Resurrecting extinct species might come at a terrible cost

https://phys.org/news/2017-02-resurrecting-extinct-species-terrible.html

February 27, 2017
Resurrecting extinct species might come at a terrible cost
A Lord Howe Island woodhen Gallirallus sylvestris. Credit: Toby Hudson

Bringing back extinct species could lead to biodiversity loss rather than gain, according to work featuring University of Queensland researchers.

UQ scientist Professor Hugh Possingham said the research suggested further stretching already-strained budgets to cover the costs of de-extinction could endanger extant species (species still in existence).

“If the risk of failure and the costs associated with establishing viable populations could also be calculated, estimates of potential net losses or missed opportunities would probably be considerably higher,” Professor Possingham said.

“De-extinction could be useful for inspiring new science and could be beneficial for conservation if we ensure it doesn’t reduce existing conservation resources.

“However, in general it is best if we focus on the many species that need our help now.”

“Given the considerable potential for missed opportunity, and risks inherent in assuming a resurrected species would fulfil its role as an ecosystem engineer or flagship species, it is unlikely that de-extinction could be justified on grounds of biodiversity conservation.”

The study was led by Dr Joseph Bennett, formerly of the ARC Centre for Environmental Decisions at UQ and now of Carleton University, Canada.

It analysed the number of species governments in New Zealand and New South Wales could afford to conserve.

“We based cost estimates on recently extinct species and similar extant species,” Dr Bennett said.

The Lord Howe pigeon, eastern bettong, bush moa and Waitomo frog were among the extinct species included in calculations.

The researchers found reintroducing some recently extinct species to their old habitats might improve biodiversity locally, but government-funded conservation for 11 focal in New Zealand would sacrifice conservation for nearly three times as many (31) extant species.

External funding for conservation of the five focal extinct NSW species could instead be used to conserve more than eight times as many (42) extant species.

Although the technology for de-extinction is still some way off, the research found that careful thought would be required about what to reintroduce, and where.

Professor Possingham is Chief Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation, and a scientist with UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, The Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at UQ, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-02-resurrecting-extinct-species-terrible.html#jCp

North America’s skeleton crew of megafauna

Proc.Royal Soc.B:Biological Sciences  January 11 2017
 
What North America’s skeleton crew of megafauna tells us about community disassembly
Matt Davis
 
Abstract
 
Functional trait diversity is increasingly used to model future changes in community structure despite a poor understanding of community disassembly’s effects on functional diversity. By tracking the functional diversity of the North American large mammal fauna through the End-Pleistocene megafaunal extinction and up to the present, I show that contrary to expectations, functionally unique species are no more likely to go extinct than functionally redundant species. This makes total functional richness loss no worse than expected given similar taxonomic richness declines. However, where current species sit in functional space relative to pre-anthropogenic baselines is not random and likely explains ecosystem functional changes better than total functional richness declines. Prehistoric extinctions have left many extant species functionally isolated and future extinctions will cause even more rapid drops in functional richness.

How to Avoid Stephen Hawking’s Dark Prediction for Humanity

http://www.livescience.com/56926-stephen-hawking-humanity-extinct-1000-years.html

Stephen Hawking thinks humanity has only 1,000 years left of survival on Earth and that our species needs to colonize other planets.

The famed physicist made the statement in a speech at Oxford University Union, in which he promoted the goal of searching for and colonizing Earth-like exoplanets. Developing the technology to allow humans to travel to and live on faraway alien worlds is a challenge, to say the least. But is Hawking right that humanity has only 1,000 years to figure it out?

The dangers Hawking cited — from climate change, to nuclear weapons, to genetically engineered viruses — could indeed pose existential threats to our species, experts say, but predicting a millennium into the future is a murky business.

“While I respect Stephen Hawking enormously, speculating on how long Homo sapiens will survive before extinction is foolish,” said John Sterman, director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative. “Whether we survive and thrive or descend into chaos is not something to predict or lay odds on, but a choice to be made.” [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth]

If climate change continues apace, it will likely lead to a great deal of friction for the human species.

