In this months episode of Nature Bats Last on PRN.FM podcast, I was honoured to re-interview Professor Paul Ehrlich on his book “The Annihilation of Nature”,the show is embedded here:
“The numbers are sobering: Over all, there has been a human-driven decline in the populations of all species by 25% over the past 500 years, but not all groups have suffered equally. Up to a third of all species of vertebrates are now considered threatened, as are 45% of most species of invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, amphibians are getting clobbered, with 41% of species in trouble, compared to just 17% of birds—at least so far. The various orders of insects suffer differently too: 35% of Lepidopteran species are in decline (goodbye butterflies), which sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to the similar struggles of nearly 100% of Orthoptera species (crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, look your last).“The Sixth Great Extinction is Underway and We’re to Blame;
Johns Hopkins University Press, The Annihilation of Nature
Published on Apr 23, 2015
“In this beautiful book, three of today’s most distinguished conservationists tell the stories of the birds and mammals we have lost and those that are now on the road to extinction. These tragic tales, coupled with eighty-three color photographs from the world’s leading nature photographers, display the beauty and biodiversity that humans are squandering.”
For a slide show of the wonderful photo’s and illustrations in this book click on the following link;The Annihilation of Nature
“The oft-repeated claim that Earth’s biota is entering a sixth “mass extinction” depends on clearly demonstrating that current extinction rates are far above the “background” rates prevailing between the five previous mass extinctions. Earlier estimates of extinction rates have been criticized for using assumptions that might overestimate the severity of the extinction crisis. We assess, using extremely conservative assumptions, whether human activities are causing a mass extinction. First, we use a recent estimate of a background rate of 2 mammal extinctions per 10,000 species per 100 years (that is, 2 E/MSY), which is twice as high as widely used previous estimates. We then compare this rate with the current rate of mammal and vertebrate extinctions. The latter is conservatively low because listing a species as extinct requires meeting stringent criteria. Even under our assumptions, which would tend to minimize evidence of an incipient mass extinction, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate. Under the 2 E/MSY background rate, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear.” Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.
I mentioned in the interview; “The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) simply blows out of the water anything else that’s been attempted in human history. As currently planned, it will involve some 7,000 separate infrastructure or extractive industry projects scattered across 70-odd nations, with a total price-tag of $8 trillion. It’ll span half the planet — from Asia to Africa, Europe and the South Pacific.”
It’s hard for me to think where the sand, let alone the energy for this project will come from,considering to all intents and purposes we have consumed the planets ‘construction sand’ already.China’s Global Infrastructure Initative Could Bring Environmental Catastrophe
Also mentioned was this quote from Joanna Macy: “Because of social taboos, despair at the state of our world and fear for our future are rarely acknowledged. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurring response, contributes to the numbing of the psyche”. The Greatest Danger;
In sifting through 10,000 studies, researchers find some species seem to be able to cope with global warming, but are still running out of time.
Climate change has thrown our beautifully balanced planet into chaos. As oceans and forests transform and ecosystems go into shock, perhaps a million species teeter on the edge of extinction. But there may still be hope for these organisms. Some will change their behaviors in response to soaring global temperatures; they might, say, reproduce earlier in the year, when it’s cooler. Others may even evolve to cope—perhaps by shrinking, because smaller frames lose heat more quickly.
For the moment, though, scientists have little idea how these adaptations may be playing out. A new paper in Nature Communications, coauthored by more than 60 researchers, aims to bring a measure of clarity. By sifting through 10,000 previous studies, the researchers found that the climatic chaos we’ve sowed may just be too intense. Some species seem to be adapting, yes, but they aren’t doing so fast enough. That spells, in a word, doom.
Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.
To determine how a species is adjusting to a climate gone mad, you typically look at two things: morphology and phenology. Morphology refers to physiological changes, like the aforementioned shrinking effect; phenology has to do with the timing of life events such as breeding and migration. The bulk of the existing research concerns phenology.
The species in the new study skew avian, in large part because birds are relatively easy to observe. Researchers can set up nesting boxes, for instance, which allow them to log when adults lay eggs, when chicks hatch, how big the chicks are, and so on. And they can map how this is all changing as the climate warms.
By looking at these kinds of studies together, the authors of the Nature Communications paper found that the 17 bird species they examined seem to be shifting their phenology. “Birds in the Northern Hemisphere do show adaptive responses on average, though these adaptive responses are not sufficient in order for populations to persist in the long term,” says lead author Viktoriia Radchuk of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
In other words, the birds simply can’t keep up. By laying their eggs earlier, they’re encouraging their chicks to hatch when there are lots of insects to eat, which happens once temperatures rise in spring. But they’re not shifting quickly enough.
This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to human-caused climate change. Life on Earth is so diverse because it’s so adaptable: Temperatures go up or down, and a species might move into a new habitat and evolve to become something different over time. But what we humans have unleashed on this planet is unparalleled. “We’re experiencing something on the order of 1,000 times faster change in temperature than what was seen in paleo times,” says Radchuk. “There are limits to these adaptive responses, and the lag is getting too big.”
Which means now more than ever, we have to aggressively conserve habitats to help boost species. “I think the results of this paper really add an abundance of caution, that we shouldn’t hope that species will adapt to changing climate and changing habitats, that we don’t need to do anything,” says Mark Reynolds, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy’s migratory bird program, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Indeed, this paper is a terrifying window into what might be happening to ecosystems at large. A bird doesn’t live in a vacuum—it preys and is preyed upon. An ecosystem is unfathomably complex, all sorts of creatures interacting, which makes these dynamics extremely difficult to study, especially when Earth’s climate is changing so quickly.
“It’s not an internet type of network, it’s not an electrical grid,” says Peter Roopnarine, curator of geology and paleontology at the California Academy of Sciences, who wasn’t involved in this work. “These are systems that have very specific structures and configurations to them. We have poor documentation of that.”
On a very basic level, if insects start breeding earlier in the year because the planet is warming, birds have to shift their life cycles. That means the birds’ predators do, too. “One phenological change in one species can have a ripple effect through the system,” says Roopnarine.
Another major consideration here is generation length. Species that more rapidly produce offspring tend to adapt better to change. That’s why bacteria can so quickly evolve resistance to antibiotics: They proliferate like mad, and individual bacteria with the lucky genetics to survive the drugs win out and pass those genes along. Something like an elephant, which may not reproduce until she’s 20 years into a 50-year lifespan, is working with way longer timescales and may struggle to adapt to change.
