The sixth extinction.

Humanity as a catastrophe to other species if not itself.

Man is the cause of the sixth mass extermination of species in the history of this planet. It goes on daily. There is no program to identify and describe all species. We have no idea how many life forms there are. Many creatures are disappearing without ever having been discovered.

The vast evolutionary experiment all around us is a unique and irreplacable lesson in life's potential, which we are ignorantly trampling over. Nature is our teacher in the foods and medicines of plants but is also ignored at our peril. Mankind might become its own victim, too.

Such is the message of a publication in 1995, by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin: The Sixth Extinction. Biodiversity and its survival.

Richard Leakey speaks as a practical conservationist ( of the hard-pressed elephants in Kenya ) as well as a modern theorist radically qualifying classical Darwinism.
Bible-inspired Catastrophism has come back into prominence. Darwinian evolution is by gradual change, thru inherited small advantages in adapting to the environment. But environmental catastrophes cause indiscriminate mass extinctions. Survival then depends on wider distribution of groups of species ( or clades ) which fare better no matter how many species they contain. Smaller creatures are less vulnerable than large.

As disasters reduce evolution from a question of good genes to good luck, so ecology may also be so radically disturbed that 'the balance of nature' gives way to the unpredictable fluctuations in population dynamics that chaos theory shows can lead to a complete collapse of the eco-system.

Island ecology has been compared to rain-forest fragmentation to find the relation between the size of an area and the number of species. It has been empiricly found that the number of species doubles for every ten-fold increase in area. Thus leaving isolated conservation areas, in a sea of agriculture, may not be enough to save many species.

In february 2004, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said $25 billion more a year was needed to establish a working system of protected areas for wild life. The record of the developed countries is "appalling" and they were just dragging their feet.

Also, there is a humpty-dumpty effect that prevents eco-systems being put together again, once disbanded. Jim Drake found it is not enough to co-habit a community of species again, in whatever order was tried. To reach a persistent state, an eco-system had to pass thru a whole range of stages.

Humanity is the greatest catastrophic agent since an asteroid wiped out half of earth's species, sixty-five million years ago. This time the explosion is the human population explosion.

By not recognising other life forms, we are saying they are not important enough. It is a mistake of human pride before an ecological fall. Or, for that matter, a moral failure from a religious fall. Biologists, and the community of scientists in general, are having to become like Biblical prophets warning of the catastrophic crash awaiting the human population explosion. The eco-system may not be able to adapt in time to rapid global warming, disrupting its stability on which survival depends, with chaotic and unpredictable results.

Not to mention the stock-piles for biological warfare, there are natural air-borne viruses, for which there is no known cure, virulent to humans as well as other animals. These natural threats exist in the wild, like pandemic accidents waiting to happen. Ebola belongs to the hanta group of viruses, causing hemorrhagic fevers that kill at rates of 80% in a few days. This is what happened in 1545 in Mexico, leaving 12 to 15 million dead, after a great drought. ( Ebola may have killed more than half the chimpanzees and gorillas in much of central Africa. ) Virus carriers such as mice spread the disease as they concentrate at water holes. When the rains return, their population explodes and other species contract the disease from breathing the dust, where their droppings are found.
Thus, the unstable swings between drought and flood caused by global warming and deforestation may expose human and other life to the full force of such disease 'time bombs'.

Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine ( in the British Medical Journal, february 2004 ) said many animal experiments may do little to treat human disease. Much research is poorly conducted and evaluated and in need of systematic review before new experiments. This was a boost for animal rights activists. A counter-attack, the same day, came from the Royal Society but that isnt in the name of a specialist body.

In october 2003, the animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming sought to have modern chicken breeding and rearing outlawed by the High Court. Giving free range was the more humane practise of animal husbandry.

Not having the respect to learn from life's diversity is akin to ignoring human rights. Neglecting the quality of life and education for all diminishes all humanity by failing to promote everyone's abilities and forcing or habituating many into a parasitic existence on their fellows.

Natural causes of extinction and their human promotion.

The sixth extinction is a new kind of extinction in that it is caused mainly by the invasive effect of a single species ( man ) on others, under-mining the life-support system between life forms, that is the ecology. But man is not the only threat to survival of life on earth.

