In the academic community, there is an increasing awareness of the complexities and challenges associated with gaining global consensus and driving action to address climate change. International negotiations and climate agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, have made significant strides in recent years, yet the implementation and enforcement of these agreements remain highly variable across countries. While the global conversation on climate change has become more prominent, it is crucial to recognize that another equally pressing environmental crisis remains largely overshadowed: the ongoing sixth mass extinction event, which has been triggered by capitalist forces.
The ongoing sixth mass extinction event
The current extinction crisis is characterized by an unprecedented rate of species loss, with extinction rates estimated to be 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than during the time of the dinosaurs. This sixth mass extinction is primarily driven by destructive human activities, such as habitat destruction, overexploitation of resources, pollution, and climate change. However, despite the severity and urgency of this crisis, it has not garnered the same level of global attention and action as the issue of climate change.
A possible reason for the disparity in attention and action could be that the consequences of biodiversity loss are often less tangible and immediate compared to the more visible and direct impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Also, the intricate relationships between species and ecosystems are complex and challenging to communicate to a broader audience, potentially limiting the public’s understanding of the importance of biodiversity and the urgency of addressing the extinction crisis.
To effectively address the sixth mass extinction, it is vital for the academic community and policymakers to not only broaden the global conversation on environmental issues but also to recognize the interconnectedness of climate change and biodiversity loss. Both crises demand urgent, coordinated action that acknowledges and addresses the complex interplay of social, economic, and political factors contributing to these global environmental challenges.
In the Anthropocene, a geological epoch marked by the significant impact of human activities on Earth’s ecosystems, making sense of scale is crucial to understanding the implications of our actions on the environment. The current extinction crisis, characterised by an unprecedented rate of species loss, is a defining characteristic of the Anthropocene. Addressing the misconceptions surrounding extinction and biodiversity is essential in developing a more comprehensive understanding of the scale of the crisis and how it affects our planet.
Timothy Morton, a prominent eco-philosopher, offers a unique perspective on understanding the vastness and complexity of the extinction crisis through his concept of “hyperobjects.” Hyperobjects are phenomena that are massively distributed in time and space, extending beyond the traditional confines of human perception and understanding. Examples of hyperobjects include climate change, nuclear radiation, and, as argued here, the sixth mass extinction.
Viewing the extinction crisis as a hyperobject enables us to recognise its temporal and spatial vastness, transcending the limitations of our everyday understanding. Morton’s hyperobject theory allows us to grasp the profound interconnectedness of the extinction crisis with other environmental, social, and economic issues, acknowledging that no single event or action exists in isolation. Instead, we are entangled within an intricate web of cause and effect, wherein the consequences of our actions ripple across space and time.
Capitalism and extinction economics
The current extinction crisis, can be seen as a direct consequence of various aspects of capitalism. Key capitalist forces, such as competition, growth and productivism, imperialism and colonialism, and extractivism, have significantly contributed to the unprecedented rate of species loss that we are witnessing today.
Competition within capitalist systems drives businesses to prioritise profit maximisation at the expense of environmental sustainability. This relentless pursuit of growth and productivity fuels overconsumption of natural resources and further exacerbates the ongoing biodiversity crisis.
Imperialism and colonialism have also played a role in the extinction crisis by promoting the domination and exploitation of natural resources in colonised regions. Indigenous knowledge and sustainable practices have frequently been ignored or overridden, leading to the degradation of ecosystems and the loss of countless species.
Extractivism, another key aspect of capitalism, encourages the excessive extraction of natural resources for short-term economic gain, often with little regard for the long-term environmental consequences. This relentless extraction of resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels, and timber, has resulted in widespread habitat destruction and disruption of ecosystems, contributing to the rapid decline in biodiversity.
Misconceptions about extinction and biodiversity
One common misunderstanding is the rate and scope of extinction. Many people believe that extinctions occur very slowly and affect only a few species. However, the current extinction rate is much faster than the natural background rate, and numerous species, including plants, insects, and microorganisms, are at risk. This underlines the urgency to address the extinction crisis in the Anthropocene.