“There may be incredible amounts of food and water stress in some regions; combined with sea-level rise, this will lead to massive numbers of environmental refugees — enough to make the Syrian diaspora seem simple to absorb,” said Shawn Marshall, a professor of geography and a climate change researcher at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Humanity is surviving now only by depleting the planet’s natural resources and poisoning its environment, Sterman told Live Science. The nonprofit Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity uses up the resources of 1.5 Earths each year, essentially overdrawing from the planet’s natural bank account. The problems of sustainability can’t wait 1,000 years, Sterman said.

“Whether we can prevent damaging climate change, and the broader issue of whether we can learn to live within the limits of our finite world, will likely be determined this century,” he said.

Emmanuel Vincent, a research scientist at the University of California, Merced and founder of the outreach organization Climate Feedback, echoed the call to make sustainable decisions now.

“It is important to remind [people] that one cannot predict whether a catastrophic event will wipe out humans within the next thousand years,” Vincent told Live Science. “What Hawking is doing here is speculating on the risk that this will happen, and he estimates that the probability of extinction is high. While I agree that this is possible, I would like to emphasize that this primarily depends on how we manage to prevent such catastrophic outcome as a society.” [7 Iconic Animals Humans Are Driving to Extinction]

This doesn’t mean humans will necessarily go extinct if we make poor choices. Climate-wise, the planet is currently about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than preindustrial averages, Marshall said. (The past year has set multiple modern heat records.)

In comparison, temperatures during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods were about 10 degrees C (18 F) warmer than preindustrial averages, or about 25 degrees C (45 F) compared with today’s 16 degrees C (29 F), Marshall said. Yet life was quite abundant at that time, he told Live Science.

“It would be a habitable but rather different world,” he said. “We’ll run out of fossil fuels before we evaporate the oceans away.”

So humans probably won’t manage to actually bake themselves in an oven made of greenhouse gases, though tropical areas may become too hot for habitation, Vincent said. The real question is whether humans would be able to handle the upheaval that climate change would bring as coastlines vanish, diseases spread and weather patterns change.

“On its own, I don’t see how climate change would lead to human extinction,” Marshall said. “It would have to be through the social unrest triggering nuclear warfare, or some other societal implosion as a result of the environmental degradation.”

Already, there are warning signs beyond warming temperatures. About half of global wildlife has been wiped out over the past 50 years, Vincent said. The situation is serious enough that many scientists believe the planet is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction.

“Anyone who thinks we can solve these problems by colonizing other worlds has been watching too much ‘Star Trek,'” Sterman said. “We must learn to live sustainably here, on the one planet we have, and there is no time to lose.”

Original article on Live Science.

We have 20 years — at the very most — to prevent mass extinction

http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/27/opinions/sutter-wwf-sixth-extinction/index.html

Updated 7:04 PM ET, Thu October 27, 2016

(CNN)The Earth’s next mass extinction — the first caused by people — is on the horizon. And the consequences are almost unthinkably dire: Three-quarters of species could disappear.

This has happened only five times in the planet’s history — including the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs.
What’s different now is that humans are causing these changes.
How? Well, we’re burning fossil fuels and consequently heating up the planet; turning massive chunks of land into farms; spreading invasive species and diseases around the world; boosting our own numbers and consuming more and more resources; and causing all sorts of trouble for the oceans, from overfishing to filling them up with plastic. (Did you know researchers expect the ocean to beequal parts fish and plastic, by weight, as soon as 2050?)
This subject certainly is alarming, especially when you consider the global picture.
Another frightening data point in this trend toward extinction emerged on Thursday in a report from the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental advocacy group. The report claims 58% declines in certain vertebrate animal populations since 1970 and says that if trends continue, then two-thirds of all of these individual birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals will be gone by 2020.
Vaquita porpoise nearing extinction