Asteroids have already been mentioned. They have certainly hit earth before with more or less devastating effect. Current technology could not prevent the more unfortunate scenarios of a major asteroid strike. The problems of interception were, if anything, under-estimated by recent disaster movies on the subject. Asteroids are hard to spot because small. Some are dark and simply may not be seen. Some orbits, a sling-shot from the sun maybe, make it hard to see them coming with enough notice. No doubt, granted technical progress, the situation would become more hopeful, when the next big strike comes.

Time is of the essence, with regard to another repeated natural catastrophe. The statistics of volcanic eruptions shows that Earth is over-due for the big one. That is an earth explosion, probably from somewhere in the Pacific Ocean's volcanic rim, sending shock waves and tidal waves around the globe, and blotting out the sun's rays with an ashen layer of clouds for years on end. Crops would fail and animate life starve, including an estimated loss of one billion of the earth's current six billion people.

A volcanic eruption is believed to have almost exterminated mankind. Genetics show that the human race is all descended from no more than a few thousand survivors, from pre-historic times. The worst known explosion caused 100km crater, 74,000 years ago at Toba in northern Sumatra, enveloping the planet in a "volcanic winter". The regularity of the geyser "Old Faithful" in Yellowstone National Park, has been compared to the ticking of a volcanic time bomb, geology shows is over-due, for one of its regular mega-blasts, that would put an end to much of human and other life.

95% of active volcanoes are by the sea or on island chains. Seasonal shifts in sea levels can stress the earth's crust enough to raise the incidence of eruptions. Bill McGuire's team of European scientists showed, in a study of the huge sea level changes of the last ice age, that more explosive blasts occurred when sea levels were changing most rapidly, either up or down. He warned that this was likely to be the effect of global warming's raising the sea level in the coming century. ( Life. The Guardian 6 may 2004. )

Warmer oceans could also act to release the West Antarctic ice shelf raising sea levels ten times the predicted increase. The sheet only rests on submerged islands, and some are volcanic with clear water over them, whose eruptions could help dislodge the shelf. Stephen Schneider says it has happened before and could happen again but no-body is quite sure when. Often under-water, volcanoes or earthquakes or the masses, they may dislodge into the sea, set up tsunamis.

If and when this happens, Geohazards professor Bill McGuire ( on 12 october 2000 ) said "the human race will face the greatest natural catastrophe in its history." That is, presumably, unless an other geohazard gets there first.

The tsunami was popularised ( if that's the right word ) in the SF movie The Day After Tomorrow.Sunday Times reviewer Cosmo Landesman said:

Unfortunately, this film also wants to be a post-9/11 tribute to survival and the human spirit, when it should be an unabashed tribute to human stupidity.

The biggest danger may be from climatic chain reactions. In particular, natural causes of extinction could be promoted by humans. Obviously, if the Earth is filled to capacity with human populations, there is not going to be much room for millions of people to move away from disaster areas, thru flood, fire, drought, disease, crop failure etc. Even in a period of natural stability, human conflicts over territory are serious and threatening enough.

Another instance, of the need for territorial safety margins, is the natural history of sudden climatic changes, which puzzled palaeontologists. Evidence has correlated these changes with shifts in the direction of ocean currents. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream have switched many times from their crossing the North Atlantic Ocean round Northern Europe.

Over the recent past, a twenty per cent decrease in current speed has been estimated. Global warming is causing the Arctic ice sheet and Greenland glaciers to melt and swelling the great Arctic-bound Siberian rivers to dump huger quantities of fresh water into the stream. This slows down and makes sink earlier the heavier salty water warmed in the south. This would cut short the Gulf Stream's conveyor belt motion that continually re-supplies the shores of north-west Europe with warm water.

This energy warmth is worth a million power station's output to the British Isles. Its loss would give the region a climate like Canada's at the same latitude. A country like Ireland, which retains its reduced post-famine population from the nineteenth century, should be able to sustain its population under a greatly reduced growing season. That is provided the Irish population does not greatly increase. The French government's Napoleonic delusions are pursuing a subsidised population expansion policy, likely to prove unfortunate. When the Gulf Stream might stop is not known. In 2004, on the BBC's Horizon, scientists' best guess was in maybe fifty years, possibly as soon as twenty years. They dont know whether the change would be gradual or as without warning as a switch.

