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Column: What to do as Sixth Great Extinction accelerates?

  • A Monarch butterfly on a flower in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a national park about 60 miles north of Mexico City near La Mesa, Estado de Mexico, on Feb. 21, 2019. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

To the Valley News
Published: 4/19/2019 10:40:27 PM
Modified: 4/19/2019 10:40:14 PM

There have been many commentaries written about global warming and how critical it is that we work to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. And justly so, as we can already witness catastrophic events happening all over the world, including now also in the United States.

However, there is another major potentially catastrophic environmental issue that is already happening, although rarely mentioned. That is the Sixth Great Extinction or, as it is often referred to, the Anthropocene Extinction.

We are in the middle of the largest period of species extinction in the last 60 million years. Scientists estimate that we are now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate, with multiple extinctions occurring daily. As we humans continue to expand our use of land across the planet, we leave other species little ground on which to stand. By 2070, increased human land use is expected to put 1,700 species of amphibians, birds and mammals at greater extinction risk by shrinking their habitats, according to a recent study by Yale ecologists in the journal Nature Climate Change.

As just one of many facts related to species, 40 percent of the world’s bird species are in decline, and 1 in 8 is threatened with global extinction.

While we should be concerned about all species, the biggest threat to human survival is the loss of insects. A study published in the journal Biological Conservation, found that 40 percent of insect species are now facing extinction over the next few decades, and around 41 percent of all insect species have seen declines over just the last 10 years. Butterflies and moths are among the hardest hit.

If the insects disappear then there will be no pollination of a wide variety of plants that we eat. If much of our food supply cannot be produced, then there is going to be mass starvation and wars over the diminishing food supply.

So, what can we do to help prevent the worst of the Sixth Great Extinction?

The first thing is to stabilize and then reduce our population to a more nearly sustainable level. If everyone in the world lived as we Americans do, we would need fully five Earths to support humanity. Just the few years left for us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not going to give us much time to reduce our population. Nevertheless, each couple should still consider having but one child, or perhaps even none, so that we humans put less demand on our remaining natural resources.

If we are currently living on a largely meat-based diet, the second thing for us to consider might be to switch to a more vegetarian-based diet. Our confined feeding operations to raise beef, milk cows, poultry, pigs and other mammals are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions through the transportation of the grain they need and food they produce that is transported thousands of miles around the world. An amazing 26 percent of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing, and 33 percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production, thereby taking away natural habitat for other species. Also, most of the meat we now eat is raised in huge confined feeding operations. This is simply inhumane. So, let us at least think about a “meatless Monday,” and if we are going to eat meat, then let’s be sure that it is locally raised, pasture fed, and of course slaughtered as humanely as possible.

Among all of humankind’s activities, agriculture probably has the most detrimental impact on wildlife habitat and health. Consequently, we should all consider limiting our diets to choices that have the least impact on wildlife while maintaining our own health and encouraging sustainably fertile farmlands. But the most effective method, by far, for reducing agriculture’s huge contribution to species extinction is to reduce our vast need for agriculture by ending and reversing human population growth.

The third thing for us to do, of course, is to stop employing those widely used pesticides and herbicides that kill our insects as well as the very important soil microbes needed for healthy and productive soils.

Yes, we certainly do need to immediately address global warming, but at the same time we need to deal with species extinction, the two being tightly linked.

George Plumb, of Washington, Vt., is a board member of Better (not Bigger) Vermont and a member of Buddhist Peace Action Vermont.

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