According to a 2105 report published in Science Advance, there is little doubt we are heading, if not already there, into the earth’s sixth mass extinction age. The report argues that:
Under our assumptions, which would tend to minimize evidence of an incipient mass extinction, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate. Under the 2 E/MSY background rate, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear. These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way.
Earlier this year The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported that 437 small mammal species are in danger of becoming extinct. The report says: “In some cases populations have collapsed to less than 50 individuals and for others the entire global range is a few kilometres on a tiny island or mountaintop”.
I don’t think I need to remind my readers that we have known about Bee colony collapse or the Pacific Garbage patch that now covers an area twice the size of France. for some time. Ever since Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, a stinging indictment of a man-made environmental catastrophe, we have been aware that man is the cause for many modern losses of flora and fauna. The data is overwhelming; there is little doubt we are killing the planet. Happy World Environmental Day!
Most of us, and I say most of us, because if it were a minority we wouldn’t be in this mess, gives little thought to our impact on the environment and loss of life. Oh we may say we care, but our actions say otherwise.
I get it, I get, boy do I get it! It’s a subject I guilt about everyday It’s hard not to have an impact on this planet; especially in the western countries. From the moment we rise out of bed to our return, everything we do has some environmental ramifications. From our long wasteful showers to our plastic and fossil fuel addiction, our actions contribute to this sixth extinction.
In a 2009 report from the US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, plastic production and usage exceeds 300 million tons annually; most are not recycled. Our plastic waste is dumped into landfills and as noted already, into our oceans. And for those who do recycle, but use foaming or exfoliating cleansers which up until last year contained plastic microbeads, are non the less, contributing to the sixth extinction. Our plastic addiction is killing ocean and bird life.
The damage we cause by our reliance on modern technology and consumerist need, should be cause for reflection, yet it is not. We convince ourselves we are good stewards of the land, and justify our capitalist ways with all manner of arguments: we need that new phone: shops do not give us a choice between glass and plastic: recycling takes too much time: I don’t have time to cook: I hate taking public transportation, etc., etc. Everyday we come face to face with choices that impact how deep our carbon footprint will leave a mark, yet most of us fail to tread lightly. There is no denying that our choices, or lack thereof, are killing our neighboring species at alarming rates. But where is the outcry? The majority of people are quiet and don’t like it when the subject is raised. In fact, raising the subject of our environmental impact will result is some heavy, opinion based debates, even among those who are usually swayed with facts and data.
Take the subject of meat consumption. I am a vegetarian for several reasons, but the impact on the environment because of our modern meat consumption rate is one of the biggest. Between being a leading cause of carbon emissions and deforestation, modern meat consumption is having devastating effects on our plant. I say modern, because it’s only been in the last 70 years or so that we’ve adopted a meat heavy diet. We now have meat for almost every meal and thanks to fast food and prepackaged “meals” our diet consists of more than three meals a day; something our great- grandparents would have found wasteful. As I write this, more and more land in the Amazon is being cleared for grazing so that we in the west can sustain our meat addiction, and bring it to other countries. Most meat eaters will refuse to even entertain the moral dilemma of what it means to have meat on the table. Most will wave you away if you point out that what is on their plate was once alive and is only dead because of the “need our cheeseburgers!” There is no outcry when livestock is slaughtered or as we accelerate towards mass extinction, yet the death of one gorilla because of a tragic accident has caused the western world goes ape-shit.
I am not going to argue whether the death of this poor animal was justified as I am not a wild-life expert, nor am I going to argue whether the mother of the child who fell into the enclosure should be burned at the stake because I wasn’t there. No, I will not engage in these arguments. There are enough armchair zoo, and child rearing expects out there. I am not interested in their opinion of facts that they do not possess. What I am interested in and want to address is the once again misplaced outrage that many are feeling this week. The collective mind-hive seems to feel the loss of this one gorilla is pitchfork and torches worthy. As if this one gorilla was the only animal loss we’ve suffered in quite some time. But I want to ask, how many of these people, some I know very well, have any comment on the everyday loss of species due to their own actions?