Vaquita porpoise nearing extinction 01:53
Some scientists see those numbers as potentially misleading. Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke chair of conservation ecology at Duke University, told me that 58% is “a fairly silly kind of number to report because it mixes what’s going on in the ocean with what’s going on in the land.” He continued, “It mixes studies of bird populations in Europe with mammal populations in Africa. It has very few data points in South America. The idea that you in the media can only handle a single number to summarize the state of the planet — you should be insulted by that.”
I agree with Pimm that these numbers can be misleading, but that’s only if people misunderstand them. I also spoke with Anthony Barnosky, executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve at Stanford University. He told me the most important thing to remember is that this report is limited in scope — it has little data from some important tropical regions, for example, and only covers animals with backbones. But it highlights an important and little-considered fact: It’s not just that species are going extinct at an alarming rate — at least 100 times what could be considered “normal,” and maybe much higher than that — but that populations of still-common animals are declining very rapidly.
“I don’t think I would quibble with the trend they’re pointing out — we’re losing individuals of species and geographic ranges at a really rapid rate,” he told me. “If you keep that up, extinction of lots of species is inevitable.”
Importantly, the WWF report deals with individual animals disappearing, not with entire species.
For first time in 100 years, tiger population growing

For first time in 100 years, tiger population growing 01:12
A mass extinction, by definition, means three-quarters of all species disappear.
That could happen in 100 or 200 years, Barnosky said, but not by 2020.
Don’t look at that figure and think we have time to count our blessings. Barnosky told me we have maybe 10 to 20 years to stop the sixth extinction from becoming an inevitability. If we do nothing, expect three-quarters of species to disappear over the next century or two. In other words, what we do (or don’t do) right now will shape generations on this planet.
“Yes, species are going extinct very, very much faster than they should be,” Pimm said, “which means we are depriving countless generations to come the extremely rich diversity we inherited from our parents.”
And others experts, including Paul Ehrlich, the Bing professor of population studies at Stanford University, say the sixth extinction is already here.
“We’ve probably lost, say, 200 species — kinds of big animals — over the last couple of hundred years, but we may well have lost on the order of a billion different populations,” he said. “We are basically annihilating the life on our planet and that is the only known life we know about in the entire universe. And it’s life that shaped the planet, that made it possible for us to live here. And it’s life that still makes it possible for us to live here. (If) we don’t have the diversity of other organisms, we’re done.”
Pimm told me we have “about a human generation” to do something before it’s likely too late.
Only four northern white rhinos are left

Only four northern white rhinos are left 01:10
“If we don’t start doing a lot of things to stop extinction, we are going to see very significant losses of species,” he said. “There are a lot of things we can do and I would rather concentrate on the positive (rather) than just wallow in this really appalling number” presented by the World Wildlife Fund.
“In the last 50 years, roughly, we’ve lost 50% of the individuals in these species,” Barnosky said. “If we lose another 50% in the next 50 years we’re down to 25% of the original. Basically, in a couple hundred years you’d have almost all of these species we’re talking about blinking out — if we keep going at that rate.”
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We know how to slow the rate of extinction. We need to ditch fossil fuels to blunt climate change. We need to protect more of the land and ocean on behalf of biodiversity. (The biologist E.O. Wilson has called for half of the world to be protected, a bold and exciting proposition.) We need to stop the spread of invasive species, and we’ve got to get a handle on illegal trades like that in ivory, which Barnosky said could wipe out Africa’s elephants in 20 years if poaching rates continue.
The first step, however, is waking up to the crisis and its monstrous scope.
“The best way to envision the sixth mass extinction,” he told me earlier this year, “is to look outside and then just imagine that three out of every four of the species that were common out there are gone.”
I’d rather imagine a world where we stop anything close to that from happening.

We have 20 years — at the very most — to prevent mass extinction

http://edition.cnn.com/2016/10/27/opinions/sutter-wwf-sixth-extinction

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013.
Photo @ Jim Robertson

Last Frog Of His Kind Dies Alone

By Stephen Messenger

https://www.thedodo.com/last-frog-of-his-kind-dies-2023519285.html?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share

The world is short one more species this week — and, sadly, others like it may be soon to follow.

WIKIPEDIAOn Wednesday, the Atlanta Zoo announced that a 12-year-old frog named Toughie, the last known Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog left in existence, had been found dead in the enclosure where he lived by himself.

