The defaunation of Earth


The Blue Flower by MC

“We live amid a global wave of anthropogenically driven biodiversity loss: species and population extirpations and, critically, declines in local species abundance. Particularly, human impacts on animal biodiversity are an under-recognized form of global environmental change. Among terrestrial vertebrates, 322 species have become extinct since 1500, and populations of the remaining species show 25% average decline in abundance. Invertebrate patterns are equally dire: 67% of monitored populations show 45% mean abundance decline. Such animal declines will cascade onto ecosystem functioning and human well-being. Much remains unknown about this “Anthropocene defaunation”; these knowledge gaps hinder our capacity to predict and limit defaunation impacts. Clearly, however, defaunation is both a pervasive component of the planet’s sixth mass extinction and also a major driver of global ecological change.”

–An abstract from a new study by Stanford biology professor Rodolfo Dirzo and his team about warning about early stages of Earth’s sixth mass extinction

The abstract above suggests that we have possibly entered the early stages of a mass extinction which is being caused by human activities. Don’t be confused by the words defaunation and extirpations. In street lingo what Professor Dirzo and his team are saying is that we humans are screwed because humans like to screw ourselves. We may still have some time to try and reverse this systematic destruction of biodiversity but it will come only from our collective global will to do so. Humans look at the the faunal and floral abundance and diversity around them and mistakenly conclude that nature is a bank of life that can be drawn on indefinitely. Not true. In my own somewhat twisted way I have frequently written about nature from a philosophical standpoint. Almost exactly two years ago, that is on July 30, 2012, I wrote the following. I think it bears repeating in light of Professor Dirzo’s study being published by the journal Science.

I don’t think the purpose of any celestial body, particularly planets and moons, is to engender, nurture and perpetuate life.

Life may be an incidental byproduct of complex processes and fusions taking place between naturally occurring elements but I have never been convinced that it is a deliberate outcome. The notion that creating and supporting sentient life, namely you and I and everything that is alive on our own planet, is fundamental to why the earth exists is absurd. It is not as if we are the primary concern of our home planet.

I have thought about this theme for quite sometime but lately my interest has been intensified by, of all things, a particularly strong summer in America. When the trees in my yard started shedding brown leaves some weeks ago and the grass turned scraggy yellow because of the temperatures remaining steady in the 90 degrees F. it struck me that the earth has no vested interest in preserving itself in our best imagination. It is nothing but one relentlessly unstable system that is forever responding to its most unstable features at any given time. There is no grand destiny built into it.

The ease with which it can create and destroy itself in part or in whole ought to be profoundly unsettling to those who believe in the larger purpose to not just the earth but everything that surrounds us in the universe. I never believed in the school of thought that attributes a larger purpose to our existence and, as I grow older, I do even less.

The near drought-like conditions that many parts of America are experiencing merely tell me that the earthly climate does whatever it needs to to respond and adjust to the conditions prevailing at a particular point. It pays no attention to what its consequences might be for the glorious sentient life that envelops it. It can never be an equal or emotional relationship between the planet and those who live on and off it. For instance, unremittingly beautiful flowers can wither in a matter of hours because of the heat wave and the earth will be none the sadder for it.

Respect is not mutual in the earth-life equation in the sense that simply because we respect and even worship nature there is no guarantee that she will return the gesture. It is because the general time scale over which things unfold is so vast that we mistakenly attribute a degree of permanence to it all. One can always say that for all practical purposes we do live on a planet that is by and large stable in relation to individual life spans. However, there is no unique reason that in those individual life spans something enormously disruptive cannot happen which is big enough to change the course of this planet in a very real sense.

The fundamental point of this odd rumination is that the earth does what it does without any particular regard for what it may mean for sentient life. That truth has to hold everywhere in the universe as well. The destiny of the universe is not necessarily to conceive life and then do its absolute best to sustain it and ensure that it attains a higher level of existence. To put it succinctly, the universe does not give a damn about our feelings and aspirations. It does what it does because that’s all it can do.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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