The Sixth Extinction
Few are aware of the countless mass extinctions that have occurred on Earth. Some may not even know how many there are. They may not know the first extinction, the Ordovician-Silurian Extinction, where ocean-based organisms went extinct. They may not know the fifth extinction called the Cretaceous-tertiary Extinction, commonly considered the last of the main 5 extinctions, in which dinosaurs and other species became extinct. People may not know these because they are irrelevant to humans and their current standing in the world, or simply because they do not care.
However, something is occurring that is quite relevant to humans and should be cause for concern. According to leading extinction scientists, Earth may be experiencing a sixth mass extinction event, one that has been provoked by humans.
On January 14, 2022, the University of Hawaii and Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle joined to release a study which concluded that we are in the midst of the Holocene Extinction.
Unlike Earth’s previous mass extinctions, human activity is entirely responsible for this current extinction. Humans threaten ecosystems and biodiversity in many ways. Air and water pollution threaten biodiversity and warm our planet. Land degradation and human expansion, a product of our ever-growing population, has affected the lives of every animal species on this planet. Life that has adapted to certain environments is threatened because their habitats are quickly slipping away as a result of climate change.
Overall, humans must be credited for their interference in the natural world. But, even considering our unwavering effect on Earth as a whole, many people deny the possibility that our actions could have a mass-extinction level impact. Aside from those who deny it, there are others who have not heard of the issue, and would not even dream that it is possible.
This looming extinction may have been unexpected because there was very little science and technology dedicated to monitoring its arrival. In the past, many records of extinction were based on studies with a center of vertebrate species. These species are initially more notable to us because of their size and active role in ecosystems. However, it is problematic to draw conclusions from these sources because vertebrates make up only 3% of all animals on Earth.
Invertebrates make up 97% of animals on the planet. Studying these animals gives more perspective on the changes in our planet’s biodiversity.
Even so, there are so few research centers that are dedicated to invertebrates and an overall incomplete understanding of these species. The study covers many examples of these biases, which include the Red List. This list is a compilation of the conservation status of species, often considered to be the most thorough and comprehensive of lists. However, there are many reasons why the Red List should not be used in the current context.
Multiple specific examples and debunkings conclude that the list was never meant to assess extinction rates, and therefore is biased to address human interest rather than scientific needs. The list contains almost all of the “more notable” invertebrate species while skimming over invertebrates as a category. This is partially because invertebrate species are far less identified. Overcoming this issue is key to understanding the world and its risky condition.
Another option the study provides for pinpointing the extinction is a focus on molluscs. Molluscs are a group of invertebrates that are well-known and representative of invertebrates as a whole. They are valuable to the study because these traits helped scientists reach their conclusion.
Taking this into account—utilizing older research to extrapolate and making new research to evaluate—the dangerous condition of Earth is assessed. Since the year 1500, which is commonly used as a point of comparison for human impact, 7.5%-12% of known species have been lost, which equates to 150,000-260,000 species. The rate of these losses is only growing.
This reflects that although we may be far from the peak of a mass-extinction event, we are moving at a rate that will get us there soon. While we created this negative change, it is not unreasonable to believe that we can change it positively as well. However, it must be kept in mind that this is not easily accomplished, and along the way, losses will be accorded.
In order to understand where School Without Walls stands on the subject, I contacted some students who are educated on the topic. Freshman Charlotte Mendelson, Gwen Morris, Zoe Fisher and I had a productive conversation about climate change and every aspect that relates it to our lives.
Overall, the most relevant opinion of the group was surmised by Fisher: they were “not surprised… however, it is concerning.”
Morris had many ideas surrounding personal level changes that can have a positive impact on climate change, saying that we must be mindful of “what we eat, what we wear, and how we travel.” This may include avoiding beef, private transportation, and fast fashion.
Mendelson has experience in researching the personal level effects of climate change on youth. She says, “It’s a crazy statistic, about 45% of young people around the globe said that climate change and government inaction was affecting their day-to-day life.”
Evidence of the Sixth Mass Extinction goes on to show that these young people are rightfully worried, and there is action that needs to be taken to prevent such consequential outcomes. This is not only for the environment, but also for the promotion of mental and physical health.
“We need to start combatting it in this generation,” says Morris. “We need to call attention to it, educate others.” These are effective, and possibly future-shifting actions, because as representatives of the future, we must be prepared and prepare our peers to make necessary systemic changes in our adulthood.
The new study is unshocking, but worrisome. In the midst of climate change and its effects, it is important that studies like these prompt action by young people. It is key that the future we create is different from the present day, and that students are prepared for the difficult task of changing the world.