What’s so troubling about this study is that, by comparison to other animal families, birds are relatively adaptable in their phenology: They can tweak the timing of their migrations, for instance. A less mobile critter like a frog has no such luxury. But what these researchers have found is that flexibility is no longer enough for salvation.
“The heavens were all on fire; the earth did tremble.”
–William Shakespeare Henry IV, Part 1
For much of my life, I thought our species would soon go extinct. I assumed we might last another hundred years if we were lucky. Now I suspect we are facing extinction in the near future. Can I speculate as to exactly when that might happen? Of course not. My sense of this is based only on probability. It might be similar to hearing about a diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer. Is it definite that the person is going to die soon? No, not definite. Is it highly probable? Yes, one would be wise to face the likelihood and put one’s affairs in order.
First, let’s look at climate data. Over the past decade I have been studying climate chaos by reading scientific papers and listening to climate lectures accessible to a layperson. There is no good news to be found there. We have burned so much carbon into the atmosphere that the CO2levels are higher than they have been for the past three million years. In the last decade our carbon emission levels are the highest in history, and we have not yet experienced their full impact. If we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, we are still on track for much higher heat for at least ten years. And we are certainly not stopping our emissions by tomorrow.
This blanket of carbon in the atmosphere has triggered, and will trigger, further runaway warming systems that are not under our control, the most deadly of which is the release of methane gases that have been trapped for eons under arctic ice and what is now euphemistically known as permafrost (much of it is no longer permanent frost).
Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, and much faster acting. In the first twenty years after its release into the atmosphere, it is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Whereas the full effect of heat from a carbon dioxide molecule takes ten years, peak warming from a methane molecule occurs in a matter of months.
As if these emissions were not daunting enough, a heretofore little-known gas, sulphur hexafluoride or SF6, used in many green and renewable technologies, is 23,500 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. It leaks from electrical production sites and stays in the atmosphere for a thousand years.
The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps are melting at rates far faster than even the most alarming predictions, and methane is pouring out of these regions, bubbling out of Arctic lakes, and hissing out of seas and soils worldwide. Some scientists fear a methane “burp” of billions of tons when a full melt of the summer arctic ice occurs, something that has not happened for the past four million years. Should such a sudden large release of methane occur, the earth’s warming would rapidly accelerate within months. This alone could be the extinction event.
The Arctic summer ice is currently two thirds less than it was as recently as the 1970s, and the arctic is warming so fast that a full summer melt is likely within the next five years. The continent of Antarctica is also rapidly melting at an acceleration of 280% in the last forty years. The massive ice melts that are happening there, such as the breaking off the Larsen B ice shelf defied scientific predictions; the ice shelf known as Larsen C, which broke off in July of 2017, was 2,200 square miles in size.
The Arctic ice has been the coolant for the northern part of the planet and it impacts worldwide climate as well. Its white surface also reflects back into space much of the heat from the sun, as does the Antarctic ice. As the ice melts, the dark ocean absorbs the heat and the warming ocean more quickly melts the remaining ice. Over the past three decades, the oldest and thickest of the Arctic sea ice has declined by a whopping 95%, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2018 annual Arctic report.
The U.S., Russia, and China are now vying for hegemony of the Arctic region in order to get at the massive reserves of oil that exist there and will be accessible as the ice melts. Aside from the real possibility of military conflagrations over control of the region, moving tankers through and drilling in this sensitive eco-system would cause the dual destructions of rapidly deteriorating whatever ice is left, thereby speeding up the release of methane; and then burning all that stored carbon of newly found oil reserves into the atmosphere. For instance, Russia has recently launched a floating barge on which two nuclear reactors will be wired into its infrastructure to power gas and oil platforms in remote regions of the Arctic.
These and all the other warming feedback loops are now on an exponential trajectory and becoming self-amplifying, potentially leading to a “hothouse earth” independent of the carbon emissions that have triggered them. Each day, the extra heat that is trapped near our planet is equivalent tofour hundred thousandHiroshima bombs. There are no known technologies that can be deployed at world scale to reverse the warming, and many climate scientists feel that the window for doing so is already closed, that we have passed the tipping point and the heat is on “runaway” no matter what we do.
We are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction with about 150 plant and animal species going extinct per day. Despite the phrase “the sixth extinction” making its way into mainstream awareness via the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book of that title, most people still don’t realize that we humans are also on the list.
Some of the consequences we face are mass die-offs due to widespread drought, flooding, fires, forest mortality, runaway diseases, and dying ocean life—all of which we now see in preview. A few of these consequences could even result in the annihilation of all complex life on earth in a quick hurry: the use of nuclear weapons, for instance, as societies and governments become more desperate for resources; or the meltdown of the 450 nuclear reactors, which will likely become impossible to maintain as industrial civilization breaks down. Since 2011, when a tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan and caused a near meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, it has taken more than 42,000 gallons of fresh water per day to keep the reactors cooled. Keeping the radioactive elements contained requires dangerous jobs for the workers and building a new steel water tank every four days to store the spent radioactive water.
If we were to make it through this gauntlet of threats, we would still be facing starvation. Grains, the basis of the world’s food supply, are reduced on average by 6% for every one degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial norms. We are now about one degree Celsius above and climbing fast; the oceans are warming twice as fast and have absorbed a staggering 93% of the warming for us so far. If that were not the case, the average land temperatures would be a toasty 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) above what they are now. Of course, there is a huge cost for ocean warming in the form of dying coral reefs, plankton loss, ocean acidification, unprecedented storms, and increased water vapor, which is yet another greenhouse blanket holding heat in the atmosphere.
As I became aware of these facts and many hundreds like them, I also marveled at how oblivious most people are to the coming catastrophes. There has never been a greater news story than that of humans facing full extinction, and yet extinction is rarely mentioned on the evening news, cable channels, or on the front pages of blogs and newspapers. It is as though the world’s astronomers were telling us that an asteroid is heading our way and will make a direct hit destined to wipe out all of life to which the public responds by remaining fascinated with sporting events, social media, the latest political scandals, and celebrity gossip.
However, beginning about six years ago, a few books and other sources of information began to address the chances of full extinction of all complex life, and these became my refuge, even though the information was the most horrific I had ever imagined.
