine-looking
lizards with sailfish fanned-backs, and dog-sized “dicynodonts” with turtle-like beaks and
males sporting large toothy-fangs along with the Lystrosaurus, a flat-faced pygmy-hippo-like
animal with protruding tusks, and the Dinogorgon, a ten-foot long, Sabertoothish-looking
reptile. Among paleontologists, it is still a mystery as to the direct culprit to this massive
extinction. Some believe the atmosphere may have been poisoned by volcanic gases and a
prevalence of acidic rains.

With continent separating, intensive volcanic activity, and Pangea rifts, came the “Triassic-
Jurassic Extinction” (200 m.y.a.) when almost ¾ of Earth’s species were wiped out. This was a
time of giant salamander-like vertebrates called Metoposaurus and Temnospondyls, large-
skulled crocodilian-salamander-like, perhaps amphibious beasts, wandering around primordial
swamps.
Then after almost 140 million years (66 m.y.a.) was perhaps the most famous extinction, the
end of the “dinosaur” era, the “Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction”. When those beasties made
famous by Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park (1990), and Steven Spielberg film adaptation,
were resuscitated: Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, Parasaurolophus, and
Argentinosaurus. In all likelihood, a giant asteroid struck the Earth at the tip of the present-day
Yucatán Peninsula, known as the “Chicxulub Crater”.

Of course, “megafauna”, from the last “Ice Age” in the transition period from the Pleistocene
to Holocene around 13,000 (B.C.E), became extinct, such as: Mastodon (Mammut
americanum), Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), Giant Ground Sloth
(Megatherium), Saber-toothed Tiger (Smilodon), and Woolly Rhinocerus (Coelodonta
antiquitatis). Nevertheless, the Holocene extinction continues to the present. Some
climatologists and paleontologists distinguish the present era as a time shift named the
“Anthropocene” as beginning with the “Agricultural Revolution” around 15,000 years ago, or
more recently with the first successful test of the nuclear bomb in 1945 A.D. Doing so,
underlines the advent of human causation of climate change and the irreversible role of Homo
sapiens affecting the planet.

In returning to the recent IPBES report, it characterizes the drivers of the so-called “sixth
extinction” for numerous combined reasons. For example, “75 per cent of global food crop
types, including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops such as
coffee, cocoa and almonds, rely on animal pollination”. Alarmingly, insect pollinators like bees
are dying out on an unprecedented scale, a fact known for some time with causation from a
variety of factors such as ubiquitous usage of “pesticides and fungicides” and from pathogenic
viruses and “parasitic mites” in beehives. Furthermore, coastal ecosystems and coral reefs
have been devastated across the planet. Such habitat losses create greater risks to human life
from flooding and hurricanes through the lack of natural barriers.

According to IPBES statistics: “Seventy-five per cent of the land surface is significantly altered,
66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per
cent of wetlands (area) has been lost.” More specifically, according to the IPBES World Team
of Scientists, Sandra Diaz, Josef Settele, and Eduardo Brondízio, et. al.: “Human actions
threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before. An average of around 25
per cent of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened, suggesting that
around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken
to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.”

This prestigious scientific team points to five major drivers to today’s extinction, which are: 1)
land and sea alterations from human management; 2) widespread exploitation of organisms;
3) unprecedented climate change; 4) large-scale pollution; and 5) pervasive invasions from
alien species into new habitats. As biological beings, we are dependent on the Earth and its
wellbeing. If Nature is in peril, and it is, we are in dire jeopardy as well. Our survival as a
species on this planet is wholly dependent on the survival of other species and the ecosystems
which support them.

If anyone doubts the veracity of species extinction, and whether or not losing only one species
really makes any difference, take the example of “re-introductions” of grey wolves (Canis
lupus) to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and the evidence for ecosystem habitat renewal
and transformation. In scientific terms this is called a “trophic cascade”. According to the likes
of Ripple and Beschta (2004), it begins from the top of the food chain, with leading predators
such as grey wolves, and trickles down the food pyramid with the culling of herbivores such as
elk (Cervus elaphus), thereby allowing for recuperation of flora as willows (Salix spp.), for
example, and over time, even modifying the course of rivers. It is a natural knock-on effect
with healthier elk populations and tree species recoveries such as aspens (Populus
tremuloides), while also resulting in the return of beavers (Castor canadensis) to the park.

As the eminent and emeritus Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, once stated that the ultimate
irony of humanity’s evolution is: “…that in the instant of achieving self-understanding through
the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations.” Yet, we should not fail to lose
hope. As Elizabeth Kolbert (2014), remarked in her book, The Sixth Extinction: an unnatural
history: “Another possibility—considered by some to be more upbeat—is that human
ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion.” Certainly, we must take
such reports as the one from IPBES seriously. Not only pondering the existential threat we
have created for ourselves, and not because the peril extends to other species, but because
the peril is for the very fate of humanity itself, and whether or not our own extinction
inevitable.