Toughie was one of several frogs airlifted from his home in Central America in 2005, the year his kind was first discovered in the cloud forests of Panama. Biologists had hoped, by breeding them in captivity, to save their species from adeadly fungus-borne disease affecting amphibians after it was detected in the region.

Just two years later, Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frogs could no longer be found in the wild.

ATLANTA ZOODespite the best efforts, those breeding programs aimed at preserving frogs proved fruitless. By 2009, the last female Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog died in captivity, followed by another male in 2012. From that point forward, Toughie was all that was left.

Now, he is gone, too.

The loss of Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frogs is just the latest in what is considered an ongoing mass extinction of amphibians. In recent decades, more than a hundred amphibian species have been wiped out, with another 6,285 being at risk of extinction.

While the causes of this die-off are not fully understood, researchers believe human activity is in part to blame — through habitat destruction, pollution andenvironmental changes brought on by global warming.

Click here to learn more about issues impacting the world’s amphibians, and to find out how to help.

Mass Extinction: It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Dahr Jamail | Mass Extinction: It’s the End of the World as We Know It Monday, 06 July 2015 00:00
Written by
Dahr Jamail By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | Interview 

Mass Exctinction(Image: Death valley, ghostly visage via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO)

Guy McPherson is a professor emeritus of evolutionary biology, natural resources and ecology at the University of Arizona, and has been a climate change expert for 30 years. He has also become a controversial figure, due to the fact that he does not shy away from talking about the possibility of near-term human extinction.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

While McPherson’s perspective might sound like the stuff of science fiction, there is historical precedent for his predictions. Fifty-five million years ago, a 5-degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures seems to have occurred in just 13 years, according to a study published in the October 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A report in the August 2013 issue of Science revealed that in the near term, earth’s climate will change 10 times faster than during any other moment in the last 65 million years.

Truthout caught up with McPherson in Washington State, where he was recently on a lecture tour, sharing his dire analysis of how far along we already are regarding ACD.

Dahr Jamail: How many positive feedback loops have you identified up until now, and what does this ever-increasing number of them indicate?

Guy McPherson: I can’t quite wrap my mind around the ever-increasing number of self-reinforcing feedback loops. A long time ago, when there were about 20 of them, I believed evidence would accumulate in support of existing loops, but we couldn’t possibly identify any more. Ditto for when we hit 30. And 40. There are more than 50 now, and the hits keep coming. And the evidence for existing feedback loops continues to grow.

In addition to these positive feedback loops “feeding” within themselves, they also interact among each other. Methane released from the Arctic Ocean is exacerbated and contributes to reduced albedo [reflectivity of solar radiation by the ice] as the Arctic ice declines. Tack on the methane released from permafrost and it’s obvious we’re facing a shaky future for humanity.

You talk often about how when major industrial economic systems collapse, this will actually cause a temperature spike. Please explain, in layperson’s terms, how this occurs.

Industrial activity continually adds reflective particles into earth’s atmosphere. Particularly well known are sulfates produced by burning coal (“clean coal” has a lower concentration of sulfates than “dirty coal”). These particles reflect incoming sunlight, thus artificially cooling the planet.

These reflective particles constantly fall out of the atmosphere, but industrial activity continuously adds them, too. When industrial activity ceases, all the particles will fall out within a few days. As a result, earth will lose its “umbrella” and rapid warming of the planet will ensue. According to a 2011 paper by James Hansen and colleagues, the warming will add 1.2 plus or minus 0.2 degrees Celsius. Subsequent research indicates the conservative nature of this paper, suggesting termination of industrial activity will add a minimum of 1.4 degrees Celsius to the global average temperature.

What indicators are you seeing that show the possibility of major economic collapses in the near future?

We cannot sustain the unsustainable forever, and this version of civilization is the least sustainable of them all. It teeters on the brink, and many conservative voices have predicted economic collapse this year or next. According to a June 2012 report by David Korowicz for the Feasta group, a disruption of supply will trigger collapse of the world’s industrial economy in as little as three weeks.

