Last year, a study produced by the UN announced that one million species were at risk of extinction under current climate change trajectories and given humans’ impact. One year later, an updated study out of the US’s National Academy of Sciences found that initial estimates on mass extinction were conservative. We have only 10-15 years to prevent massive losses that will push ecosystems toward total collapse.
Scientists know of 543 species that have been lost over the last 100 years; their research indicated that without human influence, the loss of that many species would otherwise take 10,000 years.
#WhyItMatters: When we lose one species, it threatens the loss of others. We don’t just lose polar bears and keep on living life as usual. Species that depend on the polar bears’ role in nature will be lost too. This kind of impact, this downward spiral, causes ecosystem collapse, which is immensely straining on the planet and problematic for humans’ survival too. For example, we need certain creatures to pollinate our foods, to rid us of pests and diseases, to help us to manage our forests and grasslands, and much more.
A famous example of this ecosystem collapse, or “trophic cascade,” is summarized in the gray wolf population of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. In the 1920s, government policy allowed hunting of the gray wolf inside Yellowstone National Park; the wolf was extirpated from the region, triggering ecosystem collapse. The elk populations boomed, now without their primary predator keeping their numbers in check. As the elk severely overgrazed the region of certain tree and plant species, beaver populations, which depended on those tree and plant species, virtually disappeared. Coyotes, without the competition of wolves, preyed upon smaller animals like pronghorn antelope, foxes, and birds that prey upon small rodents. In 1995, through the use of the Endangered Species Act, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, triggering restored balance throughout the park.
There are a lot of factors at play with the extinction crisis, most prominently habitat loss and wildlife trade at the hands of human development and exploitation. Climate change is another factor, which has been creeping into vision but is now more like a flashing neon sign. And there have been warnings of impending peril for years — from Dr. Thomas Lovejoy’s initial projections of global extinction in his 1980 “Global 2000 Report” to President Jimmy Carter, to Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 cautionary tale The Sixth Extinction, to the 2019 docu-series Our Planet hosted by David Attenborough.
How can you help?
I laid out 5 detailed steps in this article, which I’ve distilled below.
- Learn about something, anything, and then share with others what you’ve learned. Raising awareness is the very first step.
- Consume wisely. The things you buy, from food to goods to homewares all have an impact on the environment.
- Eat smart. You don’t have to become a vegetarian (though, that kinda helps!), but you can choose to eat locally to minimize the impact you’re having on the planet.
- Make space for species. The more we support native and natural environments in the places we live, the most that local species will have a chance to thrive.
- Vote. For the love of all that is holy, vote. Vote for candidates that prioritize our planet.