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We Are Living in Extraordinary Times

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I have been thinking lately that we live in a highly unusual time.  But because we have no direct experience of any other time in history than our own lifetimes, it is natural to look around us and assume that what we see is normal.  And if it’s normal, then it must be okay.

But what is happening around us on our planet these days is far from normal.  And it’s far from okay.  

For example, amphibians, mammals, birds, and other animals are disappearing rapidly, at a rate far higher than normal. Scientists tell us that a major cause of these current extinctions is the changing climate. Habitat loss and habitat degradation are also playing a role.

Despite these alarming losses of fauna, I find that many people do not grasp the enormity of it. When I talk with others about the great number of species that have gone-or are going-extinct as a result of climate disruption, I am often met with a shrug, and “well, there have always been extinctions.”

Even knowing that today’s extinctions are abnormally numerous, I was shocked recently to learn that the current rate of extinctions is SO high that scientists are calling our time “the Sixth Extinction.” In other words, current extinction rates are comparable to the five major waves of extinctions the planet has experienced in its entire 4.5 billion year history!

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, introduced me to the term ‘background extinction rate.’ This is the term biologists use to describe the rate of extinctions that would occur naturally, if human impact were not a factor.

The background extinction rate for amphibians, reports Kolbert, would be about one species lost every 1,000 years. Yet I know of at least three frog species that have gone extinct in just the last few years.  

And the background extinction rate for mammals?  One mammal lost every 700 years.  Yet so many mammals have been lost during  just the last decade-the Baiji dolphin and the Pyrenean ibex to name just two. And so many more are on the brink- at least three rhinoceros species, two seal species, the Asian elephant.  And many, many more will soon likely disappear forever.

I find these numbers staggering, and, frankly, nauseating.  The background extinction rates for amphibians and mammals are so low that most humans should not experience the disappearance of an amphibian or a mammal in their lifetime.  Yet how frequently we hear of some animal that has left us forever or is hovering on the edge.  Tragically, such news is commonplace for those of us living today. It seems normal to live with mounting losses of our fellow creatures.

Tragically, we fail to understand the significance of what we see, and what we don’t see. I think of a passage in Mary Pipher’s invaluable book THE GREEN BOAT. Pipher relays this report from a California tour guide: “Twenty years ago, when I took tourists out, we saw around 300 blue sharks a day. The tourists loved it and were excited. Ten years ago, we saw 10 a day and my customers loved that too. Now it can take three days to spot a blue shark, but people still come out and are thrilled if they see one.”

It weighs heavily on me that we humans are so focused on ourselves and our own needs and desires  that we are depriving many of our fellow species the ability simply to live.

Amphibians, mammals, and other animals may be paying a high price now for our huge human population and our addiction to climate warming activities. But we humans will soon be paying a high price as well. As the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson once said, “No creature can win against its environment for long.”-April Moore