Rethink Activism in the Face of Catastrophic Biological Collapse

This is a hard piece to write, partly because we, too, are baffled. Environmental collapse, coupled with living in the sixth mass extinction, are new territory. We are still in the process of confronting the reality of living with the prospect of an unlivable planet. These thoughts emerge out of our sober forays into an uncertain future, searching for the right ways to live and serve in the present. The second reason for our reluctance to share this contemplation is anticipation of the grief, anger and fear it may trigger. We visit these chambers of the heart frequently, and know the challenges of deep feeling, particularly in a culture that denies feelings and pathologizes death.

As the unthinkable settles in our skin, the question of what to do follows closely. What is activism in the context of collapse? Professor of sustainability leadership and founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK) Jem Bendell’sdefinition of collapse is useful: “the uneven ending of our current means of sustenance, shelter, security … and identity.” Bendell isn’t the first to warn of collapse — NASA warned of it five years ago. Anyone who takes in the realities of our times will need to find their own relationship to the hard truths about converging environmental, financial, political and social unraveling. There are billions on the planet who are already experiencing the full direct effects of this right now. Forty percent of the human population of the planet is already affected by water scarcity. Humans have annihilated 60 percent of all animal life on the planet since 1970.

Described here, borrowing from Bendell’s analysis, are three responses to imminent collapse. The first is characterized by intensifying efforts to fixthe mess we have created. The idea here is that if we just work harder, we can change the situation. The second is mitigation of inevitable suffering and loss, easing the pain and harm that is already underway. Mitigation slows the demise down, giving us the time for the third, which is adaptation to the life-threatening scenarios before us, or in Bendell’s words, “deep adaptation.”

The three-tier framework we’re suggesting is more like a spectrum, and the tiers interlace at times. As our understanding of the biosphere catastrophe evolves, we may shift our focus of activism. Our age and stage of life also affect where we invest our lifeblood.

The downside of the first response, “fixing” the crisis, is that it often galvanizes false hope in an external panacea that we can vote for or count on. Riveted on the fixes, attention can be diverted away from the adaptation to the crisis that needs to happen in short order, both personally and within our institutions. For example, it takes time to plan for waves of millions of refugees and extreme food and water shortages. Solutions centered on “fixing” often sell books and technological promises. The opportunists are eyeing the take. This motivation is more of the same mentality that got us into this situation in the first place.

The upside of the fixing response, however, is the upwelling of the human spirit through intensified social movements. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New Green Deal is a valiant example of a fresh plan to “fix” what is broken in the United States. The direct actions of the Extinction Rebellionare a powerful force, not to mention the electrified youth marchesgathering momentum around the world. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg spearheaded a stunning victory in the EU recently. If the impeded stream sings, as Wendell Berry put it, these are rivers of rousing choirs.

The second response, mitigation, also has merit. It aims to stave off the collapse long enough to get needed preparation in place for what is to come.

Stellar examples of this are found in the regenerative agriculture movement. A farmer in drought-stricken Australia told us about the macadamia farm his family owned. He remembers his mother saying, “We’ll plant ’til we can’t.” That day came, so they decided to give farming a go in New South Wales. He described digging a posthole three feet deep recently. At the bottom of the hole was more dust. He and his family are joining fourth generation farmers who are jettisoning traditional farming practices that further deplete the parched earth. He uses no chemicals, rotates stock every three or four days, and is building every condition for the native grasses to thrive once again. Neighboring farms are “destocking” (i.e. slaughtering) sheep and cattle as feed disappears. Food supplies are dwindling for people and animals alike. But he will plant ’til he can’t. When asked about his motivation to persist in such difficult and heartbreaking work, he said it was for love of the land, but most importantly, love for his children. He wants to provide a safe refuge for them for as long as possible.

Regardless of the plethora of geoengineering plans to draw down CO2 levels or reflect solar radiation back into space, the tough reality is that the effects of CO2 already present in the biosphere are irreversible, and intensifying rapidly. Barring unforeseen forces at work, a consensus of scientific research tells us that a minimum of three degrees Celsius (3°C) warming is already baked into the system under current global climate pledges. A study published in Nature magazine showed that over the last quarter-century, the oceans have absorbed 60 percent more heat annually than estimated in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The study underscored that the oceans have already absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere and that planetary warming is already far more advanced than had previously been grasped. If the oceans had not absorbed that heat, global atmospheric temperatures would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit (97°F) hotter than they are today. Today’s carbon dioxide levels at 410 parts per million (ppm) are already in accordance of what historically brought about a steady state temperature of 7°C higher and sea levels 23 meters higher than they are today.