For decades, I had sensed that things were dramatically worsening, the rate of destruction increasing. As a journalist from 1982 to 1994, I specialized in social and environmental issues. I had written about global warming, the phrase we used in those days, numerous times in the 1980s, but because it seemed a far-off threat, we could intellectually discuss it without fear of it affecting our own lives in terribly significant ways. As time marched on, I began to awaken to how fast the climate was changing and how negative its impacts. It became a strange relief to read and listen to the truth of the situation from people who were studying the hard data as it affirmed my instincts and threw a light on what had been shadowy forebodings, dancing like ghosts in my awareness. It is an ongoing study that has taken me through a powerful internal process–emotional and cathartic–one that I felt might be helpful to share with those who have woken to this dark knowledge or are in the process of waking to it, just as I, over time, found comfort in the reflections of the small yet increasing number of comrades with whom I share this journey.
Because the subject is so tragic and because it can scare or anger people, this is not an essay I ever wanted to write; it is one I would have wanted to read along the way. But the words on these pages are meant only for those who are ready for them. I offer no hope or solutions for our continuation, only companionship and empathy to you, the reader, who either knows or suspects that there is no hope or solution to be found. What we now need to find is courage.
You got me singing, even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing, even though it all looks grim
You got me singing the Hallelujah hymm
–Leonard Cohen “You Got Me Singing”
For the last quarter century of his life, Leonard Cohen was one of my closest friends. We would often talk at the small kitchen table in his modest home in Los Angeles until the wee hours of the morning, and when I would make a move to leave, he would bring out a fine port he had been saving or show me some of his recent drawings, or regale me with a story of his time in Cuba in the early Sixties. He loved engagement and there was no place in conversation he wouldn’t go. In his company I never censored my thoughts. Since his passing I have realized that he was not only a close friend but a life mentor. One of the most inspiring aspects in this regard was what one could call his heart bravery. It is, in my way of seeing, the highest form of courage. In fact, the word courage comes from the Latin coeur, meaning heart. Leonard’s special genius was his ability to communicate both the sorrow and the beauty of the world, even in the same sentence. He never looked away from either, not even in his final months when pain wracked his body. He had a twinkle in one eye and a tear in the other.
In those last years of his life, we had many conversations about climate chaos, as he knew I was studying the subject. He always listened intently and asked pertinent questions throughout our discussions. Although climate had not been his own focus (his was more a passion for world politics), there was no surprise for him in seeing how close we are to the edge. He understood human nature and assumed we would do ourselves in. One need only listen to his song, “The Future” to know how prescient he was on the matter.
And yet, we laughed over all the years. Laughed like crazy. Leonard was a master of gallows humor, and I have a well-honed appreciation for that form as well. The power of gallows humor, and I highly recommend it in these times, is that it allows a sideways glance at the gathering clouds while one is still sipping tea in the garden. All of these small moments of recognition serve to accustom our awareness to difficult realities, to hammer at the chains that bind, to allow us to let go a bit. In sharing gallows humor, it is also comforting to know that your friend sees the tragi-comedy as well. There is an amortizing of the burden when we share a heavy load.
Courage is often confused with stoicism, the stiff upper lip, bravado that masks fear. There is another kind of courage. It is the courage to live with a broken heart, to face fear and allow vulnerability, and it is the courage to keep loving what you love “even though the world is gone.”
DISTRACTION AND DENIAL
They are as children, playing with their toys in a house on fire.
Never have these words of the Buddha been more true. We love to be distracted from ourselves, and we have myriad ways of doing that in our time. We pay big money for the privilege and we run about chasing objects and experiences in its service. We seem to be evolutionarily designed to put aside or entirely ignore future threats and instead focus only on immediate concerns and personal desires. This is understandable since for most of human history there was nothing we could do about future possibilities or events occurring far from where we lived. With some notable exceptions, evolution didn’t select for long-term survival planning. Being concerned about climate change does not come naturally to us. Daniel Gilbert, author and Harvard professor of psychology, proposes four features for why our brains respond primarily to immediate threats.
First, we are social animals who have evolved to think about what the creatures around us are doing; we are highly sensitive to intentions, especially if they seem threatening. Second, climate change does not challenge our moral sense of right and wrong and thereby stir the brain to action. As Gilbert notes, if it was clear that global warming was deliberately killing kittens, we would all be marching in the streets.
Thirdly, unless climate chaos is a threat to us today, we don’t think about it. I find that a lot of the data we see in conservative climate reports refers to horrific changes that will happen by 2100. When we see the year 2100, we easily think, “Whew! No problem.” Of course, changes occurring by 2100 is an overly optimistic timeline, yet it shows how the brain responds to slow motion threat in the future, even when it will affect the lives of children whom we know in the present. Gilbert’s fourth reason for why we ignore climate threats is that for millennia we have relied on our highly developed sense apparatus as physical creatures to gauge changes and threats in our environment—changes of temperature, weight, pressure, sound, or smell. If changes occur at a slow enough pace, they can fly under the radar of our notice. The frog boiling in the pot that is only gradually being heated.
During the historic floods in Queensland, Australia in early 2019, the rivers broke their banks and washed into the city of Townsville. As a result, there were crocodiles and snakes in the flooded streets and in people’s back yards. It might well concentrate the mind and promote a flight response to find oneself wading in floodwater on a street or yard that contained crocodiles and deadly snakes. But short of such clear and present dangers, our threat response is slow.
It seems even our genes favor short-term gain over long-term trouble. The twentieth century biologist George Williams recognized that, due to our genes having multiple functions, some genes have opposing functions. That is, for example, a gene can have great benefits for early life and at the same time cause great harm in later life, a process known as biological senescence. Evolution naturally selects for those genes since the organism doesn’t always make it to later life, so the early benefit has been accrued while the later harm has less chance of being activated.
Biologist Bret Weinstein sees a cultural analog to this process, “culture is biology, downstream of genes.” As he explains, “Ideas that work in the short term but fail and cause vulnerability in the long term tend to survive in our system because they often produce economic benefit. So if you produce a technology that has benefits for humanity over the course of several decades but the harm of that technology comes only in later decades, you will have become wealthy in the short term and that wealth will have resulted in an increase in your political influence, which will reinforce the belief structures that made it seem like a good idea in the first place. The market tends to see short-term gains and discount long-term effects until the political structure has been modified by that success. Just as in biological senescence, cultural senescence manifests in a system that is incapable of going in reverse and would drive itself off a cliff rather than recognize that something at its core was leading us into danger. We now have a cultural system that is making us very comfortable in the short term, but it is liquidating the wellbeing of the planet at an incredible rate.”