A sudden change would be beyond the capacity of vegetation to adapt. It would be a crash in life-support systems. Britain's sixty millions or more people already cannot feed themselves. The loss of the Gulf Stream would surround the island with icebergs. Like The Titantic, sinking without half enough lifeboats, Britain would not have half enough arable land to support its population.

These climatic changes are not just local problems. Soil-depth readings have shown that direction changes, in the Gulf Stream and its warm moist air, have also coincided with the desertifying of the globe's equatorial rain-forests, the oxygen-producing lungs of the planet. The Hadley Centre forecasts that global warming will kill off tropical forests to such an extent that instead of soaking up carbon dioxide they will add more to the atmosphere than all the power stations and cars of the past 30 years.

Climatologists believe that the switch to a runaway global warming that happened 55 million years ago may be repeated under present conditions, that threaten mass releases of methane, from under the permafrost of warming Siberia and from crystal structures on continental shelves destabilised by warming oceans. This caused a mass extinction comparable to the end of the dinosaurs, 10 million years previously. Ocean modeler, Stefan Rahmstorf says, more recently, North Africa turned from a swamp into a desert in a few years. ( Fred Pearce, "Nature plants doomsday devices", The Guardian, 26 november 1998. )

Lack of democracy results in injustice, ignorance and incompetance.

As well as causing global warming, 200 years of fossil fuel energy has also supported a much larger human population than normal. "If you plot the logarithm of the body sizes of mammals against the log of the population density, you get an inverse relationship...that bigger animals occur at lower densities than smaller ones." ( Tim Radford, The Guardian, 22 july 2004. ) Instead of well over 6 billion humans, there would be one or two million, compared to roughly the same numbers of one or two varieties of chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utan. There are perhaps more than 400,000 great apes but human population increases by that amount every two days. The great apes and many other species are being squeezed out of existence: "humans and their livestock now consume 40% of the planet's primary production, and the planet's other seven million species must scramble for the rest." That includes about 4000 types of mammal.

Fatal problems may be caused by one climatic change. But many such changes are possible, inter-acting in ways too complex to understand. One moral is that too many people dont have enough room on the planet to save themselves whenever nature comes up with unpleasant surprises. Tim Radford and Paul brown say:

After years of argument, not least from the Bush White House, it is hard to find a politician on the planet who does not agree with these basic scientific facts and the danger that they pose. The problem remains getting the international political will together to do something about it - both to prevent the situation getting rapidly worse and coping with the problems we have already created.

Science or knowledge has more to offer than just ecology in promoting the political will to save the eco-system. The so-called political will may not be representative of the public will after informed debate has taken place. That is to say a dictatorship is more liable to make mistakes than a parliamentary democracy. Science and democracy, properly understood, are one learning process, by which genuine progress can be made.

The eco-system is already being recklessly ravaged by commerce and threatened by escalating wars. The US department of Energy figures show that the United States and Australia emit most carbon but many other countries are not far behind and catching up. The American "Union of Concerned Scientists" ( ) has protested against government obstruction of environmental health research.

Tho the US and Australian governments defied the Kyoto protocol, the Russian government signed the treaty making up the number of industrialised nations needed for the treaty to become international law.

The Environment Agency ( 30 july 2003 ) said higher fines related to company turn-over and more prosecutions are needed to stop firms polluting. Some of Britain's biggest and best known firms are repeat offenders: one-fifth of fined firms in 2002.

For decades farmers have been allowed to get away with spraying pesticides up to people's hedges, because voluntary talks, to farmers not to do it, just dont work. People are not informed and feed-back is lacking. Georgina Downs' family suffered twenty years of induced illness. She prepared a case costing her thousands of pounds and taking three years. The Sunday Telegraph ( 8 august 2004 ) reported that Britain's minister for rural affairs was "satisfied that the protection afforded to the public was perfectly adequate...citing for his support the views of a man who had not seen the evidence which prompted the inquiry in the first place." Also in august, a report came out on a big increase in brain-related illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease.

These David and Goliath campaigns, by such as Miss Downs, are wholly admirable but no substitute for changing the constitutional rules of the game to an effective political and economic democracy. Indeed, such people would have a realistic chance of becoming representatives ( with the voter-centered electoral system I keep mentioning ) as well as having genuine representatives of policy and economy, respectively in the political and economic houses of parliament.

