Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Earth Day and The Sixth Great Extinction

Sixth Extinction. Image:

George Plumb

There have been many commentaries written about global warming and how critical it is that we work to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. And justly so, as we can already witness the catastrophic events that are happening all over the world including now also in the U.S.

However, there is also one other major potentially catastrophic environmental issue that is already happening but is rarely mentioned. That is the Sixth Great Extinction.

The world is facing mass extinction of species. All species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, arthropods, insects, fish, crustaceans, corals and plants have declined, in many cases severely. Our oversized human civilization has had a negative impact on most living things.

We are amidst the most dramatic period of species extinction in the last 60 million years. Scientists estimate that we are now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate, with multiple extinctions daily. As just one of many facts related to species, 40% of the world’s bird species are in decline, and one in eight is threatened with global extinction.

While we should be concerned about all forms of species, the biggest threat to human survival is the loss of insects. A study published in the journal Biological Conservation, found that 40% of insect species are now facing extinction over the next few decades, and around 41% of all insect species have seen declines over just the last ten years. Butterflies and moths are among the hardest hit. When was the last time you saw a grasshopper, cricket, or hornet building a nest on the ceiling of your porch?


Butterfly. Image:

If all of the insects disappear, there will be no pollination of a wide variety of plants that we eat. If much of our food supply cannot be produced, then there is going to be mass starvation and wars over the diminishing food supply.

So, what can we do to help prevent the worst of the Sixth Great Extinction?

The first thing is to stabilize and then reduce our population to a more sustainable level. If everyone in the world lived as Americans do, we would need five Earths to support humanity. While in just the few years left to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that isn’t going to give us much time to reduce our population. Nevertheless, each couple should still consider having but one child, or perhaps even none, so that we put less demand on our remaining natural resources.

If we are currently living on a largely meat-based diet, the second thing for us to consider might be to switch to a more vegetarian-based one. Our confined feeding operations to raise beef, milk cows, poultry, ham, and other mammals are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. According to a United Nations report, the meat industry causes more global warming (through emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) than all the cars, trucks, SUV’s, planes, and ships combined. An amazing 26% of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing, and 33% of croplands are used for livestock feed production, thereby taking away natural habitats for other species.

Then there are animals raised for meat in huge confined feeding operations where thousands of animals are under a roof and never experience their natural feeding grounds. This is very inhumane. As is sometimes said, if people could look into these factories and witness the suffering, if they had any compassion, they would likely stop eating meat. Let’s at least think about a “meatless Monday,” and if we are going to eat meat then let’s be sure it is locally-raised, pasture-fed, and slaughtered as humanely as possible.

The third thing for us to do is stop using all pesticides and herbicides which kill our insects and the very important soil microbes needed for healthful and productive soils. Pesticides and herbicides are still widely used on a wide variety of crops.

Yes, we certainly do need to immediately address global warming and deal with species extinction and the Sixth Great Extinction.

This commentary is by George Plumb of Washington, VT. He is a board member of Better (not bigger) VT and a member of Buddhist Peace Action Vermont. He wrote this commentary in honor of Earth Day on April 22, 2019.

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