Evolution also didn’t select for us to be overly conscious of personal death itself. It would otherwise be emotionally paralyzing. Ernest Becker’s seminal book The Denial of Death, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, examined the awareness of death on human behavior and the strategies that developed in humans to mitigate their fear of it. “This is the terror:” Becker wrote, “to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression—and with all this yet to die.”
Sheldon Solomon, author and legendary professor of psychology at Skidmore College, spent thirty-five years conducting experiments based on Becker’s ideas. This body of work culminated in what Solomon and his colleagues call Terror Management Theory and relies on proving a central thesis of Becker’s work: that it is through cultural worldviews and through self-esteem that humans ward off the terror of death. As Sheldon told me in an interview in 2015, “What Becker proposes is that human beings manage terror of death by subscribing to culturally constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that gives them a sense that they’re valuable people in a meaningful universe…And so for Becker, whether we’re aware of it or not, and most often we’re not, we are highly motivated to maintain confidence in the veracity of our cultural worldview and faith in the proposition that we’re valuable people, that is, that we have self esteem. And whenever either of those, what we call ‘twin pillars of terror management,’ –culture or self-esteem– is threatened, we respond in a variety of defensive ways in order to bolster our faith in our culture and ourselves.” Listen to the full interview here.
Becker’s work relied on examining defense strategies for denial of personal death. We are now faced with the death of all. Therefore denial and defense of denial are accordingly amplified and dangerous. There is now a desperate rise of religious fundamentalism, superstition, and new age magical thinking, as predicted in 1996 by astronomer Carl Sagan in his final book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. To an increasingly anxious species, cultural and religious belief systems offer the promise of eternal life. And people will literally fight to the death for them.
Or they will offer up their children. From the Mayan priests who threw children from cliffs to the families of suicide bombers in present time who joyously celebrate the martyrdom of their son or daughter in the streets with their friends, people would rather see their children die than forego the preservation and defense of their culture or religion. In places where climate chaos is already underway, we are seeing a solidification of tribalism and battle lines drawn between communities who have formerly lived together in relative harmony. These pressures are bound to increase.
We also find it difficult to think exponentially. We might grasp the concept of an exponential factor but it is not our natural way to perceive. Therefore, as exponential warming triggers other imbalances that also become exponential, we perceive them only as linear problems and assume we will have time to address them. We carry on with business-as-usual and return to “the matrix,” the illusion that things are fairly normal, where our ordinary problems, comforts and entertainments await our attention, just like in the movie. But we have now come to the point of “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman put it in his 1985 book by that title.
As you begin to awaken to the specter of extinction, you will likely feel the powerful lure of your usual distractions. You may want to go back to sleep. But denial will become harder and harder to maintain because once your attention has turned to this subject, you will see the evidence of it everywhere, both locally and globally.
And you will find yourself among the throngs of humanity who are easily distracted and amused, playing with their toys as the house burns, “tranquilized by the trivial,” as Kierkegaard said, and speaking of the future as though it was going to go on as it has. After all, we made it this far. We have proven our superiority at figuring things out and removing obstacles to our desires. We killed off most of the large wild mammals and most of the indigenous peoples in order to take their lands. We bent nature to our will, paved over her forests and grasslands, rerouted and dammed her rivers, dug up what journalist Thom Hartman calls her “ancient sunlight,” and burned that dead creature goo into the atmosphere so that our vehicles could motor us around on land, sea, and air and our weapons could keep our enemies in check. And now we have given her atmosphere a high fever. But, as the old adage has it, (a phrase I first heard in the 1980s, which has informed me ever since), “nature bats last.”
You may find yourself in the company of people who seem to have no awareness of the consequences we face or who don’t want to know or who might have a momentary inkling but cannot bear to face it. You may find that people become angry if you steer the conversation in the direction of planetary crisis. You may sense that you are becoming a social pariah due to what you see, even when you don’t mention it, and you may feel lonely in the company of most people you know. For you, it’s not just the elephant in the room; it’s the elephant on fire in the room, and yet you feel you can rarely say its name.
I once asked Leonard for his advice on how to talk with others about this. He replied: “There are things we don’t tell the children.” It is helpful to realize that most people are not ready for this conversation. They may never be ready, just as some people die after a long illness, still in denial that death was at their doorstep. It is a mystery as to who can handle the truth of our situation and who runs from it as though their sanity depended on not seeing it. There is even a strange phenomenon that some of my extinction-aware friends and I have noticed: you might sometimes find relaxation in the company of those who don’t know and don’t want to know. For a while you pretend that all is well or at least the same as it has been. You discuss politics, the latest drama series, new cafes. You visit the matrix for a little R & R. But this usually doesn’t last long as the messages coming from the catastrophe are unrelenting.
The Parent Trap. There is one category of people that I have found especially resistant to seeing this darkest of truths: parents. A particular and by now familiar glazed look comes over their faces when the conversation gets anywhere near the topic of human extinction. And how could it be otherwise? It is built into the DNA that parents (not all, of course) love their children above themselves. They would sacrifice anything for them. So to think that there will be no protection for their children in the future, that no amount of money or homesteading or living on a boat or in a gated community or on a mountaintop or growing a secret garden will save them is too unbearable a thought to hold for even a second. I have also noticed a flash of anger arise in the midst of the distracted look on their faces, an almost subliminal message that says, “Don’t say another word on this subject.”
It is a subject I have learned to avoid in the company of parents although, to my surprise, I am recently finding more of them coming to terms with it. It is an added layer of grief, to be sure, and I can only admire and grieve with them in the knowledge that it is unlikely their children will live to old age, leaving aside what they may suffer beforehand.
I had my own battle of despair with this. As I began to realize the gravity of our situation, I quickly recognized that my own death was not much of an issue. After all, I have lived a long time, longer than most people in history. I certainly have preferences about how I would like to die, and I don’t make any claims about having no fear of death at all, but the fact of my own death is something I have considered since my teenage years and has been part of my many decades of dharma interest. No, the despair came from the thoughts about my young great nieces and great nephew with whom I am close. All nine of them were under the age of ten when I began to realize that they are not likely to have long lives. The anxiety and despair into which I sank was such that I became very ill. I developed a massive case of shingles covering large areas of my torso, front and back in two zones (apparently it is rare to have more than one zone) and I ended up in the hospital. Shingles (way too puny a word for a disease that feels like your nerves have been set on fire from the inside) is considered a stress-related illness. My anxiety and despair had made me physically sick. Once home and bedridden for the best part of a month, I had a chance to consider how unaffordable my fear and anxiety would be going forward. I had to find a perspective that would allow me to access at least some quiet underneath the profound sadness, some whisper that says, “This is the suchness of things. Everything passes.”