Anyone who thinks there is still time to wholly remedy the situation must answer the question: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by the oceans? Invigorated activism, as heartening and important as it is, is not going to completely stem these tides.

Thus, the third level of activism, adaptation, comes into focus.

Adaptation is new territory. Here is the realm of healing, reparation (spiritual and psychological, among other ways) and collaboration. It is strangely rich with a new brand of fulfillment and unprecedented intimacy with the Earth and one another. It invites us to get to the roots of what went astray that has led us into the sixth mass extinction. Given that with even our own extinction a very real possibility, even if that worst-case scenario is to run its course, there is time left for amends, honorable completions, and the chance to reconnect in to this Earth with the utmost respect, and in the gentlest of ways.

The window for practical preparation for accelerating collapse and chaos is now open.

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” Czech dissident, writer and statesman Václav Havel said, “but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”

Here are a few stories about adaptation, to give a feel for actions that flow out of this type of hope — a hope that includes a hard-won acceptance of the very real possibility of impending collapse.

— An association of mental health workers has created the Climate Psychologists Alliance, in the U.K., Scotland and the U.S. They provide newly adapted psychological services for understanding and facing human-caused climate disruption, along with the difficult truths that come along with it, and helping one another engage while responding to our ecological crisis.

— Gerri Haynes is a 75-year-old and mother of four children and many precious grandchildren. She and her husband, Bob, live in Seattle. They have asked their children and families to remain located nearby in anticipation of duress to come. Their top priority in life, after years of work with Physicians for Social Responsibility, is keeping their family safe and together. The bonds are deep and will carry them through.

— Siena is an 18-year-old Canadian who has opted out of the university track, despite top grades. She has chosen to go to a local trade school where she is studying metal work (milling), welding, plumbing, electrical and carpentry. Her focus will be horticulture. Siena loves working with her hands both for practical purposes and for the joy of creating beauty. She is keenly aware of the usefulness of these skills should industrial infrastructure collapses. She is adapting to our global crisis with great enthusiasm, amid her keen awareness of how much is changing and the challenging times that are imminent.

— Dahr recently spoke to a class at Cabrillo Junior College, elaborating on the climate science in his book, The End of Ice, that explores bearing witness and finding meaning amidst climate disruption. At the end of his talk, a young woman raised her hand and asked, “What can I do? I am poor and have so little to offer.” Later on, in a conversation she mentioned that she was the mother of a young child. This brought tears. The act of parenting, while fully conscious of our likely demise, could now be one of the most heroic forms of activism on the planet. Though the future looks bleak, how can we live in a way that supports seven generations hence? What a form of activism, raising children who cherish this world, who are secure and confident in themselves, who can see and think clearly, who know they matter, who walk on this Earth with respect and curiosity?

— The two of us, along with neighbors, maintain a large garden that provides us vegetables, fruit and berries, along with the calm satisfaction of watching the insects and birds it attracts. Millions of people are already wisely and instinctively following their interests in growing food. Here is intense satisfaction, joy and preparation.

— Finally, a tribute to Stan Rushworth who is filling in a critical void in our attempts to reconnect with the Earth in the time before us. An elder of Cherokee descent who was brought up by his grandfather in traditional ways, Stan knows that all trees and rocks are alive, and that all beings are connected and communicating in their own ways. He knows there is no back-to-the-Earth movement in the United States that does get our history straight. The truth is that the first colonists arrived in North America when it was the thriving home of over 60 million Native people. In very short order, 96 percent of these men, women and children were cruelly sacrificed in the spirit of “manifest destiny” as one of the most barbaric rapid genocides that has ever been carried out. Rushworth teaches at a community college, where his labor of teaching this critical history to younger generations has gone on for a quarter of a century. Without commitment to acknowledge, work against and build reparations for the abomination of Native genocide, we have no foundation upon which to live.

Way upstream of all these noble stories is a subtle and profound kind of activism that could permeate every action we choose to take, on any tier. Author and teacher Joanna Macy, who is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology describes an activist as “anyone who does something for more than personal advantage.” The implications of generous action begin to tip a massive scale away from the pervasive greed and self-centeredness that fuels the root causes of this sixth mass extinction. In fact, we belong to a complex and wondrous net of life, characterized by balance, natural limits and respect.

What if, in the time we have left, we can simply remember this? Then we enable ourselves to walk away from the illusion of separation. Luckily, we already have a compass within ourselves, ready for activation. During a recent unseasonable cold snap in our hometown, one of our friends, Casey Taylor, spontaneously took it upon himself to make a large bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and search out homeless people in the woods. He delivered the sandwiches along with blankets and heating fuel to everyone he could find. He knew of a need and deployed himself, no matter his humble resources, to fill it.

