Guest Post – from All Creation
AllCreation.org is a local Austin blog that examines today’s biodiversity and environmental challenges through an interfaith/spirituality lens. This post is part of a series, showcasing environmental sermons and words of wisdom from prominent faith and spiritual leaders in Texas. This blog post is written by Linda Thompson, from the First Baptist Church in Austin. It is a faith-based reflection on Elizabeth Kolbert’s popular book, The Sixth Extinction.
The sixth extinction is usually said to have begun with the Industrial Revolution or perhaps even later, with the explosion in population growth that followed the conclusion of the Second World War. Certainly both of these events have placed enormous stresses upon natural ecosystems and in many ways have transformed global patterns and conditions long suited to existing life forms. Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction argues that it isn’t just a change of biological conditions that endangers species – it is the rapid rate of change that makes it impossible for creatures to adapt. Kolbert presents convincing evidence that mankind has been the instrument of deadly change. Our choices and actions in a short period of time have disrupted ecological processes, diminished biological diversity, pushed many species to extinction, and endangered the very existence of humanity itself.
Five previous mass extinctions have occurred in life’s history. Causes are not fully understood, but it is thought that glaciation ended the Ordovician epoch; catastrophic vulcanism, global warming and ocean acidification ended the Permian epoch; the impact of a massive asteroid off the Yucatan Peninsula precipitated the end-Cretaceous extinction; possibly ocean acidification also played a major role in the end-Devonian and Triassic extinctions. It is speculated that lesser extinctions have occurred every 26 million years, caused perhaps by some “astronomical and astrophysical cycle” having to do with the passage of our solar system through the spiral arms of the Milky Way. One group of astrophysicists have argued that the periodicity could be explained by a small “companion star” to the sun, which, every 26 million years, passed through the Oort cloud, producing comet showers that rained destruction on the earth. (p. 101) The sixth or Anthropocene extinction (called Holocene by some) is not the consequence of some poorly understood external or geological event. The Anthropocene is the consequence of a single earthly species – us.
Anthropogenic actions precipitating a cascade of species extinctions, with more to come, include habitat destruction and fragmentation, over-harvest and over-kill of slow-to-recover species, deliberate and unintentional transfer of invasive species from one ecosystem to another, and climate change (which exacerbates the effects of other causes).
Ms. Kolbert, arguing that man has never lived in harmony with nature, cites evidence that human migration and overkill by paleo-Indians contributed significantly to the extinction of large mammals, such as the mastodon. Their extinction in Australia, occurring perhaps over a period of a thousand years, altered biological conditions, and set off an ecological cascade that transformed the landscape itself. Ms. Kolbert says this link, if accurate, is important, because it suggests that the sixth extinction began not with modern times but with the very advent of man and his unnatural impact upon the environment.
The extinction of archaic human species is also linked to early homo sapiens. The arrival of modern humans in Europe around 40,000 years ago coincided with the disappearance of the Neanderthals, a separate humanoid species which had populated the continent for at least a 100,000 years. Perhaps they too were killed off in violent conflict, or perhaps they were unable to compete with the more capable humans and died from lack of habitat suitable to life during a period of intense cold. Disease is also a possibility, and, as Ms. Kolbert says, bad luck always plays a role when resource sustainability is not assured. Nonetheless, as one researcher phrased the Neanderthal extinction, “Their bad luck was us.” Interestingly, their DNA survives – most people alive today are slightly (up to four percent) Neanderthal.
Ms. Kolbert cites many examples of humanity’s modern-day destructive practices; in some ways, we have learned little in the past 40,000 years. One thing just seems to lead to another, or as Aldo Leopold put it – all ecosystems are symbiotic and interdependent; the survival of the whole (the biomass) depends upon the survival of its parts.
For example, deforestation results in habitat loss with dire consequences not only for native flora and fauna, but also for those creatures into whose sphere the displaced are pushed.
Deforestation also reduces the natural absorption of airborne carbon dioxide, with dire consequences for all living beings. Take the oceans and their inhabitants for example. Roughly one-third of human-generated carbon dioxide has thus far been absorbed by the world’s oceans. The result is increasing ocean acidification.
The dire consequence of acidification is that it changes the biology of the seas. The make-up of microbial communities is altered, and the availability of key food nutrients such as iron and nitrogen declines. Calcifers such as clams, oysters, starfish, and coralline algae lose their ability to build their shells or external skeletons. Coral reefs lose the alchemy of calcification and communal building. As a consequence, the reefs are dying. Some scientists believe that the Great Barrier Reef (which extends discontinuously for 1,500 miles and in some places is 500 feet thick) will be ecologically extinct by the end of this century, possibly as early as 2050. Reef deaths will precipitate the demise of thousands (and perhaps millions) of creatures that depend on them for protection or food.
The transfer of invasive species, whether intentional or accidental is another Anthropocene behavior contributing to species extinction. The American chestnut proved susceptible to a fungus native to Japan and was totally extinguished by the mid-20th century. Some four billion chestnuts (the dominant deciduous tree in eastern forests) died in a span of about 50 years. Several species of moths that depended on the Chestnut disappeared along with it. Invasive species of all varieties frequently have no natural predators in their new environment, and native species have no immunity and no time to develop immunity. The rate of change is too rapid to allow adaptation. Thus, unintended and unpredictable consequences are frequently the outcome of otherwise good intentions or perhaps just a byproduct of human carelessness.
The tone of The Sixth Extinction is more pessimistic than hopeful that we will choose to change our behavior in time to thwart the predicted mass extinction. Mankind is the perpetrator of a deadly change sweeping the planet, and mankind may well become a victim of that change. In some ways, The Sixth Extinction follows the pattern of a classic Cassandra prophecy – lament, warning, and prophetic doom which, neither believed nor heeded, becomes the closing seal of a careless civilization. Ms. Kolbert concludes the final chapter of her well documented account of portending disaster with a quotation from Stanford ecologist, Paul Ehrlich, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”
Not all scientists are as fatalistic as those cited by Ms. Kolbert. My own faith-based (nonscientific) environmentalism counters inevitability with possibility. I believe that those who care about the world (and all that is within it) will rally to save a planet in peril. I prefer to close this brief paper not with a prophecy of doom but a prophecy of hope, spoken by the Apostle Paul:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present. Not only so, but we ourselves…as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 19-23a)
Paul accurately describes the agony of our contemporary world, an agony he shrouds with a mantle of hope. The image of rebirth, of a new heaven and a new earth are intrinsic to his metaphor. And that is the image that enables us to herald the future and find purpose and meaning in the fatigue of the present. That is the image toward which we work. And that is the image we are promised in Revelations.