Of course, there are now many millions of parents in the world who have already had to come to terms with this. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees for whom any fretting about the future would seem the greatest of luxuries and privileges. They are struggling for survival due to climate catastrophes, even as you read these words.
I’ve seen the future, Brother.
It is murder.
—Leonard Cohen “The Future”
Of all the threats we face, the one I find most frightening is the breakdown of civilized society. We now see large regions of the world that are no-go zones. Failed states, where life is cheap and barbarism reigns. Huge swaths of Africa are now lawless and controlled by armed and violent men and boys roaming the countryside in gangs, engaged in despicable acts too sickening to write. The Middle East is much the same as are parts of South America. All of these areas are enduring severe drought. As professor and journalist Christian Parenti said in an interview with Chris Hedges, “How do people adapt to climate change? How do they adapt to the drought, to the floods? Very often, the way is you pick up the surplus weaponry and you go after your neighbor’s cattle or you blame it on your neighbor’s ideology or ethnicity.”
In his book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Parenti writes: “Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis. The current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence. I call this collision of political, economic, and environmental disasters ‘the catastrophic convergence.’ ”
In their desperation, people, especially women, sell themselves into prostitution and other forms of modern slavery. Or they are taken and sold by others. Human trafficking is now big business worldwide. People also sell their own children to save the rest of their families. I saw a CNN news interview with a widow and her son and daughter in a refugee tent in Afghanistan. Having left the drought-ridden area of her home region, she was explaining to the reporter that she was selling her six-year-old daughter to an old man so that she could feed herself and her son. The little girl sat quietly by her side, looking sad and bewildered, perhaps dimly aware that whatever change to come in her already difficult life was going to be a far worse fate. Nearby sat the old man who was purchasing her as a “gift” for his ten–year-old son, this rationale most likely for the benefit of the reporter, one that I didn’t believe as I suspected an even darker plan for the little girl. Apparently, this is a common practice now in the Afghan refugee community.
It is no wonder that people leave these hellholes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and make their way, often risking death, to countries of greater abundance and saner policies. It is also no wonder that those countries don’t want them. At some point in loading a rowboat, even one extra person will sink it. And many of the refugees are nationals of countries with almost opposite values of those of their new host countries. Europe is now on the front lines of the refugee crisis and is struggling to hold itself together. It is one of the great historical ironies that the European countries, perhaps the most enlightened and progressive of all time, are employing greater and greater draconian measures to try to preserve what they have. But the refugees will keep coming, in the millions and then the hundreds of millions, and there will be no walls or armies strong enough to stop them. This is true not only for Europe but anywhere there is potential for a better life.
The places where there still exists “a better life” are rapidly deteriorating as well. In Chris Hedges’ book, America: The Farewell Tour, he forensically chronicles the decline of 21st century America. The “flyover” states, that is, almost everywhere except the coasts, are ridden with poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, drug and gambling addiction, porn addiction, violence, inferior education, depression and other mental illnesses, poor physical health, and suicide. “The diseases of despair” as sociologists call them.
These diseases of despair likely have a correlation to our severance from the natural world. At the 2017 Bateson Symposium in Sweden, Rex Weyler gave a thought-provoking presentation called “Ecological Trauma and Common Addictions.” Weyler, one of the founders of Greenpeace, defines ecological trauma as “the experience of witnessing – consciously or not – the pervasive abuse and destruction of the natural world, of which we are a part, and for which we have a primal affinity. Almost everyone in the modern, industrial world can tell stories of treasured childhood experiences in natural settings or wilderness sanctuaries that have been obliterated for a shopping mall, parking lot, highway, or other industrial, consumer function.
“Modern neuroses and addictions, prevalent in industrial nations, can be traced, at least partially, to the trauma of separation from natural security and the trauma of witnessing the abuse of nature. The marvels and conveniences of technological society provide only a thin veneer over our natural being. We remain biophysical animals akin to ants and raccoons.
“Regardless of prevailing conceits, we retain patterns learned from fifty million years of primate evolution, five million years of hominid development in productive ecological habitats, and 500,000 years of fire-bearing, tool-making hunter-gatherer culture. During this long genesis, humanity grew within the comfort and constraints of an intact ecosystem that supplied sustenance, vital lessons, wonder, and a home. Watching that home fall under the blade of industrialism shocks our system, whether we know it or not.
“Within the last few hundred years, industrial culture has widened this separation from nature, divided families, and destroyed communities, creating alienated individuals clinging to scarce jobs and rewarded with packaged food and entertainment, like the “bread and circuses” that Roman emperors bestowed upon disenfranchised peasants.”
In fact, for the past two years, average life expectancy in the USA has declined due to suicide and opioid overdoses. The U.S is now in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in its history; more people die from opiate overdoses than from car accidents or gun homicides. Due to the poverty existent in these communities there is also a breakdown of law and order as well as basic services. The local municipalities are going broke and are beginning to function like banana republics.
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the largest utility company in the United States, provides gas and electric power for two thirds of California. It just filed for bankruptcy protection against lawsuits of an estimated thirty billion dollars due to its power lines blowing about and possibly starting some of the deadly fires that recently occurred in California. Who bails out the utility companies when these things occur? The Federal Government, which means the taxpayers get the bill. How long can governments bail out corporations? The US national debt, for instance, now stands at 22 trillion dollars. At what point is the “let’s pretend” game of currency value over? How long will we be able to exchange pieces of paper for food? And what will happen when we are forced to make extreme sacrifices?
The richer countries are particularly intolerant of making even relatively small sacrifices that might have a future benefit; for example, the “yellow vest” riots that began in Paris in October 2018 and spread throughout the country.
The fracas started when French President Emmanuel Macron announced an “eco-tax” on fuel in an attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to address global warming. Soon after the rioting began, the government walked back any talk of the tax, but by then the rioters had added on a host of other grievances and the mayhem began to grow, becoming more violent, destructive, and deadly. These are not people who are starving or being removed at gunpoint from their homes. These are people who are being asked to sacrifice some of their income for the greater good. But as we are seeing there and elsewhere, short-term greed prevails.