The supply disruptions to which Korowicz refers include water, food and oil. We can add financial credit to the list. In other words, credit could dry up as it nearly did in late 2008. Or the bond markets could trigger hyperinflation. California could have insufficient water to grow enough food to support much of the US, and not long from now. The list goes on.

Go into detail about what you’re seeing as far as indications of abrupt climate change.

When I’m in the midst of a speaking tour, as I am now, I deliver a presentation approximately every day. Lately, I include a [different] indication of abrupt climate change [in] each presentation. In other words, I’ve been coming across evidence every day.

Recent examples include the June 19, 2015, paper in Science Advances: We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction. According to the abstract, the “sixth mass extinction is already under way.” The lead author, in an interview, said, “life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on.”

What are other factors you feel people should be aware of?

We’re in serious human-population overshoot. We’re driving to extinction at least 150 species each day. Nuclear power plants require grid-tied electricity, cooling water and people getting paychecks. Without all these, they melt down, thus immersing all life on earth in ionizing radiation.

There’s more. Much more. But all the evidence points toward our individual deaths and the extinction of our species in the near future.

But most importantly, we get to live now.

More: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31661-mass-extinction-it-s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it

also:

http://phys.org/news/2013-10-climate-geological-instant.html

Excerpts from the books “The Sixth Extinction”(s)

As longtime readers of this blog may remember, I’ve quoted from Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin’s 1996 book, The Sixth Extinction; Patterns of Life and the Future of Mankind. Now there’s another book titled The Sixth Extinction (subtitled An Unnatural Order) by Elizabeth Kolbert (sorry, no relation to Steven Colbert…).

Are humans the reason that this wonderful Earth and her inhabitants are all here? Are Homo sapiens the pinnacle of evolution? That and other questions of our evolution are discussed in the chapter “Human Impacts of the Past” in Leakey’s book. Here is a series of excerpts from that original book:

…“For instance, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-inventor of the theory of natural selection, believed that evolution had been working ‘for untold millions of years…slowly developing forms of life and beauty to culminate in man.’

“Until about a decade ago, most biologists did not feel uncomfortable with speaking of an increase in complexity as an outcome of evolution and using the term progress interchangeably with complexity. Recently, however, a certain nervousness has crept in, so it is now acceptable to talk about complexity, but not about progress. Progress, is it’s argued, implies some kind of mysterious innate tendency for improvement, and that is considered too mystical. …

“Gould was one of the most outspoken in denying progress, asserting that it is ‘a noxious, culturally imbedded, untestable, nonoperational idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.’

“The ability of the human species to inflict devastation on the natural world at the level of significant extinctions was for a long time thought to be a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. In Wallace’s time, biologists recognized that the swaths of European colonizations of the globe from the seventeenth century onward had left a trail of havoc in nature’s perceived harmony. Many held earlier colonizers, such as the Polynesians throughout the Pacific, to be blameless in this respect, and to have been part of that harmony. (Western sentiments toward technologically primitive societies had in fact swung dramatically, from their being crude and barbaric beasts to being Rousseauean noble savages.) But as Jared Diamond, a biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, had pointed out, many pre-European societies felt the same about their own forbearers.

Homo sapiens has become the most dominant species on Earth. Unfortunately, our impact is devastating, and if we continue to destroy the environment as we do today, half the world’s species will become extinct early in the next century.

[Again, this was written at the end of the twentieth century.]

“Even though Homo sapiens is destined for extinction, just like other species in history, we have an ethical imperative to protect nature’s diversity, not destroy it.

“Many people find it impossible to contemplate a time when Home sapiens would no longer exist, so they like to assume that we will break the biological rule and continue forever, or at least until our planet ceases to exist, billions of years from now, when its atmosphere is burned off by an expanding sun.

“The sixth extinction is similar to previous biological catastrophes in many ways. For instance, the most vulnerable species are those whose geographical distribution is limited, those in and near the tropics, and those with large body size. It is unusual in several ways, too, most particularly in that large numbers of plant species are being wiped out, which is unprecedented compared with past crises. But in the end, with passage of five, ten, or twenty million years, despite this and other distortions of the biota that will remain, rebound will occur. ‘On geologic scales, our planet will take care of itself and let time clear the impact of any human malfeasance,’ as Gould has put it. Why, then, if it matters not at all in the long run what we do while we are here, should we concern ourselves with the survival of species that, like us, will eventually be no more?

