Human Induced Extinctions


This is the sixth in a series of seven posts regarding the threats I see facing humanity. This threat is human-induced extinctions. Scientists have determined that we live in a new geologic era, described as the Anthropocene, where human activity is the predominant factor in describing how the Earth is behaving. It is reflected in the erosion that comes from agricultural practices, creating new river deltas much faster than in previous times. It is reflected in the effect of industrial and civilian gas emissions, which affect the composition of the atmosphere. It is reflected in the crowding out of wildlife due to the incursion of human activities into locations where wildlife has existed for millions of years.

Perhaps there is no place where the effects of humanity has been so pronounced as in the ocean depths. There we have found the ultimate repository of the plastic we use so gratuitously, single use plastic that finds its way into the ocean waters. Stories abound about the wildlife found to be starving to death, because inert plastic has filled the stomach and gut of an animal. It literally feels full, since the stomach is full, but will not take in new nutrients since there is no urge to fill the stomach. That is one form of human incursion into the oceans. Another is the cruel and indiscriminate fishing practices that go on throughout the oceans. Huge dragnets haul all creatures up and then the catch is sorted once it reaches the surface and is dying. Much is either discarded or kept as junk fish, good only to be ground up as food for other fishes, or for pet food. Some is from species we identify with as being intelligent, like dolphins. I remember the TV show Flipper, which anthropomorphized a dolphin beyond recognition. But it is undoubtedly true that dolphins are intelligent, and capable of compassion, since the stories of dolphins assisting humans to survive are common.

The worst fishing practices are those that drag the bottom of the ocean. Those vessels disturb all of the creatures colonizing the ocean floor. Very few of these species are considered as human food, yet those that are (like flounder) are highly prized. The ocean floor will not recover for hundreds of years, yet the fleets of fishing ships keep trawling continually.

Oceans are one thing, but no human has their natural habitat under the sea. The problems of species extinction exist for each class of plant and animal. Though it is extremely difficult to quantify (how do you prove a negative?), the rate of species extinction is estimated at between 10 to 100 times greater than the rate of extinction normally present on Earth without an external cause. And anecdotal evidence is that insect populations are being affected extensively. Journals such as Science in 2017 published a story titled Where Have All The Insects Gone? The article noted that scholarly research on insect populations is scarce, but that in certain long-term studies of populations, the number of insects found in fields has been reduced by over 80%. The study referred to the “windshield effect,” noting that many people have seen fewer insect / windshield collisions over the years. The damage to bee populations has been severe, with the colony collapse disorder causing massive losses to bee populations. A cause for the reduction has not been definitively named, but the class of insecticides known as Neonicotinoids is, as the police would say, “a chemical of interest”. These chemicals were originally marketed as reducing the need to spray more toxic organophosphates and organochlorine insecticides. They often are used to coat the seeds, and when the plant sprouts, the insecticide is absorbed into the plant where it provides defense. But since it permeates the entire plant, it is expressed in the pollen as well. That is how it appears to affect pollinator populations. Since honeybees are used in commerce, the losses in honeybees was noted first. But concern exists for all other pollinator species.

Much has been written about the intrusion of humanity’s effects on tropical forests. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than when a road is cut through virgin forests. Once a road is available, it is soon followed by those who exploit the opening. Forestry now tackles the old-growth trees, reducing stable ecosystems into a maze of forest edges. Species that once had free range across a canopy now find themselves having to traverse new agricultural lands to get to the next patch of undisturbed forest. And when populations of people begin to live in these newly opened lands, a market in bush meat is created. The Amazon is ground zero to display the effects of roads and subsequent land disturbance. Take a quick trip on Google Earth to the Amazon, and note that wherever you see a road, you will also see the encroachment of cleared land and settlements.

We as humans do not always understand the impact of our actions. We do not know what will happen when insect A is eliminated from a portion of its normal range. What other species used insect A as a food source? What insects or plants did insect A help keep in control? Will we see a reduction in birds due to the lack of insect A? Humans, being emotional animals, are much more capable of generating sympathy for the large, photogenic animals that are endangered. But the smallest insect may have as much impact or more on the ecosystem as a large furry mammal.

We as a civilization do not yet seem concerned by the loss of species we are seeing. Even in countries where an effort has been made to reduce the loss of species, a change in the government can reverse decades of efforts almost overnight. In the US, there is no mistaking the intent of the Trump administration to roll back the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. There is a strong belief that laws and regulations limiting the ability of a property owner to develop property as they see fit, represent an unconstitutional taking of the owner’s property right. Since insects or birds or other animals cannot hire a lawyer to defend their right to life, it falls to environmental groups to challenge regulatory repeal. Still, the attitude of the administration towards science-based evidence remains clear. Science and scientists are viewed with disdain, and they are clearly leftist in their politics since they so often stand against the rights of those with property.

