Everyone knows that we’re driving plant and animal species extinct – potentially millions in the coming decades. We view modern, industrial society as the primary cause of the ecological collapse. Even environmentalists like to think that once upon a time, humans lived in unison with nature. But humanity has already won the dubious award of the most deadly ecological killer twice. With the industrial and modern era, we’re now already witnessing the third wave of human-caused massive extinction of plants and animals.
Phase 1 – Humans colonise the World
Let’s go back to 45,000 years ago. Humans had not yet been to Australia, which was inhabited by extravagant and unknown large mammals, like a 200-kg kangaroo, a marsupial lion and a two-and-a-half diprotodon. Australian species had evolved independently of other continents’ creatures and had never seen a human being. Then, the first humans manage to break free from the Europe, Asia and Africa mega continent and set foot on Australia. In just a few thousand years, humans drove 23 out of 24 species of large Australian mammals extinct. We burned forests to clear the land for hunting and grew to the very top of the food chain. But we were not done with devastating biodiversity yet.
Humans landed in America about 16,000 years ago. It took them just 2,000 years to make 34 out of the 47 large mammals species disappear in North America. South America lost 50 out of 60. It’s the same worrisome story in Madagascar, Cuba and New Zealand: when humans set foot on the islands, the big creatures go extinct. Many birds and other small animals also die. Overall, homo sapiens have driven to extinction roughly half of the planet’s big creatures even before the agricultural revolution. Once we began to plough fields, the situation got even worse.
Phase 2 – Humans harvest the World
The agricultural revolution led to the second human-led mass extinction by enabling the human population to skyrocket. Humans changed the landscape of the Earth, driving out species from our fields and shaping nature to our needs. Consider the example of wheat, which grew from being a wild grass confined to the Middle East 10,000 years ago to a world-ranging plant covering more than 200 million hectares today. With over 50,000 edible plants at our disposal, we source 90% of our energy consumption from just 15 crop plants — Rice, maize and wheat alone count for 2/3rds of our calorie intake. When was the last time you tried a new food?
Our preference for a few farm animals has multiplied their population enormously, at the expense of wildlife. Ten thousand years ago, no more than a few million cattle, chicken, goats and sheep existed. Today, there are an estimated 1 billion pigs, 1 billion cows, and more than 25 billion chickens. BILLION. Humans and our domesticated farm animals represent in combined weight more than 90% of the overall mass of large animals. We slaughter an estimated 50 billion farm animals every year. Intensive farming is probably the cruelest operation in the history of humankind, as animals are just like us: animals. They suffer, not only physically but also emotionally, as they have deep desires and need to socialise, play and discover their environment. Yet we separate the babies from their mothers at birth, make them grow up in their shit with no space to move and then suffer slow, painful deaths. Why are we doing this? Are we cruel? No, we’re not, we’re just ignorant. Watch this 1-minute video documenting the inside of an intensive farm to discover what is behind your McChicken:
Phase 3 – Humans today are polluting the World
The industrial revolution is the one we’re still undergoing right now, and its effects are well-known, so I won’t discuss them. This article wants to raise awareness on the danger of driving the remaining species extinct, especially the marine life that has so far been mostly untouched but now risks collapse due to ocean pollution and acidification. If we don’t preserve whales, sharks, dolphins and all the other marine species, they risk the fate of terrestrial mammals. “What’s a diprotodon?” We ask today. One day, after we hit +2 degrees of global warming, we’re going to ask “what’s a coral?”. Our children could want to know “what’s a sea turtle?”. And if we don’t stop global warming, one day some other surviving animal might even wonder, “What’s a human?”.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
One million species at risk of extinction – UN Report https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/
What do people eat? http://www.fao.org/3/u8480e/u8480e07.htm