“We should be concerned because, special though we are in many ways, we are merely an accident of history. We did not arrive on Earth as if from outer space, set down amid a wondrous diversity of life, blessed with a right to do with it what we please. We, like every species with which we share the world, are products of many chance events, leading back to that amazing explosion of life forms half a billion years ago, and beyond that to the origin of life itself. When we understand this intimate connection with the rest of nature in terms of our origins, an ethical imperative follows:  it is our duty to protect, not harm them. It is our duty, not because we are the one sentient creature on Earth, which bestows some kind of benevolent superiority on us, but because in a fundamental sense Homo sapiens is on an equal footing with each and every other species here on Earth. And when we understand the Earth’s biota in holistic terms—that is, operating in an interactive whole that produces a healthy and stable living world—we come to see ourselves as part of that whole, not as a privileged species that can exploit with impunity. The recognition that we are rooted in life itself and its well-being demands that we respect other species, not trample them in a blind pursuit of our own ends. And, by the same ethical principle, the fact that one day Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the face of the Earth does not give us license to do whatever we choose while we are here.”

And in Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction, from the prologue:

[Human expansion] “…continues, in fits and starts, for thousands of years, until the species, no longer new, has spread to practically every corner of the globe. At this point, several things happen more or less at once that allow Homo sapiens, as it has come to call itself, to reproduce at an unprecedented rate. In a single century the population doubles; then it doubles again, and then again. Vast forests are razed. Humans do this deliberately, in order to feed themselves. Less deliberately, they shift organisms from one continent to another, reassembling the biosphere.

“Meanwhile, an even stranger and more radical transformation is underway. Having discovered subterranean reserves of energy, humans begin to change the composition of the atmosphere. This in turn, alters the climate and chemistry of the oceans… Some plants and animals adjust by moving. They climb mountains and migrate toward the poles. But a great many—at first hundreds, then thousands, and finally perhaps millions—find themselves marooned. Extinction rates soar, and the texture of life changes.

“No creature has ever altered the life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable events have occurred. Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one…”

And speaking of oceans, an article in today’s Washington Post, “What the ‘sixth extinction’ will look like in the oceans: The largest species die off first,” cites a new study of the current mass extinction event and how it is currently affecting marine life.

Atlantic bluefin tuna are corralled by fishing nets during the opening of the season in 2011 for tuna fishing off the coast of Barbate, Cadiz province, southern Spain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Never Kill an Albatross

by George Monbiot

In just seven years 30% of Africa’s savannah elephants have been wiped out. The other African subspecies, the forest elephant, has crashed by more than 60%since 2002. Perhaps this month’s resolution to ban domestic sales of elephant tusks will make a difference, but governments have done so little to restrain the international trade that illegal ivory and other wildlife parts are still sold on the surface web, rather than the dark web.

Last month the whale shark was classified as endangered. Some are still hunted for their meat and fins, and it seems that the revolting practice of live finning – slicing off the fins, then dumping the shark overboard to die slowly – continues. Most are killed as bycatch, in nets used to catch other species, especially tuna. Some fishing boats use whale sharks as markers (tuna tend to congregate under large objects), and deliberately cast nets around them.

Their decline – whale shark numbers have halved or worse in 75 years – reflects the global loss of ocean life. Since 1996 the fish catch has fallen by a million tonnes a year, as stocks are exhausted. Sieving the seas for what remains, fishing fleets will trigger the collapse of entire ecosystems.