Perhaps one of the most potent rebellions of this time is the refusal to walk in the mainstream western herd, conforming to expectations and values that have ultimately ravaged the Earth. Opting out at its core means realignment with an inner knowing about what is ours to do, from the inside out.

Each one of us must choose the path that is ours. The sum total of this is legions of people taking action in their unique ways, and supporting one another.

Consider this story of a father’s support for his daughter’s choice to follow her calling. Mark Oates, father of 17-year-old Shayla, wrote to Barbara about his despair and fear, as his daughter heads into a dicey climate march that risks repercussions:

Shayla has decided she needs to rebel again and will be putting up posters for the School Strike 4 Climate on Friday in preparation for the 15th of March. She knows that it is too late, but will rebel anyway…. It is what she feels she needs to do…. I will be overseas during the school strikes, or I would have gone with her. My mum, Rosemary is going with her instead.

I have a tear in my eye … the grief, the courage of the young and old, the pride in her … she has always been one to stand up and protect another that is being victimized … but why is it the young and the old that are standing in front of the machine? So sad that we got to this place…. With love.

Barbara wrote him back:

Mark, I honor your clear sight and feel your breaking heart in all this. Amazing, your mom and Shayla going together. Even though we know how advanced the demise is, there are things we all need to do, to be able to live with ourselves, to galvanize in ourselves the ferocity to live in these times, to feel the oneness that pervades in these events. Intuitively I feel it is something formative and essential for Shayla. And REALLY hard on the heart of a Dad. Arms around your whole family and blessings on the Earth you walk on.

This reflection was written on the backs of many conversations … with one another, Mark Oates, Joanna Macy, Sarah-Jane Menato and indirectly, Jem Bendell. It is our hope that these words inspire these challenging conversations with your friends and loved ones.

Lastly, what if all the fixing and mitigating and adapting fail? Perhaps we will have become worthy human beings, having acted during this time of crisis with extraordinary love and integrity. We will turn toward one another and all the beings on the planet, with clear and humble love, knowing we are one living whole. On bended knee, we will weep in abject gratitude for the gift of life itself entrusted to us. In this is profound meaning and purpose.

Perhaps the singing of the impeded stream is, in the end, enough.

Annotated References:

Deep Adaptation,” by Jem Bendell. A paper that provides readers “with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change.”

Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is an author and teacher, scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology. She is a respected voice in movements for peace, justice and ecology. Macy interweaves her scholarship with learnings from six decades of activism.

Going to Water, by Stan Rushworth. An historical novel, and one of the greatest books ever written about healing. “The journal of a Cherokee woman with tremendous courage and determination to persevere in the face of all odds, one who carries a transcendent vision while struggling with everyday life. Where she succeeds and fails is determined by her clarity of focus, by her trust in culture and family, by the powerful responses to the emotional ride she takes on her journey, and by her enduring love.”

The Climate Psychology Alliance provides a forum for people wanting to make connections between depth psychology and climate change, as we all face the difficult truths of climate change and ecological crisis.

Dahr Jamail’s “Climate Disruption Dispatches.” Jamail’s regular updates on the science of climate change are reliable sources of scientific truth.

Mass wildlife loss caused by human consumption

Media captionIs your food destroying Brazil’s savanna?

“Exploding human consumption” has caused a massive drop in global wildlife populations in recent decades, the WWF conservation group says.

In a report, the charity says losses in vertebrate species – mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles – averaged 60% between 1970 and 2014.

“Earth is losing biodiversity at a rate seen only during mass extinctions,” the WWF’s Living Planet Report adds.

It urges policy makers to set new targets for sustainable development.

The Living Planet Report, published every two years, aims to assess the state of the world’s wildlife.

The 2018 edition says only a quarter of the world’s land area is now free from the impact of human activity and the proportion will have fallen to just a 10th by 2050.

The change is being driven by ever-rising food production and increased demand for energy, land and water.

Map showing human consumption per country as measured in global hectares
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Although forest loss has been slowed by reforestation in some regions in recent decades, the loss has “accelerated in tropical forests that contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth”, the report notes.

It says South and Central America suffered the most dramatic decline in vertebrate populations – an 89% loss in vertebrate populations compared with 1970.

Marine freshwater species are particularly at risk, the report says. Plastic pollution has been detected in the deepest parts of the word’s oceans, including the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific.

Freshwater species – living in lakes, rivers and wetlands – have seen an 83% decline in numbers since since 1970, according to the report.