What is happening in France is no doubt a cautionary tale to other progressive world leaders who dare to challenge Big Oil and its hungry consumers. It is a mark of immaturity to be unable to delay personal satisfaction for the chance at greater wellbeing for all at a later date. And it is yet another wearisome example of why we humans are in the mess in which we find ourselves. We see it throughout human history. Greed is not new to modern times. We can easily understand the greedy impulse as most of us are afflicted with it. Perhaps the evolutionary imperatives from ancient times would have had no use for delayed gratification since servicing immediate needs often meant the difference between life and death. However, we can now see that being enslaved to our base desires and impulses is contraindicated to our survival. Seeing disintegrations occur in the developed countries gives a glimpse as to what societal and economic breakdown will look like when there are widespread food shortages everywhere and when the infrastructures, including the electric grids, become spotty, too costly to maintain, or are no longer working.
OVERPOPULATION AND CO-EXTINCTIONS
In 1952, when I was born, there were approximately 2.6 billion people on earth. There are now 7.7 billion, a more than threefold increase in my lifetime. Our use rate of resources would allow for our planet to sustainably host only about one billion people. As William Catton explained in his 1980 book Overshoot, we are in “carrying capacity deficit.” In other words, the load on resource use is far in excess of its carrying capacity. Of course, the only way we have been able to pull this off is by stealing from the future, just as we might have a garden of food that could last ten people through the winter and instead we have a wild party for a thousand and go through the entire supply in an evening.
It is also troubling to realize that whatever reasonable measures we might attempt to mitigate our situation, and there are none known that can be done at scale, the addition of roughly 220,000 humans per day (births minus deaths) would curtail our efforts at mitigation.
According to many scientific studies, some of the inevitable outcomes of overpopulation are severely polluted water, increased air pollution and lung diseases, proliferation of infectious diseases, overwhelmed hospitals, rising crime rates, deforestation, loss of wildlife leading to mass extinctions, widespread food shortages, vanishing fish in the oceans, superbugs and airborne diseases along with diminished capacity to treat them, proliferation of AIDS, less access to safe drinking water, new parasites, desertification, rising regional conflicts, and war. As astrobiology professor Peter Ward explained in a story on the BBC, “If you look at any biological system, when it overpopulates it begins to poison its home.”
Of course, when we speak of overpopulation we specifically refer to humans. In fact, human activity is causing massive die-offs of the other species.
“Today’s oceans are absorbing carbon about an order of magnitude faster than the worst case in the geologic record.” (Photo: Onny Carr/Flickr/cc)
Next year, the British Government will host the UN Climate talks in London, known as COP26, which are the most important climate talks since Paris in 2015.
So for the next year, the UK will be a critical leader in the global fight against climate change.
For the UK to ask other nations to act, it also has to step up to the plate. And yet it is failing. Badly.
Today, the UK Government’s own experts, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) outlined in its annual report to Parliament, how “Our credibility in the COP26 Presidency rests on real action at home.”
But then they brutally concluded that the “UK action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is lagging behind what is needed to meet legally-binding emissions targets.”
The CCC noted that since June 2018, the British “Government has delivered only 1 of 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track.”
Chris Stark, the CCC Chief Executive, said it would be prudent to not only prepare for a 1.5 degree rise in temperature, but also a 2 degree rise, and even a 4 degree rise.
Four degrees is widely seen as completely catastrophic by climate scientists.
So even a country like the UK, which has touted itself as a climate leader, is failing miserably. There is just no political will for any meaningful action.
The politicians ignore the daily alarm bells in the science, whether it is melting Antarctica ice caps or the growing temperatures in the ocean.
For example, earlier this week Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, released a study in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesexamining how the rate at which carbon dioxide is currently entering the oceans could push us past a catastrophic threshold.
This threshold could happen slowly, or even suddenly, but when it does “the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.”
As the press release from MIT regarding the study outlined: “Today’s oceans are absorbing carbon about an order of magnitude faster than the worst case in the geologic record.”
We are pumping so much carbon dioxide into the oceans that according to Rothman, today we are “at the precipice” of a threshold of “excitation.” If it occurs, “the resulting spike — as evidenced through ocean acidification, species die-offs, and more — is likely to be similar to past global catastrophes.”
If and when we cross this threshold, the carbon cycle is predicted to react “with a cascade of positive feedbacks that magnified the original trigger, causing the entire system to spike, in the form of severe ocean acidification.”
In other words, “if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.”
Rothman’s new research comes two years after he predicted that a mass extinction event could take place as early as the end of this century.
Timothy Lenton, a Professor of Climate Change and Earth Systems Science at the University of Exeter, responded to the study by telling CommonDreams. “If we push the Earth system too far, then it takes over and determines its own response—past that point there will be little we can do about it.” Then we face runaway climate change leading into catastrophic mass extinction.
As with much of the news about climate change, this new research hardly got any press mention. The politicians sleep-walk on.
The magazine Mother Jones recently explored the issue of climate scientists who know “of a looming catastrophe but must struggle to function in a world that does not comprehend what is coming and, worse, largely ignores the warnings of those who do.”
The acutely powerful article details the daily distress of climate scientists, whose warnings are being ignored.
One scientist, Sarah Myhre, a former senior research associate at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography, experiences “a profound level of grief on a daily basis because of the scale of the crisis that is coming”.
It is not that we didn’t know. It is not that the scientists didn’t warn us. We knew. But Exxonknew too. And it never wanted us to know the truth. And their decades-long denial campaign still has ramifactions today, as politicians refuse to act to the climate emergency that we are in.
[WARNING! This is another piece of satire–this time by the Onion. There were never any giant one-celled creatures (except on Star Trek), but if there were you can bet that humans would have hunted them to extinction…]
SPOKANE, WA—Confirming long-held suspicions about the diminutive size of modern-day bacteria, paleontologists at Gonzaga University engaged in an intensive study of the fossil record announced Friday that they had found overwhelming evidence supporting the theory that early humans hunted the 25-foot paramecium and other mega-Protista to extinction. “According to our findings, early humans would routinely hunt giant amoeba, feasting on their cytoplasm and utilizing all organelle parts in the making of tools and garments,” said head researcher Dr. Lorraine Logan, clarifying that the building-sized bacteria had no natural predators, rendering them easy targets for early man armed with rudimentary flint hunting weapons. “My team uncovered the fossilized remains of a masta-paramecium whose cell wall had been pierced with almost two dozen arrows and whose Golgi apparatus had been painstakingly removed with obsidian knives, presumably to fashion into rope and bowstrings. We can also say with some certainty that early man harvested the mega-Protista’s cilia, which grew to impressive lengths in their prehistoric form.” Researchers also found a fossilized paramecium containing fragments of human bone, suggesting that the single-huge-celled organisms regularly fought back.