And just so we understand each other, I feel for the gorilla and am sickened by the loss of his life. But I am also sickened by the way our genetically altered chickens, whose breasts are so big that their legs cannot support them, are left to sit until someone cuts off their heads so that we can eat large chicken dinners. I am sickened by the way pigs are caged, affording them no room to move in their short lives, so that we can have bacon. I am sickened to think of the many people who sat tweeting about one gorilla as they sat idling in their SUVs in fast food lines, or argued over the merits of zoos while shopping for goods encased in plastic.
For those who have strong opinions about the death of Harambe, I ask, do you have strong opinions about the loss of life you cause on a daily bases? How about an opinion on your impact on the environment? Where is your outcry over the man-made sixth extinction? If you want to have a discussion about one gorilla, how about a discussion about the loss of life due to mass extinction?
For those who do next to nothing for the environment yet claim to be outraged by one gorilla’s death, I have news for you. You have no moral high ground to stand on. You are just as guilty as you feel the zookeepers are. Take your misplaced outrage and turn it inward. Find ways to lessen your carbon footprint. Educate yourself on what the toll our modern lifestyles has on the environment. If you do this, then maybe, just maybe, we will have some good news for next years World Environmental Day.
Here is a list of ways you can help the gorillas.
Here is a news report on meat consumption
Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction
Plastics, the environment and human heath: current consensus and future trends
6 thoughts on “We are entering the sixth extinction, oh but let’s be outraged by the death of one gorilla”
This is a good message and one that everyone needs to read. The consequences of our environmental irresponsibility are already catching up with us, and very soon they’re going to disrupt our daily lives at almost all levels of society–an event that few are planning for or even realize will happen.
One thing that must change, however–and I don’t think people appreciate this enough–is the focus on environmentalism as a personal and individual responsibility. That it’s been framed this way is largely a result of how the modern environmental movement started, which at least in the United States was an offshoot of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement of the 1960s. “Only YOU can save the environment!” was a message we all internalized (partially because we were already primed with individual-responsibility messages like “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”) Think of the famous “crying Indian” commercial of the 1970s. Earth Day and everything that’s come after that is built on this ethos. YOU must recycle. YOU must eat less meat. YOU must make your house more energy efficient.
These are good messages and we should do these things, but the problem is that putting the lion’s share of emphasis on responsibility by individuals (and consumers) actually perpetuates, and does not ameliorate, the cycle of environmental degradation. Environmental responsibility will come when institutions change their behavior. It’s not that we all need to buy more Priuses; it’s that car companies need to stop manufacturing cars other than Priuses. We consumers have limited opportunity to change the behavior of institutions through individual action. Climate change and the sixth extinction are problems too big to be solved by individual responsibility. Thus, the focus should be on motivating collective responsibility. Social scientists have recently been doing some research showing that this change in focus works, but in the meantime those of us who care about the environment must begin reframing the debate around those stakes rather than emphasizing the role of individual behavior.
Sean, thank you so much for weighing in! I think you make an outstanding point. But I would like to point out that companies will only change when the demand is there. I was so disheartened to hear that as gas prices go down, truck and SUV sales go up. If collectively we as individuals stopped buying large gas guzzling vehicles, car manufacturers would be forced to put the money int engineering the cars we want or making the environmental ones more affordable.
Conversely if we demanded products made by sustainable wood and recycled material then again companies would be forced to change their ways.
But I get your larger point; often consumers feel the guilt and the weight of having to shoulder the environmental responsibility of being good stewards. Companies are only concerned with the might dollar and profit. But then again they only profit from what we buy. It’s a hard catch-22 or vicious circle, but one we need to deal one way or the other.
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Thanks Sari. While it is true that consumer demand has some impact on the behavior of companies, it’s far from decisive in most cases–and this is what most traditionalist environmental messages, in my view, get wrong. It seems counterintuitive, I know, but “They won’t make electric cars until we stop buying gasoline cars” is not really how supply and demand works. It never really has. How did we get into this mess, environmentally, in the first place? It was largely an expansion of the consumer sector after World War II–but that expansion was not driven by consumer demand at all. It was driven by industries’ decisions to parlay their excess manufacturing capacity, much-increased by World War II defense production (and federal government dollars), into consumer production. In other words, industries created the demand; they did not respond to it. Institutions lead change. They do not follow it. The unfortunate side-effect of the “only YOU can prevent forest fires!” type message is that it inverts our thinking of this simple truth.