Media captionThe Truth Behind My Fried Chicken

The WWF calls for “a new global deal for nature and people” similar to the 2015 Paris agreement to tackle climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Decision makers at every level need to make the right political, financial and consumer choices to achieve the vision that humanity and nature thrive in harmony on our only planet,” the report says.

The data, gathered from peer-reviewed studies, covers more than 16,700 populations belonging to 4,000 species around the world.

The WWF’s methodology has been criticised. One conservationist told the BBC in 2016 that the data in the 2016 report was skewed towards western Europe, where figures were more readily available.

Presentational grey line

What the numbers show

By Robert Cuffe, Head of Statistics, BBC News

This report shows that many species are dwindling at an alarming rate. But it doesn’t tell us that we’ve lost 60% of our wildlife.

The Living Planet Index looks at the falls in each species, rather than in the total wildlife population.

A huge percentage fall in a rare species will not make much difference to the total number of animals in the world. But it will make a difference to the average fall.

Imagine there were only two species in the world: frogs and pandas. Say that fecund frogs, whose numbers remain in the millions, see zero fall. The poor, prudish pandas whose shyness has seen their number drop from 100 to only 20 see an 80% fall.

On average, there would be an average fall in the populations of species of 40%. But the total population of animals would not be much changed.

The former is what the Living Planet Index tells us about: how much individual species are growing or shrinking.

But that is not the same as stripping 40% (or 60%) of wildlife from the planet.

“But my child…” said 7.6 billion

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A summary of a speech by Leilani Munter at the United Nations last night…:

Humans are the most dangerous animal on Earth. We represent just 0.01% of all living things and yet in our short time here we have already had a catastrophic effect on the natural world: we have destroyed 83% of all wild mammals and 50% of all plants.

Of all mammals on Earth, 60% are now livestock, 36% are humans, and just 4% are wild animals. Farmed poultry makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. How sad is it that most of the birds on Earth are not able to fly. That’s what wings are for.

We are adding 1 billion people to our planet every 12 years and for every billion people comes 10 billion farm animals at our current rate of meat consumption. This is not sustainable.

Every single environmental crisis we face: climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss, pollution, species extinction – all of them are accelerated by our rapidly growing population. We cannot address the others without addressing the core issue of the problem.

Charles Darwin once said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Humans must show evolutionary adaptation by reducing population growth and meat consumption, as well as replacing the fossil fuel economy with a renewable energy economy. Otherwise we are up shit creek without a paddle.

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What killed the dinosaurs

[Well, isn’t this hopeful (for humans)]

(CNN)The desert of northwestern New Mexico, in the vicinity of the Four Corners, is my special place. The high-altitude sun sparkles off the badlands, illuminating rocky pastels of red, green and brown that seem to extend indefinitely in all directions. No wonder that Georgia O’Keeffe — who painted here for decades — found this landscape as her muse.

Not many people live here, making it feel like a remote backwater within the world’s most industrialized country. But that’s the way I like it. I’m a paleontologist, and I visit here at least once a year, to hunt for fossils of dinosaurs and other long-extinct creatures. The fewer buildings, roads and houses to cover up the treasure we seek, the better.
Most of the candy-striped badlands in this part of New Mexico are carved from rocks laid down in rivers and lakes between about 84 and 56 million years ago. These were lush environments, teeming with life during a time when the Earth was much warmer and there were no ice caps on the poles. Bones, teeth, shells, and other parts of animals would often get buried in mud or sand and turn to stone, becoming the fossils that provide the only clues that these lost worlds ever existed.
You can find many dinosaurs here. We often come across the railroad spike teeth of T. rex and the gargantuan limb bones of long-necked sauropods of the Brontosaurus mold, some of which weighed more than a Boeing 737, easily making them the largest animals to ever thunder across the land.
The New Mexico desert where fossils can be found.

We find the skull domes that horse-sized omnivores called pachycephalosaurs used to head butt each other, and the jaws that horned and duck-billed dinosaurs sliced up plants with. So many species, big and small, living together.
I usually prospect these colorful hills with one of my best friends in science, Tom Williamson, a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. Sometimes, we walk for days and can’t get away from the dinosaur bones, because they are so common. By now we know the best places to find them: a layer-cake series of rock strata, formed during the very end of the Cretaceous Period (84-66 million years ago).
You can read the layers like the pages in a novel, and although the characters are fascinating, the story is fairly uneventful. During this whole stretch of time, dinosaurs were in control. History seemed to be standing still, and it appeared that dinosaurs would keep on ruling the world forever, as they had done for over 150 million years.
But then, suddenly, their bones disappear. We can pinpoint the exact place in the rock sequence. It’s where the cyclical mudstones and sandstones, records of that stable Cretaceous world, abruptly give way to coarser boulder-strewn rocks characteristic of fast-moving currents and corrosive storms. Something dramatic happened to the local environment, and the dinosaurs were gone.
A feathered dinosaur skeleton discovered in China.