After receiving regulatory approval from the FDA, the plant-based Impossible Burger has been approved to be sold in supermarkets nationwide, offering an option for environmentally conscious consumers looking for a burger substitute. What do you think?
“It’s like we’re living in the future: an agency that approves the safety of food!”
ARUN TUCKER • TONTINE ARRANGER
“This is pointless until someone invents a vegetarian bun.”
SABRINA HARMON • WISHBONE SPLITTER
“Wow, if you told me 20 years ago that one day we’d be eating plants, I would have called you crazy.”
BERLIN, Germany, July 23, 2019 (ENS) – Climate change can threaten species and extinctions can impact ecosystem health, so it is of vital importance to assess how animals respond to changing environmental conditions, and whether these shifts enable the persistence of populations in the long run.
To answer these questions an international team of 64 researchers led by Viktoriia Radchuk, Alexandre Courtiol and Stephanie Kramer-Schadt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) evaluated more than 10,000 published scientific studies.
European Pied Flycatcher in Switzerland. This species usually adapts well to environmental changes, Aug. 9, 2018, (Photo by Aaron Maizlish)
They concluded that although animals do commonly respond to climate change, for example by shifting the timing of breeding, such responses are in general insufficient to cope with the rapid pace of rising temperatures and sometimes go in wrong directions.
Their findings are published in the scientific journal “Nature Communications.”
Co-author Thomas Reed, a senior lecturer at University College Cork, Ireland, explains, “These results were obtained by comparing the observed response to climate change with the one expected if a population would be able to adjust their traits so to track the climate change perfectly.”
In wildlife, the most commonly observed response to climate change is an alteration in the timing of biological events such as hibernation, reproduction or migration.
Changes in body size, body mass or other morphological traits have also been associated with climate change, but, as confirmed by this study, show no systematic pattern.
The researchers extracted relevant information from the scientific literature to relate changes in climate over the years to possible changes in both types of traits.
Next, they evaluated whether observed trait changes were associated with higher survival or an increased number of offspring.
Lead author Victoriia Radchuk of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Photo courtesy Victoriia Radchuk via LinkedIn)
“Our research focused on birds because complete data on other groups were scarce,” says lead author Radchuk. “We demonstrate that in temperate regions, the rising temperatures are associated with the shift of the timing of biological events to earlier dates.”
Co-author Steven Beissinger, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “This suggests that species could stay in their warming habitat, as long as they change fast enough to cope with climate change.”
Senior author Alexandre Courtiol said, “This is unlikely to be the case because even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence.”
Even more worrisome is the fact that the data analyzed included predominantly common and abundant species such as the great tit, Parus major, the European pied flycatcher, Ficedula hypoleuca,or the common magpie, Pica pica, which are known to cope with climate change relatively well.
“Adaptive responses among rare or endangered species remain to be analyzed. We fear that the forecasts of population persistence for such species of conservation concern will be even more pessimistic,” concludes Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, who heads the Department of Ecological Dynamics at Leibniz-IZW.
The scientists hope that their analysis and the assembled datasets will stimulate research on the resilience of animal populations in the face of global change and contribute to a better predictive framework to assist future conservation management actions.
A common guillemot (Uria aalge) brings a sprat to feed to its chick. The laying dates of this species were followed for 19 consecutive years on the Isle of May, off the coast of southeast Scotland. According to a new paper in Nature Communications, many birds are adapting to climate change — but probably not fast enough.
Michael P. Harris
Viktoriia Radchuk, an evolutionary ecologist at Berlin’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, wanted to know how animals were responding to climate change.
So she scoured the results of more than 10,000 animal studies — on species from frogs to snakes, from insects to birds to mammals — looking for information on how changing environments were affecting animal behavior. Based on the available data, she decided to focus on birds in the Northern Hemisphere.
As detailed in a new paper in Nature Communications, Radchuk and her co-authors found that many birds are adapting to climate change — but probably not fast enough. “Which means, on average, these species are at risk of extinction,” she says.
The data focused on common and abundant bird species, such as tits, song sparrows and magpies (which are also the most well documented in studies). They showed that some bird populations are breeding, laying eggs and migrating earlier, which makes them better prepared for earlier onsets of spring — a significant effect of climate change.
Radchuk explains that when temperatures warm, plants flower earlier, and insects also develop earlier.
Enlarge this image
An adult red-billed gull (Larus novaehollandiae scopulinus) with a chick. The birds are part of a 54-year study on New Zealand’s Kaikoura Peninsula.
Deborah A. Mills
“For many birds, insects are their food source, which means that birds [should] time their egg laying to correspond to the peak of prey abundance,” she says, so their chicks have lots of food. Some birds have been shifting to earlier dates.
“We’ve known for a long time that global climate change is happening. We’ve known for a long time that animals are changing in response to this. But what we really haven’t known is how well the animals are keeping up with the selection,” says Melissa Bowlin, an ecologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who was not involved with the study.
The paper, which is largely based on studies from the past 30 years, comes to a stark conclusion: “The temperature is changing so fast that evolution isn’t able to keep up,” Bowlin says.
The abundance of the species in the studies is evidence that they are already better able to adapt to changing environments, says Radchuk. “So we would expect that the species that are rare and in danger already — from habitat fragmentation or invasive species or any other environmental change — would be even more sensitive to climate change.”
Bridget Stutchbury, a field biologist and ornithologist at York University in Toronto, is hopeful because birds have shown resilience in the past.
“At least for birds, many of the studies are done on species that are relatively short-lived, and they reproduce very easily,” she says. “Those traits allow them to adapt and respond quickly to changes.”
Stutchbury points to the bald eagle, whose U.S. population in the lower 48 states declined to 417 pairs in the 1960s but then rebounded to nearly 10,000 in the mid-2000s, after the federal government banned DDT and helped protect their habitat. “They can recover very quickly if we can put the environment back on track for them,” she says.
‘Lake Baikal is contains more water than the five US great lakes combined’
Mike Carter, The Observer, 2009
By The Siberian Times reporter
07 June 2019
Sensational find of head of the beast with its brain intact, preserved since prehistoric times in permafrost.
The Pleistocene wolf’s head is 40cm long, so half of the whole body length of a modern wolf which varies from 66 to 86cm. Picture: Albert Protopopov
The severed head of the world’s first full-sized Pleistocene wolf was unearthed in the Abyisky district in the north of Yakutia.
Local man Pavel Efimov found it in summer 2018 on shore of the Tirekhtyakh River, tributary of Indigirka.