The Bush presidency refused to sign the Kyoto treaty for globally reducing greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. So, the Inuit people of the Arctic are making a pioneering effort to hold the US government legally responsible for violating their human rights. Another faraway people, marginalised by the march of "progress", say "America's refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol will affect the entire security and freedom of future generations of Tuvaluans." In certain coral islands, little more than 20 inches above the level of the South Pacific, ever more often, the sea wells up thru the porous rocks to submerge their land. ( Mark Lynas, The Observer 5 october 2003. )

Worldwatch Institute of US researchers say one quarter of the world's population have entered the consumer class and enjoy life that used to belong to the rich. This will soon include more people in China than the USA. With it come the draw-backs of the West's poor quality of life, the impoverished and polluted environment, unsustainable devouring of natural resources, stressful demand on time, diet and transport problems. Just one in three Americans say they are very happy, the same as in 1957, when the US was half as wealthy.
The king of Bhutan seeks not to promote gross national product but gross national happiness!

Tokyo' United Nations University, in 2004, warned of a warmer and wetter world with more storms, rising sea levels, deforestation, increasing population. In 50 years, this should see major flooding affect twice as many, or 2 billion people. The UN World Water development report, in march 2003, predicts 7 billion could face water shortage, on average a fall of one third over 20 years. Every day, 6000 children under five die from diseases linked to dirty water.

The Democracy Center's letter from Latin America explained how a transnational firm's privatisation of water resulted in charge hikes that the poor could not pay, causing a revolt that was put down with casualties. The ousted transnational then moved a multi-million lawsuit against the third world country. Papers leaked to the BBC ( 25 february 2003 ) suggest the European Union is pressuring some of the world's poorest countries to let multi-nationals take over their basic assets, privatising water and electricity companies. The World Development Movement says this is their real intention despite EU claims they do not want to privatise state-owned firms.

16 october 2003, World Food Day, the UN special investigator on the right to food reported that the number going hungry increased from 815 million in 2001 to 840 million in 2002. A child dies from the effects of hunger every 7 seconds. Every 4 seconds, someone goes blind for lack of vitamin A. This is an "outrage" in a world with enough food. In the same month, UNICEF reported that one billion children in the developing world, more than half its population are severely deprived. 647 million are in absolute poverty.
Perhaps, the greatest wasted resource is human intelligence. With global electronic communications, it would be possible also to educate every child thru media like the internet. They would have ideas we never thought of and skills we lack, that would be invaluable to all mankind.

In april 2004, BBC World tv asked 1500 viewers the most important problems: 52% said US power and large corporations; corruption; 50% wars and terrorism; 49% hunger; 44% climate change; 38% illiteracy. In march 2004, the campaign group Global Witness said laws should compel firms to disclose pay to governments. There is a global epidemic of financial scandals. Billions go unaccounted-for in some of the world's poorest countries, especially in Africa. Collusion, of oil and mining companies with governments, for rich natural resources, acts like a curse to keep the locals in poverty.

As the poor are left in more poverty, the rich seem to attract riches. A whistle-blower alleged bribes paid by Britain's biggest defence company to rich buyers to win big contracts. ( The Sunday Times 25 july 2004. ) Since 2002, departments and enforcement agencies received more than 20 such allegations of corruption over-seas, albeit that may be the way things are done with the customers in question. 

A G8 Summit of leaders from the most powerful national economies, to discuss Third World poverty, was conducted on "European Vision" - not a policy but a luxury liner. The previous year's bill was £500 million. The cost for 2001 could have been far in excess of £100 million. Gordon Rayner ( Daily Mail, 21 july 2001 ) reported:

This is the equivalent of the combined annual national debt repayments of Malawi, Mali, Mozambique and Burkina Faso. It is double the entire health budget of Tanzania, which has a massive Aids crisis - one of the subjects on the agenda...

 Recent figures suggest that if all Third World debts were cancelled and repayment money was spent on healthcare, clean water and education instead, the lives of 19,000 children per day would be saved.