The same pattern is seen halfway around the world, in the chalky-colored limestones of Gubbio, Italy. Underneath a medieval aqueduct that clings to the sides of a deep gorge, the geologist Walter Alvarez noted that the Cretaceous rocks at the bottom of the canyon are chock full of small fossils of ocean plankton.
Above these rocks, however, are nearly barren limestones, sprinkled with a few tiny, simple-looking fossils. The knife-edge separation between these two rocks is a dainty strip of clay, only about half an inch thick.
The clay is the cockpit voice recorder that reveals the fate of the plankton, and the dinosaurs: it is full of iridium, an element common in outer space but rare on Earth. It was delivered by a 6-mile-wide asteroid the size of Mount Everest, which was moving faster than a jetliner when it collided with the Earth 66 million years ago, punching a crater more than 100 miles wide and causing a chain reaction of volcanoes, wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes and climate change that wiped out some 70% of all living things.
The dinosaurs couldn’t cope, and all of them (except for a few birds) died. They were soon replaced, and we see the evidence in New Mexico. The chaotic boulder-filled rock layer quickly gives way to the same types of mudstones and sandstones that had been formed during the Cretaceous, a sign that environments returned to normal within a few thousand years. But there are no dinosaur bones to be found in these newer Paleocene-aged rocks (66-56 million years old).
Instead, there are countless jaws, teeth, and skeletons of the things that took over from the dinosaurs, the species that went on to start the next great dynasty of Earth history: mammals.
It’s a sobering story, and one of relevance to us today, as our climate and environment are changing rapidly.
Just within the last few months studies have shown that sea level is rising twice as fast as we thought, the Antarctic ice sheets are melting at alarming rates, and temperature is increasing so fast that humans may make the Earth warmer than it has been in more than 50 million years.
There are consequences to all of this upheaval: we are in the age of the so-called “sixth extinction,” with species dying out at hundreds or thousands of times the usual rate. Faster, perhaps, than even during the five mass extinctions of Earth history, including the one that killed the dinosaurs.
Maybe dinosaurs can help save us. We’re used to thinking of them as movie monsters, skeletons that wow tourists at museums, and objects of childhood fascination. But they are so much more than that. They were real living, breathing, evolving animals that had to deal with rising and fall temperatures, fluctuating sea levels, volcanoes and asteroids.
After all, none of the environmental changes going on today is new. The Earth has been through them before, and dinosaurs and other extinct animals can tell the story of what happened. What died, what survived, how long it took to recover.
Among the mammals that Tom Williamson has discovered in those dinosaur-free, post-extinction rocks in New Mexico is a skeleton of a puppy-sized creature called Torrejonia.
It had a slender body, gangly limbs and long fingers and toes, and you can almost envision it leaping through the trees. It is one of the oldest primates — a fairly close cousin of ours, and a reminder that we humans had ancestors that were there on that terrible day, that saw the rock fall from the sky, that survived the cataclysm while the dinosaurs did not, probably because they were small, agile, adaptable and able to eat many types of food.
There is something almost poetic about it. In a sense, we are the dinosaurs. Before creatures like Torrejonia started the domino chain of evolution that led to humans, the dinosaurs ruled. They evolved superpowers like big brains, keen senses and the ability to grow to enormous sizes. There were probably many billions of them, living in all corners of the globe, that woke up on that day 66 million years ago confident of their undisputed place at the pinnacle of nature.
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We humans now wear the crown that once belonged to the dinosaurs. We are confident of our place at the pinnacle of creation, even as our actions are rapidly changing the planet around us. It leaves me uneasy, and a troubling thought lingers as I walk through the New Mexico scrublands, seeing the bones of dinosaurs give way so suddenly to fossils of Torrejonia and other mammals.
If it could happen to the dinosaurs, could it also happen to us?
Dinosaurs, of course, had no way to prevent the asteroid that killed them. But we have a choice — we can still stop, or at least slow down, pumping toxins into the atmosphere. Our choice will dictate whether we really are the dinosaurs: whether we go the way of T. rex and Triceratops, or whether we have learned from their sad story.

Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study

Groundbreaking assessment of all life on Earth reveals humanity’s surprisingly tiny part in it as well as our disproportionate impact

Cattle farm at Estancia Bahia, Agua Boa, Mato Grosso, Brazil
 A cattle farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil. 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock. Photograph: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Humankind is revealed as simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth by a groundbreaking new assessment of all life on the planet.

The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.

The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.

Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk – an eighth – is bacteria buried deep below the surface.

“I was shocked to find there wasn’t already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass,” said Prof Ron Milo, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who led the work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I would hope this gives people a perspective on the very dominant role that humanity now plays on Earth,” he said, adding that he now chooses to eat less meat due to the huge environmental impact of livestock.

The transformation of the planet by human activity has led scientists to the brink of declaring a new geological era – the Anthropocene. One suggested marker for this change are the bones of the domestic chicken, now ubiquitous across the globe.

The new work reveals that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.

“It is pretty staggering,” said Milo. “In wildlife films, we see flocks of birds, of every kind, in vast amounts, and then when we did the analysis we found there are [far] more domesticated birds.”

The destruction of wild habitat for farming, logging and development has resulted in the start of what many scientists consider the sixth mass extinction of life to occur in the Earth’s four billion year history. About half the Earth’s animals are thought to have been lost in the last 50 years.

But comparison of the new estimates with those for the time before humans became farmers and the industrial revolution began reveal the full extent of the huge decline. Just one-sixth of wild mammals, from mice to elephants, remain, surprising even the scientists. In the oceans, three centuries of whaling has left just a fifth of marine mammals in the oceans.

“It is definitely striking, our disproportionate place on Earth,” said Milo. “When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken.”

Despite humanity’s supremacy, in weight terms Homo sapiens is puny. Viruses alone have a combined weight three times that of humans, as do worms. Fish are 12 times greater than people and fungi 200 times as large.

But our impact on the natural world remains immense, said Milo, particularly in what we choose to eat: “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms.”

“I would hope people would take this [work] as part of their world view of how they consume,” he said. ”I have not become vegetarian, but I do take the environmental impact into my decision making, so it helps me think, do I want to choose beef or poultry or use tofu instead?”

The researchers calculated the biomass estimates using data from hundreds of studies, which often used modern techniques, such as satellite remote sensing that can scan great areas, and gene sequencing that can unravel the myriad organisms in the microscopic world.

They started by assessing the biomass of a class of organisms and then they determined which environments such life could live in across the world to create a global total. They used carbon as the key measure and found all life contains 550bn tonnes of the element. The researchers acknowledge that substantial uncertainties remain in particular estimates, especially for bacteria deep underground, but say the work presents a useful overview.

Paul Falkowski, at Rutgers University in the US and not part of the research team, said: “The study is, to my knowledge, the first comprehensive analysis of the biomass distribution of all organisms – including viruses – on Earth.”

“There are two major takeaways from this paper,” he said. “First, humans are extremely efficient in exploiting natural resources. Humans have culled, and in some cases eradicated, wild mammals for food or pleasure in virtually all continents. Second, the biomass of terrestrial plants overwhelmingly dominates on a global scale – and most of that biomass is in the form of wood.”

Fossilized footprints tell a story of how our ancestors hunted giant sloths

giant sloth hunting

There’s plenty that archaeologists and paleontologists can learn from the bones and other artifacts left behind by ancient creatures and mankind’s own ancestors. Researchers can figure out what they looked like, where they lived, and who ate who, but painting a detailed picture of more advanced behavior is much more challenging. How ancient humans hunted, for example, is a huge topic of interest for many scientists, but evidence to support any theories is pretty rare.

A newly-discovered collection of fossilized footprints is giving researchers a rare glimpse into the past and helping them tell the story of how our ancestors once brought down a now-extinct creature that would have towered over them: the giant sloth.

The footprints, where were discovered at the White Sands National Monument, part of which is a US military testing ground. Today, the dry, barren location is a great place to test missiles without the risk of casualties, but 10,000 years ago it was the site of an epic battle between ancient humans and a massive ground sloth.

Giant sloths went extinct thousands of years ago, but at one time they were the target of human hunters. The reason for the species’ extinction is still debated, but some scientist blame overhunting as the cause. What these new footprints tell us for sure is that our ancestors seemed to have a pretty good idea of how to take them down, with circling footprints of multiple hunters surrounding one such sloth distracting it while others presumably attacked it with spears or other crude weapons.

“Geologically, the sloth and human trackways were made contemporaneously, and the sloth trackways show evidence of evasion and defensive behavior when associated with human tracks,” the researchers write in the study, published in Science Advances. “Behavioral inferences from these trackways indicate prey selection and suggest that humans were harassing, stalking, and/or hunting the now-extinct giant ground sloth in the terminal Pleistocene.”