Fishing also accounts for what has happened to the bird with the largest wingspan, the wandering albatross – whose population has fallen by about 30% in 11 years. Again, the tuna fishery is the principal threat, in this case through the use of baited longlines. The albatrosses dive for the bait, get hooked and drown.

albatross corpse rotting away to reveal the rubbish it’s consumed
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An albatross corpse rotting away to reveal the rubbish it’s consumed. Photograph: Alamy

Another cause is their junk food diet: the plastic they eat, then feed to their chicks through regurgitation. The photographs taken by Chris Jordan on Midway atoll of the albatross corpses rotting away to reveal the rubbish they contain are a synopsis of our treatment of the living world. However far we travel, our impacts precede us.

A week ago the status of the eastern gorilla, the world’s largest primate, was changed from endangered to critically endangered: it has declined by 70% in 20 years. Its habitat, in central Africa, has been ripped apart by logging, mining and farming, and the gorillas are hunted for meat. All the great apes are now either endangered or critically endangered, in the case of orangutans largely as a result of palm oil production. What does it say about us that we are prepared to drive our closest relatives towards extinction?

The great acceleration towards a bare, grey world is also reflected in this week’s State of Nature report, which shows that over 10% of the remaining species in the UK are now threatened with extinction.

Last week we learned that one-tenth of the world’s wild places, forest and savannahs, and other lands in which human impacts are not obvious, have been lost – de-wilded – in the past 25 years. The trajectory suggests that there could be almost none left by the end of the century.

These should be among the central issues of our age. Yet we treat these losses as sad but peripheral, though we commission them through the things we buy. Elephants, rhinos, lions, polar bears, the great sharks, turtles, condors, whales, rainforests, wetlands, coral reefs: they are all the bycatch of consumerism. We assert both the right to consume – whatever we want, however we want – and the right to forget the consequences.

Flying to Bratislava or Bermuda for a stag weekend, shopping trips to New York, driving our gas guzzlers 300 metres to school, buying jetskis, leaf blowers and patio heaters, furnishing our homes with rare wood, eating tuna, prawns and salmon without a thought as to how they were produced: these ephemeral satisfactions, to judge by the reactions when you question them, occupy a sacred and inviolable space. The wonders of the living world, by contrast, are dispensable.

People who would never dream of killing an albatross or a whale shark are prepared to let others do so on their behalf, so that they may eat whatever fish they fancy. People who could not bring themselves to gut a chicken are happy to commission the disposal of entire ecosystems.

The act of not seeing is sanctioned and normalised, while attempts to explain the consequences are treated as abnormal and impertinent. On the Guardian’s website you can read about the global collapse of tuna populations – then, in a recipe published the following day, learn how to prepare a tuna salad, without a word about the implications.

Such cultural norms, positioning us as consumers first and moral beings either second or not at all, grant the disposal of the living planet its social licence. They allow us to compartmentalise, to be conscious of the issues when there is little that we can do about them, and to forget them at the moment when we have the capacity to act (or to refrain from acting). This is the safe space we establish for consumerism.

The costs cannot be computed in financial terms. There is no price that can capture the awe aroused by a whale shark, the deep being of an elephant herd, the way in which your heart soars with the albatross as it mounts a column of air, the gorilla’s fathomless gaze. The albatross hangs around our necks with a weight that defies calculation.

We were here: is this how we choose to be remembered? It is true that we existed: you can see it in the pulse of extinction. Are we to use our gift of life to snuff out other life forms? What will you leave behind, except your contribution to thePacific garbage patch?

fishing boat works amid garbage in Manila Bay, the Phillipines
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‘What will you leave behind, except your contribution to the Pacific garbage patch?’ – a fishing boat works amid garbage in Manila Bay, the Phillipines. Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters

I believe we can do better, that we can position ourselves as just one participant in a world of wonders, blessed and cursed with higher consciousness, but using that capacity to embed ourselves within its limits.

We cannot wait for governments or schools or the media to deliver a new environmental ethics. Join the groups trying to defend the living planet; learn about the consequences of what you do; demand – from friends, from parents, from yourself – a better way of engaging with the world. By living lightly we enrich our lives.

George Monbiot will answer questions on this issue in a live Guardian Q&A on Friday, from 10-11am, BST. Post questions now (below), or join us on the day. He will answer questions on any aspect of the problem, but is particularly interested in opening a discussion on consumerism and its ethics.