If you need another more modern example of how this works, look at this: Saudi Arabia recently announced a plan to end its involvement in the oil industry by 2030 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/25/saudi-arabia-announces-plan-to-end-its-addiction-to-oil/). This is unprecedented in history: a modern nation is making plans to abandon, voluntarily, its number one national asset. That has never happened before. Why did it happen? It’s not because the people of Saudi Arabia rose up en masse and said, “Let’s stop exporting oil!” It’s because the government and economic sectors of the country (heavily intertwined) realized oil is a losing proposition in the long run. THIS is how environmental change and climate change adaptation is beginning to happen.
Thus, I don’t really buy that consumer demand is going to be a significant motivation to change the behavior of industries and institutions. Indeed I think consumer demand is going to follow, not lead, this change. If Ford begins taking SUVs off the market, people will happily buy electric cars–not for environmental reasons but for economic ones. The key decision is not a consumer’s choice of which car to buy. The key decision is to get Ford to take SUVs off the market. “But why would they do so?” For the same reason they do anything else: money. If Saudi Arabia thinks they’re going to be better off economically by getting out of the oil business–a proposition that seems utterly absurd if you focus on all those people out there still filling up their cars at the pump–then it’s conceivable that car manufacturers will ultimately make responsible choices that seem impossible or unlikely at first glance. But they will make these choices in response to consumer demand; they will do so in order to CREATE consumer demand for alternative products which they will eventually view as more profitable.
Think of it this way. Let’s say you’re burning to take on the issues of climate change and environmental responsibility and you’ve got $100 million to spend on the project. What’s going to give you more bang for your buck: spend the $100 million on an ad campaign to persuade consumers to buy electric cars? Or spend the same money on lobbyists in Washington to pass a tax subsidy for R&D start-ups in the electric car business? It’s cynical and goes entirely against the 1960s-70s “Earth Day” model of how environmental stewardship is our individual responsibility, but given this choice, I’d spend the $100 million on the lobbyists…in a heartbeat. It’s going to get more results. This is why we need to focus less on individual responsibility and more on collective responsibility.
Part of the problem is that most people do not even imagine an alternative to our current systems of living. I remember when the Keystone Pipeline was under debate, one of the doctrinaire free-market types was telling me that the sands were going to be mined and a pipeline built, no matter what, so it might as well come through the U.S. As far as he was concerned, capitalism and patriotism in their current forms were permanent and there were no realistic alternatives.
I’ve just been reading a long but fascinating book, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” by David Graeber. Now whether you accept his idea of a long economic cycle alternating between the conjunction of military power, money, and debt in one phase, and a moral economy of credit in the other (I’m simplifying, the book’s 400 pages long), he does point out two important issues that are obvious once you think about them. First, society is really built on three types of relations: communism (think the family or a small town), hierarchy (feudalism), and exchange (the impersonal market). Yet in our era, we use the language of exchange/market to describe all three, to our own confusion and impoverishment in considering alternatives. And to support the dominance of a capitalist/market system, we have raised the work ethic to a positive virtue, primarily as a way to abuse the poor. In fact, very few people want to work for endless gains, if they have the choice . . . as the rich in our society do. Most of us would rather work to be comfortable to spend time with our friends and family. But the current economic system makes that uncertain for all but the rich.
So we have a lot of people who can’t consider changing our socio-economic system as even possible, and an equally large group who are too busy trying to stay ahead of sliding back into poverty to consider the matter. It makes addressing the ecological crisis very, very hard, because it can’t be done with business as usual.
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Very well said. Your last sentence could also include that the working class cannot adequately address the ecological crisis because they are too busy struggling to stay afloat. The outrage over the death of one gorilla could be an easy way to focus on the environment. But on the other hand, each day presents choices for each and every one of us. We can choose the easy path of not doing anything and blaming our current system or we can choose to lessen our impact on the environment.
It always amazes to hear my friends complain about the price of food. I’ve heard time and time again that “I’m lucky I don’t have to buy meat” as the price per pound has skyrocketed. But the looks I get when I suggest they cut back on their consumption and thereby saving money are as bad as if I said “Start eating dog”. Capitalism has convinced us that we need, need, need. The only thing we need is to change business as usual.
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And by highlighting the need for everyday choices, you correctly point out this should be an ongoing concern, all the time.