Aid workers have found out that such a beneficial switch of resources does not happen sometimes without making themselves highly unpopular and getting thrown out of work. Peter Griffiths, working for the World Bank, found that a free market model economy was being imposed on poor countries such as Sierra Leone that were not ready for it. Seven months previously, the World Bank had forced the country onto a floating exchange rate, which collapsed the value of its currency. Free market traders would not import rice that people could not pay for, even when the currency was ten times its current value. The withdrawal of rice subsidies would lead straight to famine.

 Moreover: "Third World governments frequently fire consultants, saying that they are incompetant or that they cannot get on with the locals. The real reason is usually that they are about to expose corruption, or the misuse of aid money." Aid organisers, politicians, civil servants, marketing board officials earn personal commissions from the buying and selling of grain in a famine.

It's so much easier to blame a solitary whistle-blower. The country cannot afford to fall out with some wealthy global organisation. Griffiths ( The Observer 31 august 2003 ) remembered:

I knew - everybody in the aid industry knew - that only five years earlier Steve Lombard had prevented a famine in Tanzania. He had had to put all he had into this, tapping all his contacts around the world, because officials refused to act. The Tanzanians insisted that the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation fire him. FAO, the World Bank and the aid community did nothing to protect him. He was indignant, furious, betrayed. Over the next three years he drank himself to death.

The disasters that dictatorships bring upon people are well documented. A recent example, which confirms a depressing trend thru-out the world, was President Suharto's plan to make Indonesia self-sufficient in rice again. He ignored scientific advice that using canals to drain Kalimantan's peat swamp forest would be "an ecological and economic catastrophe". ( Fred Pearce, "Borneo's chainsaw massacre", The Guardian 18 february 1999. ) Forest clearing was controlled by "Mafia-style organisations", the chainsaw being "a license to print money." The results were uncontrolled fires spreading especially along the dried canal banks - there was a mass wearing of smog masks - and uncontrolled floods, that drowned plants and lost livelihoods, and endangered the main habitat for the orang-utan. Also at risk are sun bears, clouded leopards, 30 other mammal and 150 bird species as well as "plants and fish seen nowhere else." With the collapse of its currency, Indonesia has been selling off its priceless natural assets. The release of the carbon from tropical peat swamps could add critically to global warming. And the peat has no minerals to grow rice.

When Suharto ceremonially harvest the first rice crop, nothing had grown. So officials transplanted rice from elsewhere to fool him.

That is the classic consequence of autocratic rule. The intolerance of opposition and criticism is compounded by fear to admit to "the great teacher" that his plan has gone wrong. His underlings dont want to be punished for incompetance, that he would never admit was his own. 

This is an old story. Max Prangnell, Cal McCrystal and Hege Duckert reported ( in The Sunday Times, 11 september 1988 ) reported that

a combination of human ignorance, greed, poverty and inertia has thrown the ( Himalayas water ) machine out of control. Growing populations with an increasing need for food and livelihood are stripping the forests from the habitable areas on the southern slopes, increasing the frequency and devastating power of the floods...
Some environmentalists claim that at least one plant or animal species becomes extinct every half hour...
Tropical forests are the main dispensary of raw materials for medicines. One recent study, for instance, showed that 70% of the 3000 plants identified by the US National Cancer Institute as having anti-cancer properties come from rain forests.

Lost and forgotten Amazonian civilisation, wiped out by disease from Iberian conquerors, was recently found to have developed a renewable agriculture. The lack of this, in the past few thousand years, has been largely responsible for the relentless desertification of the planet from the early middle eastern to modern western civilisation. Found around formerly settled "jungle", "Terra preta" or "dark earth" is, unlike the usual yellow earth, mixed with organic semi-burnt charcoal, retaining minerals during rains. Unlike the ruinous nomadic slash and burn agriculture, terra preta is thought to have a bacterial basis that allows it to reproduce itself from leaf fall 20 years after being mined. BBC Horizon ( 20 december 2002 ) says this property is being researched to produce sustainable agriculture in the third world. They might have added the old and new worlds as possible beneficiaries.

It would be wise, as well as just, to educate the skill and ingenuity of the whole world: "educational democracy" if you like, as well as political and economic democracy. Power and wealth, controled by the few, promote ignorance of the needs and abilities of the many people, who would confer greater benefit to all.

Richard Lung.
autumn 2004

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