What can science do to deal with these problems? It would seem that an effort to develop new pesticides that do not have such systemic effects is required. These efforts are proceeding within the large agrichemical companies, but it takes years and sometimes decades before a novel chemical class is commercialized and finds its place in the marketplace. It appears that legislative action across the world may be needed to ban certain classes of chemicals shown to cause excessive harm. The role of scientists would seem to also include quantifying the loss of species, and doing research to show what happens when one thread of the web of life is pulled out.

Maybe the best use of scientists would be to increase their role in educating the public as to the risks we are running by conducting our current experiment of causing the extinction of so many species. In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, humanity was given stewardship over the creatures of the Earth. If nothing else, we have been proven to be bad stewards.



Blooms In The Midst Of Despair


I’ve been at a loss for words lately. Even though spring burst onto the scene, and new life is everywhere, when it comes to humanity, the news all seems bad. The amateurs leading the US government seem intent on single-handedly overturning 75 years of alliances, all in the name of having our allies pay their fair share. Agreements aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear arms construction are arbitrarily abrogated, and we seem to be poking at the hornet’s nest that is Iran with a stick in order to engender conflict. Meanwhile, on a peninsula far, far away, the object of a love affair with the US President is acting like a spurned lover, and casting missiles into the ocean between the peninsula and Japan. The Russians ponder how best to bend the pliable public opinion in the US to their benefit in the next election, while this President disdains any notion that his election was in any way due to the overt and covert actions from Russia in the past.

It is clear that the Republicans in the Congress are victims of the Stockholm Syndrome, having been co-opted by the entity who took the Republican party hostage in 2016. Thus they are willing participants in the ongoing struggle to avoid any legitimate oversight of the actions of this administration. Meanwhile, having become emboldened by the departure of more mature members of the administration, and by a superficial reading of the report brought forth by Robert Mueller, this administration becomes intransigent and refuses any and all requests for Congressional testimony or submission of documents. They laugh at any requests for cooperation in the multitudes of investigations brought on by this President. Aided by the Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, they continually chant their mantras of no collusion, no conspiracy, even though if they actually read the Mueller report they would learn that is not his conclusion. When Mueller cited his conclusion that the Department of Justice’s own precedent would not allow him to call for indictment, they took that as a declaration of exoneration and have continued to scream that into the ether. And the gullible fools who follow this pitiful President, lap up the curdled milk offered them by the smirking members of this administration.

Meanwhile, the opposition to Trump in the Democratic sphere is teeming with those who are crawling over themselves in order to reach the brass ring on their carousel. In order to gain even momentary ascension in the media spotlight, they exhibit their brazen narcissism as new candidates continue to emerge into the race. They make statements of economic incomprehensibility in order to appeal to even a small fraction of the electorate. And why so many? Of course, it is because they are the chosen, and only they can solve our problems. Kind of similar to the statements of the current occupant of the office, who was convinced that he alone could solve things. They run the risk of causing the electoral discussion to veer so far left that the enormous advantage the Democrats hold in opposing this unpopular President will be abandoned as they scare the middle into clinging to what has now become familiar.

If you look for succor elsewhere in the world, you will find none. The war in Yemen, a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, continues unabated, and has ushered in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into permanent residency at the tip of the Arabian peninsula. Aided and abetted by the US, where in the first act of guts in decades by the Congress, they passed a measure to cease support for Saudi Arabia, only to have it vetoed by the President in his continual attempt to punish Iran. Turkey is continuing its slide into dictatorship as Erdogan forces a do-over of the Istanbul mayoral election. France is hamstrung by yellow vest protestors who turn every weekend in Paris into an obstacle course. And Britain is evenly split between those who wish to force exit from Europe, and those who wish to maintain ties, and as a result, the politics there have caused complete government breakdown.

Meanwhile, reports come out showing that humanity is thrusting an eighth of the species of life into peril of extinction. Glaciers continue their steady retreat, threatening the water supplies of hundreds of millions of people. Shrinkage of Arctic ice opens up a new realm for human exploitation, and all our fetid Secretary of State can say is “New ways to make money!” An administration that actively rebuts scientific evidence is insistent upon eating our supply of seed corn as it slashes funds for research for our future. And the budget deficits keep growing as far as the eyes can see as adherents to the failed, flawed economic theories of the supply-siders once more prove their complete divorcement from reality.

You’d think that with all of this surfeit of bad news, I’d be ready to throw in the towel. Strange thing, though, I can still feel hopefulness. I can be hopeful that this nation will awaken from its strange hypnotic trance induced by our con man in chief. I can be hopeful that corporate executives will be found guilty of fomenting addiction through their marketing strategies, and that the tsunami of human casualties from opioids and heroin will recede in our region. I can be hopeful that the seeds of spring turn into the salads and vegetables of summer. I can be hopeful that the trees we planted last year will grow strong enough for us to remove the deer shields around them. And I can hope that those of us who believe in common sense, rationality, and the rule of law will prevail in this country.

Soon, please!