Extinction is a well-known phenomenon that has become a hot topic for debate as climate change poses an ever-increasing threat to our planet.
Many scientists believe that Earth is currently experiencing its sixth mass extinction event, with only five other similar events occurring throughout the planet’s long history. The only difference between these events lies with their cause.
Before the rise of human civilizations, extinctions were caused by natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, floods and ice ages. However, following humanity’s rapid industrialization, species are disappearing at a much faster rate than ever before. A combination of many factors, including habitat loss, the spread of invasive species, the introduction of foreign diseases and climate change are the main reasons for this increase in extinction rate.
Some people may argue that extinction is a natural part of life, and while this is in fact true, extinction brought about by anthropogenic means is not. Based on scientific data, 1 to 10 species are expected to become extinct every year.
This is known as the background rate of extinction. The current rate is somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times higher than the background rate and is likely to increase if not confronted.
Today, the majority of species are on the brink of extinction due to unsustainable human practices.
This “anthropogenic extinction” began decades ago, most notably when massive numbers of passenger pigeons were hunted into nonexistence. Their extinction was driven by the false ideology that a resource so abundant could never be depleted.
One modern-day equivalent to the passenger pigeon is the Atlantic cod, which was overfished to near extinction and will never reach its former abundance. These two species were utilized by humans for food, so their decline was driven by perceived necessity, but the harvesting practices were completely unsustainable.
A different sort of overexploitation occurred during the 19th century, when American bison were driven to near extinction due to the wasteful under-utilization of their remains and the transformation of grasslands into farmland. Likewise, the American government wanted to remove Native Americans from their land, leading to mass killings of bison to reduce their main source of food and clothing. The overharvesting of bison was partially driven by necessity but also by ignorance and a lack of concern for abundant species. This is the same idea that led to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, but thankfully bison have made a comeback.
Many other species have been through this unnecessary exploitation by humans, and we must recognize when this scenario is playing out again. Shark finning and rattlesnake roundups are just two examples of current events that could lead to extinction if we are not careful.
Likewise, we must be aware of our indirect effects on ecosystems, such as the spread of foreign contaminants, the side effects of pesticides and our ability to spread exotic species across the globe.
While many species are beyond rescuing, we have the means and the drive to save so many more, and in turn, save entire ecosystems from collapse.