Extinction: a dire word for an extreme occurrencethe absolute end to an entire species. Extinction, like evolution, is a natural phenomenon. Background extinction, the normal process of species dying out, is a continual process constantly occurring all over the Earth. Mass extinctions are relatively short periods of history during which a significant quantity of species die off beyond the standard background extinction.

To date, five major mass extinctions have been identified, according to the work of University of Chicago paleontologist Dr. David Jablonski. Popular culture has referred most to the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, 65-million years ago, in which the dinosaurs were among the roughly 66 percent of species that died out. A more drastic extinction occurred about 225 million years ago, when an estimated 90 percent of species went extinct during the Permian mass extinction.

Scientists from around the world came together to publish a paper entitled “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?” in the March 3, 2011, edition of the academic journal Nature. They suggest that a “sixth mass extinction may be under way, given the known species losses over the past few centuries and millennia.” The paper acknowledges and reviews differences between fossil studies and modern-data collection and how the “addition of recently available palaeontological (sic) information influence[s] our understanding of the current extinction crisis.” Results confirm higher than expected current extinction rates, leading the scientists to recognize the need for conservation measures to prevent a mass extinction.

Until now, no one species has had such a great impact on the global landscape as humankind. We have adapted to our environment, or rather, adapted our environment to suit us to such an extent we can no longer rely on nature to right itself.

It is impossible, impractical and philosophically unreasonable to attempt to end the phenomenon of extinction altogether. We have been trained to react to the concept of extinction—especially that of a snow leopard or bald eagle—with sadness, disgust, horror and sympathy. Even scientists can resort to such dogma, USA today quoted Anthony Barnosky, a lead author on the paper and a paleobiologist at Berkeley as saying, “Walk outside, look around and imagine three-fourths of all the different kinds of life you see gone. Ask yourself if you’d be happy living in that world.”

Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University who is unaffiliated with the paper, acknowledged in the same USA today article that the term “the sixth extinction” had been thrown around a lot in conservation circles without the scientific data to back it up. He had avoided using the term before the study was published as he felt it was “poetic” instead of rational.

To have a truly constructive discussion about extinction, we must separate emotional reactions from rational thought. Take the idea of the Aristotelian mean, as stated by Aristotle in Eudemian Ethics:

By the mean of a thing I mean what is equally distant from either extreme, which is one and the same for everyone; by the mean relative to us what is neither too much nor too little, and this is not the same for everyone. For instance, if ten are many and two few, we take the mean of the the thing if we take six; since it exceeds and is exceeded by the same amount; this then is the mean according to arithmetic proportion. But we cannot arrive thus at the mean relative to us.

By these principles, it would be irrational for us as a species to attempt to prevent all extinction from occurring. It also stands to reason that we should not aim to cause extinction either, but live in the mean—the middle ground so to speak—and attempt to find a level of impact on our environment that allows for the greater good of the whole planet. In everyday terms, that would mean minimizing material sent to landfills and instead recycling waste, reducing the excessive production of unnecessary goods, and using natural and sustainable resources whenever practical.

It isn’t necessary for every member of society to join the Tiny House movement, grow their own produce or stop driving cars. We must, however, temper our advancements in technology, manufacturing and consumerism with an awareness that we are not alone on this Earth. This world, unlike so many of our possessions, is not under warranty, returnable, disposable or replaceable.

The choices we have made as a species, educated or inadvertent, have created the following ecological stressors:

  • Rapidly changing atmospheric conditions
  • Warming above typical interglacial temperatures as CO2 levels continue to rise
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Pollution
  • Overfishing and overhunting
  • Invasive species and pathogens (like chytrid fungus)
  • Expanding human biomass

According to a study published in Nature, these are “all more extreme ecological stressors than most living species have previously experienced,” the study says. “Without concerted mitigation efforts, such stressors will accelerate in the future and thus intensify extinction.”

It is inexcusable for us as a species to continue this reckless treatment of our home, while at the same time it is unthinkable that we should regress back to the lifestyles of early man in the Stone Age. Perhaps by simply being more thoughtful on an individual level, and by holding our leaders to higher standards of responsibility in regards to environmental policy and legislation, we can mitigate the damage already done and prevent further needless destruction.

by Meaghan Middleton

Image: fish on dried earth via Shutterstock