Happy New Year! I hope you all had a great time. Here’s a little something for your hangover!
The National Science Foundation released a report on the 29th of December showing that an influx of non-native species can be a progenitor of a mass extinction event. The report draws on fossil evidence from the mass extinction of the late Devonian, approximately 375 million years ago, to describe what happens when hardy, adaptable species colonize areas dominated by more locally-focused ones. What happens is pretty chilling, as the report descibes: as the Devonian continents slowly merged, previously isolated species were able to enter new environments where those who could source their food more broadly tended to out-compete those with more limited menus. The newcomers, with their catholic tastes, were able to sieze control of the food chain for themselves and their exploding populations, leaving the natives to dwindle. In addition to their triumph in the field of nutritional economy, the newcomers accomplished something else: they dramatically slowed the rate of speciation. Most speciation, or the creation of new species, happens as a result of geographical isolation. A new mountain range, or perhaps a new channel cut through a continent by a rising sea, creates isolate areas from a previously contiguous mass. Within these disparate areas, species diverge according to the whims of natural selection, drifting towards different strategies of life, different food sources, different reponses to conditions of weather and wild nature. What the NSF report describes is what happens when this process occurs in reverse. New species are no longer busy being born- they are busy dying. This is mass extinction: old species disappear, and few or none rise to replace them.
This report has pretty broad implications for the state of the world as we live in it now. It’s a globalized world (which statement seems mildly redundant, doesn’t it?) that we live in, a world where all boundaries are falling, where there is no longer any restraint on biotic mixing, a world that has become a blender set to puree its biosphere. Outbreaks of invasive opportunism are everywhere, probing every nook, all at the behest of the ne plus ultra of invading species.
One will bring them, one will release them into the dark.
The process of human globalization began some 40-50,000 years ago as modern humans migrated out of Africa to colonize the planet, then was exacerbated in the last 550 years by the spread of Europeans and their concomitant religious and economic strategies. In the latter half of the 20th century that globalization entered a new phase as global populations exploded like so many thermonuclear bombs, and the agriculture and technology that accompanies modern human society went up with it in a howling firestorm of ecological destruction. The forests have fallen, the seas have been emptied, the sky is full of poison and smoke and the fragile things that depend on specific local conditions are being ruthlessly winnowed. Our technologies of transport, from the junk to the dhow to the tall ship to the supertanker to the 747 have hauled the world into a close and claustrophobic embrace. Torrents of displaced species have been poured out over the globe, a viscous and vicious tide of opportunists siezing the life of the planet and glutting themselves on it. Everything, everywhere, is collapsing at an astronomical rate.
All this has happened so fast that there really is no way of getting a handle on it. It truly beggars the imagination- nothing as fast and insanely destructive as humanity has ever existed on earth prior to now. Unlike an asteroid impact, which starts big and ultralocal and gradually loses force as its effect spreads, we have started small and are growing bigger, logarithmically, with every passing minute. We circle the globe in throngs a thousand times a day. No apex is currently in sight.
Conservation biologists trumpet the end of “significant evolution” in the tropics. Michael Soule, one of the founders of modern conservation biology, offers this: “The end of speciation for most large animals rivals the extinction crisis in significance for the future of living nature. As [Bruce Wilcox and I] said in 1980, ‘Death is one thing, an end to birth is something else.’”
Welcome to the end of birth. What is perhaps the worst thing about this freefall into the jaws of death?
It’s only just begun.
As we grind on into the 21st century, we are still looking at this new world through 20th century eyes. The strategists of the left are still trying to apply theories of a world of 1.5 billion people to a world of nearly 7 billion, with predictably useless and empty results. Their doppelgangers on the right and in the clubs of growth, however, have used the demographic explosion as a tool of magnification, using amplified populations and increased economic potential to develop immense new systems of consumption and distribution of consumer goods of all sorts. In the last ten years, the major driver of global tropical deforestation has changed from small scale swidden (slash-and-burn) horticulturalists to corporate agriculture/timber/minerals conglomerates, shaving away the life-covered land and digging out the earth for minerals or to plant crops to feed burgeoning populations. Farming is now a global industry, conducted on unimaginable scales by titanic behemoths of capital.
Biologists estimated in 1986 that humans were then using over 40% of Earth’s Net Primary Productivity (NPP), namely 40% of the sum of all energy taken in by all plants from the sun and converted into useful biological material and energy. If the current demographic predictions of a leveling-off of human population at about the 11-12 billion mark hold true, then we will by then be using 80% of NPP, an underestimate because of near-universal trends of increasing comparative affluence and consumption across all economic levels in all societies everywhere in the world. What kind of biosphere can survive on that last meager 20%? Even untramelled by swarms of lively, hungry opportunists, and unwracked by the tormented skies of a world in the throes of massive climate change? What prospects for all the spider-spun webs of life? Dim.
According to the law of shifting baselines, which describes how successive human generations make new ground-levels of ecological normalcy as they cycle on through their lives, we will remain largely unaware of this catastrophe. We, the preeminently adaptable invading species and catalyst of all this butchery and disaster, we will adapt, as we do. It is what we do, and what we are. We will not learn to mitigate our effects, because it is precisely our capacity for learning that has enabled us to create these effects. There is no cultural solution to a biological problem.
In the words of Ernst Mayr, one of the great biologists of the 20th century:
“As the cause of today’s mass extinction, we humans are no longer just a biological phenomenon, but are now a physical factor equivalent to an asteroid or continental drift in radically changing biological diversity. We are not exterminating only individual species, but ‘entire higher taxa.'”
Pace, Oppenheimer. Ride the bomb down.