Whether violent confrontations such as this were ultimately the cause of the giant sloth becoming extinct will likely never be conclusively proven, but the evidence that humans hunted these so-called “megafauna” on a large scale is mounting. Maybe that’s why modern animals are so darn small?

Burning coal may have caused Earth’s worst mass extinction

New geological research from Utah suggests the end-Permian extinction was mainly caused by burning coal, ignited by magma

Fossil of a Galesaurus, a cynodont that lived during the Permian period.
 Fossil of a Galesaurus, a cynodont that lived during the Permian period. Photograph: Iziko Museum of Natural History

Earth has so far gone through five mass extinction events – scientists are worried we’re on course to trigger a sixth – and the deadliest one happened 252 million years ago at the end of the Permian geologic period. In this event, coined “the Great Dying,” over 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct. It took about 10 million years for life on Earth to recover from this catastrophic event.

Scientists have proposed a number of possible culprits responsible for this mass extinction, including an asteroid impact, mercury poisoning, a collapse of the ozone layer, and acid rain. Heavy volcanic activity in Siberia was suspected to play a key role in the end-Permian event.

Recently, geologist Dr Benjamin Burger identified a rock layer in Utah that he believed might have formed during the Permian and subsequent Triassic period that could shed light on the cause of the Great Dying.

Sheep Creek Valley, Utah
 Sheep Creek Valley, Utah. Photograph: Benjamin Burger

During the Permian, Earth’s continents were still combined as one Pangea, and modern day Utah was on the supercontinent’s west coast. Samples from the end-Permian have been collected from rock layers in Asia, near the volcanic eruptions, but Utah was on the other side of Pangaea. Burger’s samples could thus provide a unique perspective of what was happening on the other side of the world from the eruptions. Burger collected and analyzed samples from the rock layer, and documented the whole process in a fascinating video:

Dr Burger’s ‘Rocks of Utah’ episode documenting his investigation of the Permian-Triassic Boundary geologic samples.

Earth turned into a toxic hellscape

Burger’s samples painted a grim picture of Earth’s environment at the end of the Permian period. A sharp drop in calcium carbonate levels indicated that the oceans had become acidic. A similar decline in organic content matched up with the immense loss of life in the oceans during this period. The presence of pyrite pointed to an anoxic ocean (without oxygen), meaning the oceans were effectively one massive dead zone.

Bacteria ate the oversupply of dead bodies, producing hydrogen sulfide gas, creating a toxic atmosphere. The hydrogen sulfide oxidized in the atmosphere to form sulfur dioxide, creating acid rain, which killed much of the plant life on Earth. Elevated barium levels in the samples had likely been carried up from the ocean depths by a massive release of methane.

The culprit: burning coal

Levels of various metals in the rock samples were critical in identifying the culprit of this mass extinction event. As in end-Permian samples collected from other locations around the world, Burger didn’t find the kinds of rare metals that are associated with asteroid impacts. There simply isn’t evidence that an asteroid struck at the right time to cause the Great Dying.

However, Burger did find high levels of mercury and lead in his samples, coinciding with the end of the Permian period. Mercury has also been identified in end-Permian samples from other sites. Lead and mercury aren’t associated with volcanic ash, but they are a byproduct of burning coal. Burger also identified a shift from heavier carbon-13 to lighter carbon-12; the latter results from burning fossil fuels.

The Permian was the end of the Carboniferous period, which means “coal-bearing.” Many large coal deposits were created in the Carboniferous, including in Asia. Previous research has shown that the Permian mass extinction event didn’t coincide with the start of the Siberian volcanic eruptions and lava flows, but rather 300,000 years later. That’s when the lava began to inject as sheets of magma underground, where Burger’s data suggests it ignited coal deposits.

The coal ignition triggered the series of events that led to Earth’s worst mass extinction. Its sulfur emissions created the acid rain that killed forests. Its carbon emissions acidified the oceans and warmed the planet, killing most marine life. The dead bodies fed bacteria that produced toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, which in turn killed off more species. The warming of the oceans produced a large methane release, which accelerated global warming faster yet. As Burger put it,

Things went from bad to worse, and you can now begin to understand how life nearly died out. Global warming, acid oceans, anoxia, not to mention a toxic atmosphere. We are lucky to be alive at all!

Eerie similarities to today

Scientists are observing many of the same signs of dangerously rapid climate change today. There’s more lighter carbon-12 in the atmosphere because the increase in atmospheric carbon levels is due entirely to humans burning fossil fuels. There are an increasing number of dead zones in the oceans. Burning coal was causing acid rain, although we largely solved that problem through Clean Air Acts, and in the US, a sulfur dioxide cap and trade system implemented by a Republican administration.

