Paleontology. A sense of cyclicity, a hyperopic perspective. A perspective from which to speculate about mass extinctions. Side by side with the long boom, the mass extinction? There have been plenty of mass extinctions before, at least half a dozen big ones in the last 600 million years, where anywhere from one-third to nearly all of the earth’s then existing species were lost.
What makes species become extinct? Five key factors: (1) habitat destruction, (2) habitat fragmentation, (3) overkill, i.e., over-hunting and over-harvesting, (4) invasive species, and (5) cascading effects. Of these, invasive species appears poised to be the biggest contributor to the imminent a die-out of somewhere between 35% and 95% of the earth’s current biological diversity.
Why are invasive species, weedy species, taking over the ecosystems of the planet, and killing everything in their path? It´s not a result of the information age, but rather because of an earlier revolution, the transportation revolution. With inter-ocean trade via ship, and now via air, species are deliberately and unintentionally being deposited from every corner to every corner of the planet.
Weedy species share the following characteristics (1) they reproduce quickly, (2) disperse widely, (3) tolerate a broad range of habitats, (4) resist eradication. Where these species become established, they kill off native species, monopolizing the ecosystem. They thrive in human dominated terrains. Wherever they go, they tend to survive and then they crowd out native species.
The October 1998 issue of Harper´s Magazine has an excellent, though dark toned, article entitled “Planet of Weeds, Tallying the Losses of Earth´s Animals and Plants,” by David Quammen. Much of the above information came from that article. But of what use was the dark tone? Why not hedge every dark assessment of our global environmental prospect with constructive ideas? What can we do?
Though to say so is to risk being branded a luddite, a malthusian, a gloom & doomer, and worse, the weediest species the earth has ever seen is homosapiens. We reproduce quickly, disperse widely, are extremely adaptable, and tend to survive the exigencies of nature quite well, wherever we settle.
All the primary causes of species extinction, destruction of habitat, fragmentation of habitat, over-hunting and over-harvesting, are due to an expanding human population. Even though in the developed nations populations are now stable, because of barely checked growth rates in the rest of the world the total human population is going to nearly double in the next fifty years, to around 11 billion, before leveling off.
Barring a true catastrophe, such as being hit by an asteroid ten kilometers in diameter, or a real live version of the Andromeda Strain, most of the human race will survive.
What quality of life will the human race experience, and what quality of global ecosystem will the human race inhabit? Those are the questions we must ask ourselves about the period one or two centuries from now – a mere heartbeat in the history of our species, but easily the most profound and abrupt shift ever in our collective circumstances.
Constructive ideas should include new ideas. New ideas should allow new freedoms. Human technology has conquered nature at last. The set of traits most important for human survival and prosperity has been suddenly rearranged. With the strength needed for the hunt less important now than the ability to manipulate symbolic logic, it is only logical that the human female will ascend to a position of equity in human society. To put it mildly, our society doesn’t require physical strength in the measure it once did. The more developed a society is technologically, the more this becomes the case.
Consequently, nothing will advance the wealth of developing nations, and slow their population growth, nearly as effectively as helping to speed the emancipation of women. Their education, their equal access to opportunity; the empowerment of women. Needless to say, this phenomenon, though not as speedy as some would like, is inescapable and ineluctable, and is encountering some vehement resistance.
Imagine our planet one century from now, full of organic farms, new forests with billions of trees, clean, fresh water, and fewer people. Perhaps the New Age Californians are right, a “shift” is occuring, as the feminine principal ascends. Solar homes, hydrogen buses, sustainable societies. The feminine principal can help bring our technology back into harmony with nature.
Maybe one can conclude, Spocklike, that we are simply experiencing a predictable transition period, one that would affect any species like ours, living on an M-class planet. Barring star travel (which has its own pitfalls, such as Borg, the weediest species imaginable), here and now, this epic, these next fifty years, is where we define our biological endowment for the next thousand millenia.
Is this all overwrought gobbledegoop? Paleo-babble? Arcane trekkie aphorisms? Of course, but the question remains: Are we to be the weediest species of all? Living on a planet of weeds? Or will we celebrate ecological diversity, instead, in the year twenty-five twenty-five.