The wolf, whose rich mammoth-like fur and impressive fangs are still intact, was fully grown and aged from two to four years old when it died.
The wolf, whose rich mammoth-like fur and impressive fangs are still intact, was fully grown and aged from two to four years old when it died. Picture: Albert Protopopov
The head was dated older than 40,000 years by Japanese scientists.
Scientists at the Swedish Museum of Natural History will examine the Pleistocene predator’s DNA.
‘This is a unique discovery of the first ever remains of a fully grown Pleistocene wolf with its tissue preserved. We will be comparing it to modern-day wolves to understand how the species has evolved and to reconstruct its appearance,’ said an excited Albert Protopopov, from the Republic of Sakha Academy of Sciences.
Local man Pavel Efimov found it in summer 2018 on shore of the Tirekhtyakh River, tributary of Indigirka.
The Pleistocene wolf’s head is 40cm long, so half of the whole body length of a modern wolf which varies from 66 to 86cm.
The astonishing discovery was announced in Tokyo, Japan, during the opening of a grandiose Woolly Mammoth exhibition organised by Yakutian and Japanese scientists.
CT scan of the wolf’s head. Pictures: Albert Protopopov, Naoki Suzuki
Alongside the wolf the scientists presented an immaculately-well preserved cave lion cub.
‘Their muscles, organs and brains are in good condition,’ said Naoki Suzuki, a professor of palaeontology and medicine with the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo, who studied the remains with a CT scanner.
‘We want to assess their physical capabilities and ecology by comparing them with the lions and wolves of today.’
‘This is a unique discovery of the first ever remains of a fully grown Pleistocene wolf with its tissue preserved.’ Pictures: Naoki Suzuki
Industrial agriculture is bringing about the mass extinction of life on Earth, according to a leading academic.
Professor Raj Patel said mass deforestation to clear the ground for single crops like palm oil and soy, the creation of vast dead zones in the sea by fertiliser and other chemicals, and the pillaging of fishing grounds to make feed for livestock show giant corporations can not be trusted to produce food for the world.
The author of bestselling book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy will be one of the keynote speakers at the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London in October.
Organised by campaign groups Compassion in World Farming and WWF, it is being held amid rising concern that the rapid rate of species loss could ultimately result in the sixth mass extinction of life. This is just one reason why geologists are considering declaring a new epoch of the Earth, called the Anthropocene, as the fossils of soon-to-be extinct animals will form a line in the rocks of the future.
The last mass extinction, which finished off the dinosaurs and more than three-quarters of all life about 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid strike that sent clouds of smoke all around the world, blocking out the sun for about 18 months.
Prof Patel, of the University of Texas at Austin, said: “The footprint of global agriculture is vast. Industrial agriculture is absolutely responsible for driving deforestation, absolutely responsible for pushing industrial monoculture, and that means it is responsible for species loss.
“We’re losing species we have never heard of, those we’ve yet to put a name to and industrial agriculture is very much at the spear-tip of that.”
Speaking to The Independent, he pointed to a “dead zone” – an area of water where there is too little oxygen for most marine life – in the Gulf of Mexico that has grown to the same size as Wales because of vast amounts of fertiliser that has washed from farms in mainland US, into the Mississippi River and then into the ocean.
“That dead zone isn’t an accident. It’s a requirement of industrial agriculture to get rid of the sh*t and the run-off elsewhere because you cannot make industrial agriculture workable unless you kick the costs somewhere else,” he said.
“The story of industrial agriculture is all about externalising costs and exploiting nature.”
The Amazon and surrounding lands in South America are also under increasing pressure from soy plantations.
“Extinction is about the elimination of diversity. What happens in Brazil and other places is you get green deserts — monocultures of soy and nothing else.
“Various kinds of chemistry is deployed to make sure it is only soy that’s grown on these mega-farms.
“That’s what extinction looks like. If you ever go to a soy plantation, animal life is incredibly rare. It’s only soy, there’s nothing there for anything to feed on.”
And that soy is then turned into food for humans, often by “passing it through cattle and chickens”, Prof Patel said.
Some of the world’s most iconic animals, such as elephants, jaguars and penguins, are threatened due to these current farming practices.
In Sumatra, forests that are home to elephants and jaguars are being destroyed to make way for palm plantations, often to make feed for livestock kept in industrial meat factories.
And small fish like anchovies and sardines are being caught on a massive scale to be ground into fishmeal for farmed salmon, pigs and chickens. That means animals like penguins, which normally feed on them, are in trouble.
The South African penguin population alone has plunged by at least 70 per cent since 2004.
Asked what people could do “as a consumer” to try to avoid contributing to such problems, Prof Patel said people needed to think on a bigger scale.
“‘As a consumer’ you are only allowing yourself a range of action. ‘As a consumer’ you can buy something that’s local and sustainable, that’s labelled as organic or fair trade,” he said.
“But ‘as a consumer’, you don’t get to do a whole lot of good. As a citizen, as a decent person, you can demand more from your government, from one’s employer, from yourself.
“Be more aware of your power as part of a society where we can change things. We have this power to change things in the future. What we have to do is make that change.”
He said some people thought being a vegetarian avoided contributing to the extinction crisis.
“I’m vegetarian but it’s not enough. If you are vegetarian and you walk around with your halo of virtue but you are eating tofu that comes from Brazilian soy, then you’re just as complicit in all of this as if you are eating the beef fed on Brazilian soy,” Prof Patel said.
Vegetarianism did not provide a “pure and simple” route out of the problem.
“Capitalism is involved. The capitalist will take your vegetarianism and make money from it with the same kind of techniques they’ve honed in meat manufacture,” he said.
Instead, Prof Patel argued it was time to switch to a world in which resources were shared and looked after, harking back to the days when people had access to common land.
“The commons is only a tragedy because the commons in England were eliminated. Before they were eliminated there were people who could manage resources and nature in ways that were sustainable,” he said.
“The idea of a commons that is managed collectively and the way in which nature is managed well and sustainably, that’s a memory that needs to be recuperated.”
Admitting that changing society so radically would be a challenge, he argued it was essential as people’s current aspirations were based on “images of consumption that are entirely unsustainable”.
Humans, Prof Patel said, would need to find a way to live with less material wealth.
“Re-imagining a world with less stuff but more joy is probably the way forward,” he said.
“There’s a strong case for saying there’s room for … less individual consumption and loneliness … and more sharing and communality, getting together around the table, rather than sitting alone in front of the TV.”