We’ve had less success in tackling carbon dioxide pollution, which continues to rise. As a result, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic, and temperatures increasingly hot. Scientists today also worry about potentially large releases of methane from the ocean floor and Arctic.

These are some of the similarities between the climate change that nearly wiped out life on Earth 252 million years ago and the climate change today. Both appear to have largely been caused by burning coal. A 2011 study found that over the past 500 years, species are now going extinct at least as fast as they did during the five previous mass extinction events.

It’s enough to make you think; maybe coal isn’t so beautiful and clean after all.

Backed Into a Corner



Commentary by Jim Robertson


Despite humans’ best efforts to destroy her, it seems Nature is not going down without a fight. And regardless of what humans may believe about themselves and their place at the pinnacle, Nature is ultimately much bigger, heavier and vastly more significant in the so-called ‘scheme of things.’


Harassed by their bird-dog, a sow grizzly bears charges pheasant hunters (who, of course, shoot and kill her–leaving three cubs motherless); a ‘serial-killer’ elephant tramples 15 Indians (out of over a billion); and just yesterday a new article tells us a about a ‘hunter gored to death by a cornered deer.’


Could it all be part of a long-suffering and normally highly (even saintly) tolerant Mother Nature finally fighting back against her one fatal blunder–the fleshy, hairless, upright, arrogant apes armed with their weapons of mass extinction?


Homo sapiens may have won countless battles and the arms race hands-down, but Nature will ultimately win the day and eventually, the war, wiping the slate clean for another burst of evolutionary creativity that won’t include the conceited carnivorous primates or their puffed-up fantasies of self-importance.



Things could really start to get ugly

It came to me while reading the nonfiction book What Evolution Is by the famed evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mahr, that the only way Mother Nature is ever going to get rid of the species plaguing her perfection is with a good old-fashioned mass extinction, because, sadly, humans aren’t going anywhere without taking just about every other species with them.

Humankind have backed Nature into a corner and at this point all she can do is turn and fight, like sow grizzly bear defending her beloved offspring

Humans have gotten away with killing and eating, killing for sport and/or taking trophies of any and all of Natures’ finest treasures for so long now we’re starting to think we’re entitled to simply help ourselves to the spoils of our war on the world.

Well; if humans don’t shape up and show some respect, things could really start get ugly on this planet soon for everyone involved… and that’s not just talking weather-wise.  


“We are a plague on Earth:” David Attenborough: ‘If We Don’t Limit Our Population Growth, the Natural World Will’

  • The famed British naturalist warns that our current rate of population growth is unsustainable and will ultimately have devastating consequences for the human race.
  • He recommends several ways to combat this problem, emphasizing a need to give women political control of their bodies and investing in sex education worldwide.


David Attenborough, renowned British naturalist and TV presenter, has some pretty scathing words for humanity: “We are a plague on Earth.”

Attenborough made that statement to the Radio Times back 2013, but it’s far from the only time he’s shared his controversial views on population growth. Attenborough has made it clear that he believes that at the rate humans are growing we will soon be unable to feed or house ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but one that needs to be faced, especially for anyone who agrees with Attenborough that humans have become a plague on this planet — a relentless force of destruction tearing its way through a world shared with other creatures.

“It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde,” he said in that same interview. “Either we limit our population growth, or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

The rapid growth of our population is making it very difficult for the world to address several serious environmental challenges. What’s needed is a real discussion about the reality of overpopulation. Too many people, combined with insufficient methods of creating and distributing resources, ultimately leads to loss of life and resources.

“We can’t go on increasing at the rate human beings are increasing forever, because Earth is finite and you can’t put infinity into something that is finite,” Attenborough said in a story published by The Independent.


Despite all his efforts to bring awareness to the subject of overpopulation, Attenborough sternly warns that simply acknowledging these eventualities is not enough — we must act. He believes that controlling our population is dependent on investing in sex education globally, giving women more political control over their bodies, and implementing other voluntary means of population control in developing countries.

“The only straw of comfort or of hope, and even that is pretty fragile, is that wherever women are given political control of their bodies, where they have the vote, education, appropriate medical facilities and they can read and have rights and so on, the birth rate falls, there’s no exceptions to that,” Attenborough says.

Putting more emphasis on women’s reproductive rights and empowerment, as well as providing universal access to birth control and education, will ultimately give people an opportunity to make informed family planning choices. Our only hope of living on this planet for a long time into the future is making sure we start planning for it now.