The planet has entered the “sixth mass extinction”—and the situation could hardly be more severe. The WWF wildlife charity warned that “we are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff”.
“This is far more than just about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” it said in a major report last October.
“Nature is not ‘nice to have’—it is our life support system.”
For instance, insects face a rate of extinction eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles. They underpin much of the natural world and are vital for sustaining food production.
And plants—which are essential for human survival—are also in the firing line.
A “mass extinction” happens when the Earth loses more than three quarters of its species in a short period of geological time.
Five other mass extinctions have taken place in the history of the Earth and species extinction is a “natural processes”. The fifth mass extinction, known for wiping out the dinosaurs, took place around 65 million years ago.
But the danger now is far more urgent—and it flows from capitalism.
Scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction is anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times of what is “normal”. Some predict around 30 to 50 percent of all animal species are set to be gone by the middle of this century.
There’s no doubt that human activity is the main factor behind the vast majority of species currently under threat.
Humans have always had some impact on the natural world around them. But, before capitalism took hold, human society lacked the technical ability or reach to threaten extinction of a significant scale.
The Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century in Britain brought in industrial-scale production. This spread across the world—and we can see the impact today.
Industrial farming methods, over-fishing, hunting and deforestation all contribute to a loss or changing habitat to many species.
The effects of human-caused climate change are also wreaking destroying animals and plants.
Acidifying oceans causes corals to die and the shells of many marine animals
to dissolve. And warming temperatures are decreasing the habitat of ice-dwelling mammals and causing food webs—a series of food chains—to fall out of sync with each other.
This process can be seen most clearly in the huge decreases in insect populations around the world. Research released in February indicated that globally the total mass of insects was falling by 2.5 percent every year.
And in Britain scientists last week said that the loss of pollinating insects “highlights a fundamental deterioration” in nature.
The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme looked at the range of bees and hoverflies. It showed that they have been lost from a quarter of the places they were found just 39 years ago—and highlighted the impact of human intervention.
The widespread introduction of the bee-harming pesticide neonicotinoid in 2007 coincided with severe declines in some bee species critical for pollination.
Alongside harmful pesticides and natural habitat loss, intensive farming methods are another contributing factor.
This means that trees and shrubs that used to surround fields are gone or disappearing. And land is more intensely managed, usually only producing a small range of crops, which reduces the quality of the soil. It’s led to a situation where more than 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered.
This has a knock-on effect because complex ecological webs mean the futures of many species are bound up with each other.
When one species becomes scarce, it affects other animals higher up the food chain. And if it becomes extinct, it has irreversible damage to other species relying on it for their food or habitat.
It means numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming months, years and decades.
Scientists have warned of domino effects.
Researcher James Bell said, “For example, the leafing date of the oak tree determines when the caterpillars will appear. That determines when blue tits, which feed on caterpillars, will appear—and that determines when blue tits lay their first egg.
“If they become desynchronised, it has cascading effects through the food chain, leading to fewer eggs.”
In some countries where industrial agriculture isn’t yet used, warming temperature is the main drivers of insect decline. In Britain, these warming temperatures over just a 50-year period have altered food chains.
Some birds are laying eggs a week earlier and aphids are now emerging a month earlier. And potato crops are now planted later due to wetter winters, so aphids are attacking and damaging much younger plants.
Bell explained that “plants are just like babies with very poorly developed immune systems.
“So when a virus is transmitted into a young potato plant it has a much greater effect,” he said.
Human intervention will been needed to tackl the crisis (Pic: Guy Smallman)
But it’s not just Britain—and not just insects.
The current rate of frogs, toads and salamanders extinction is estimated to be over 25,000 times the normal extinction rate.
Amphibians are particularly sensitive to environmental changes. They have been hit particularly hard with habitat loss, water and air pollution, ultraviolet light exposure and disease.
Deforestation threatens the habitats of around 90 percent of primates—with half of primate species threatened with extinction.
So what’s the solution? For some, it’s about tightening up regulations to protect animals and wildlife under threat.
In Australia, a parliamentary committee dealing with the extinction crisis has recommended new laws. It includes a proposal for a new environmental protection authority that would have powers and funding to enforce existing environment laws.
Or in Canada, ecological charities are calling for federal legislation to protect threatened salmon species.
The southern German state of Bavaria announced last week it will legislate to “save the bees” after a petition generated 1.75 million signatures. It will mean higher levels of organic farming, more flowering meadows and better protection from pesticides for streams and rivers.
For others, part of the answer lies in “re-wilding”. In a letter published in the Guardian newspaper last week, climate activists called for “defending, restoring, and re-establishing forests, peatlands, mangroves, salt marshes, natural sea beds and other crucial ecosystems.”
There’s no doubt that human activity has driven the extinction crisis—and intervention by people will also be needed to tackle it.
Instead of a system that serves a tiny minority, billions of humans can cooperate in the interests of the immense majority. That requires political and economic change to a system of workers’ control and democracy—socialism.
While it’s too late to stop climate change, it’s not too late to stop all effects of climate chaos and species extinction. This means building a movement to fight for our planet and every species on it.
It will require collective action on a mass scale by ordinary people. And this fight to save our planet can’t be divorced from every other fight for social justice and the struggle for sustainable socialist society.
As Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, puts it, “Just because we’ve survived the loss of X number of species, can we keep going down the same trajectory?
“Or do we eventually imperil the systems that keep people alive?”
“Even if we can survive, is that the world you want to live in? Is that the world you want all future generations of humans to live in?”
The end of the great coral reefs?
The planet’s corals are on the edge of extinction—there was an almost 90 percent decrease in coral growth recorded last year.
When waters temperatures rise corals “bleach”—become stressed and turn white. The coral will die quickly unless temperatures drop to normal levels.
The Great Barrier Reef off the eastern coast of Australia stretches out 2,300 kilometres and is the world’s largest living structure.
Recent research has found that mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 have killed almost of the coral in the reef.
Extreme weather events, alongside warming temperatures spell an uncertain future for the reef.
Morgan Pratchett is a professor at the ARC centre of excellence for coral reef students in Queensland, Australia. “When one part was damaged by a cyclone, the surrounding reefs provided the larvae for recovery,” she said.
“But now the scale of severe damage from heat extremes in 2016 and 2017 was nearly 1,500 kilometres—vastly larger than a cyclone track.”
For some types of coral, these events have been disastrous. Last year there was a 93 percent drop in the type of coral that provides most of the reef structure, which supports thousands of other species.
The world’s corals are a warning siren about how heating oceans will spell death and disaster for many of the animal and plant species residing in them.
“We used to think that the Great Barrier Reef was too big to fail—until now,” said Pratchett.
Who's at risk?
Polar bear numbers are hard to estimate, but their Arctic sea ice environment is under threat. They are forced to hunt for alternative food sources, such as on land. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, said, “Some media reports have suggested that this might mean polar bears could just come ashore and eat terrestrial foods. We have absolutely no evidence that they have the ability to do this” he said.
Living in the Antarctic, this breed of penguins rely on tiny krill crustaceans which live underneath ice sheets.
But melting ice sheets mean krill are dying off—meaning the penguins have to travel further for food, and have trouble breed and raising young.
Last seen in 1989, the golden toad used to live in the mountaintop cloud forests of Central America. But a combination of a deadly fungus and the removal of its natural habitat has killed off this species. It was last seen in 1989.
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