While many “tipping points” are causes for concern, perhaps the biggest of all is the sixth mass extinction. This time, we might truly see an irreversible impact to our civilization. And we may witness the collapse of many more ecosystems and big drops in biodiversity.
It’s true we’ve made some environmental progress during the pandemic; we’ve seen emissions numbers wind back ten years. But Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich and his collaborators Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Peter H. Raven of the Missouri Botanical Gardens came to a startling conclusion in a recent study: we are actually accelerating towards the sixth mass extinction.
The severe implications of a sixth mass extinctions
The study leads with the idea that for 77 mammal and bird species, 94% of their populations went extinct in the past century. And “there are 515 species on the brink (1.7% of the evaluated vertebrates),” the study explains.
Unfortunately, some extinction breeds even more extinction. “Close ecological interactions of species on the brink tend to move other species toward annihilation when they disappear,” the study says.
Further, “the distribution of those species highly coincides with hundreds of other endangered species, surviving in regions with high human impacts, suggesting ongoing regional biodiversity collapses.”
The Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbates the situation. And it led the three scientists to conclude we need to take action with “extreme urgency.”
The Trump Administration’s rollbacks not helping
In August of 2019, the Trump administration made a policy revision to the Endangered Species Act that entailed it rolling back a “rule [that] had automatically given threatened species the same protections as endangered species unless otherwise specified,” according to a Department of the Interior press release.
Additionally, the administration decided it would weigh in economic factors while deciding whether a species would be categorized as endangered. Experts don’t think it’s a good idea. As Arizona State University Professor Leah Gerber puts it, “Recovering species is a biological question, not an economic question,” according to TIME.
With these two revisions, threatened species, which are just one category away from endangered species, could be in real danger.
It’s an ugly déjà vu
Earth has faced extinction events before, but none quite like the sixth mass extinction. After all, the sixth mass extinction threatens more than half of currently known species. And as Ehrlich and his colleagues mention in their report, when one species dies out that has a close relation with another, it can be catastrophic for the ecosystem’s food chain.
We already saw this case study with the Yellowstone Wolves, which hunters hunted to near-extinction by 1930. The event caused the elk and deer that they consumed to prosper. And that decimated the habitat for the songbirds within the park and was associated with a rise in mosquito population.
While just one example, the Yellowstone Wolf highlights how one species’ decimation can lead to tumultuous changes in ecosystems.
Now, imagine what could happen if these results were applied to hundreds of thousands of species populations…
Lauren Beauban is an Editorial Fellow at theRising, where she covers sustainability news and influential people in the industry. She is also interested in environmental policy and how it affects people. You can pitch her stories at firstname.lastname@example.org