Another misconception is the assumption that only “charismatic megafauna” matter. While large, charismatic animals like elephants and tigers often garner the most attention when discussing endangered species, the loss of smaller and less well-known species can have profound effects on ecosystems. It is vital to recognise the importance of conserving all species, regardless of their size or popularity.
Many people believe that extinction is a natural process that has occurred throughout Earth’s history. While this is true, the current extinction crisis is primarily driven by industrial activities and is happening at a much more rapid pace than in the past. This highlights the need for immediate action to mitigate our impact on biodiversity.
Additionally, there is a misconception that extinction only affects animals and plants. The loss of biodiversity can have significant consequences for humans as well, including impacts on food security, ecosystem services, and cultural traditions. Understanding the interconnectedness of all life on Earth is essential in addressing the extinction crisis.
Lastly, some people believe that conservation is too expensive or impractical. While conservation efforts can be costly and challenging, many successful examples exist, and the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher in the long run. Investing in conservation initiatives is not only vital for the protection of biodiversity but also for the well-being of current and future generations.
The Living Planet Report 2022 by WWF presents alarming findings on the decline of wildlife populations, with an average drop of 69% since 1970. This decline highlights the urgent need for transformative action to address biodiversity loss. Europe, despite some conservation successes, continues to experience a downward trend in wildlife populations, while Latin America and the Caribbean have seen a staggering decline of 94%.1
The current extinction rate, often referred to as the “sixth extinction,” is significantly faster than the extinction rate during the time of the dinosaurs. While it is difficult to make a precise comparison due to differences in geological time periods and the availability of fossil records, scientific evidence suggests that the current extinction rate is orders of magnitude higher than the natural background rate of extinction.2
Studies estimate that the current extinction rate is anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times faster than the average rate observed over the past 10 million years. This rapid acceleration is primarily attributed to capitalism, such as habitat destruction, climate change, pollution and overexploitation.
In comparison, the extinction event that led to the demise of the dinosaurs, known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, occurred approximately 66 million years ago. It resulted in the extinction of approximately 75% of all plant and animal species on Earth, including non-avian dinosaurs. While this event was a significant mass extinction, the current rate of species loss far exceeds the natural fluctuations seen in Earth’s history. 3
The current extinction rate is not limited to large animals like the dinosaurs. Many smaller species, including insects and plants, are also facing extinction. This has important implications for the health of ecosystems and the services they provide to humans.4
Despite the dire predictions about the current extinction rate, there are also reasons for hope. Conservation efforts have successfully brought some species back from the brink of extinction, and there is increasing recognition of the importance of protecting biodiversity for the long-term health of our planet.5
As we traverse this critical moment in Earth’s history, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the current extinction rate is not just a marginal increase but an exponential acceleration almost impossible to comprehend. If we were to visualize this, it would be comparable to the catastrophic effects of a hundred to a thousand asteroids hitting Earth. While not a precise scientific comparison, this metaphor paints a vivid picture of the severity of the crisis we face.
Each hypothetical asteroid represents capitalism’s various impacts: habitat destruction, climate change, pollution and overexploitation. These phenomena are wreaking havoc on the ecosystems, contributing to a massive reduction in biodiversity akin to the effect of successive asteroid strikes. It’s as though we’re living through a slow-motion disaster movie, where the asteroid is not a singular event from outer space but a multitude of actions born out of our societal systems.
Extinction rate estimates
To directly compare the current extinction rate and the event that wiped out the dinosaurs, we need specific rates for both events, not just a general estimate for the current rate. Unfortunately, such precise estimates are not readily available for various reasons, including the incompleteness of the fossil record, differences in the duration of these events, and the ongoing nature of the current extinction event.
However, we can provide a rough comparison using the data provided in the references. Based on this information, the current rate is estimated to between 100 to 1,000 times faster than the background extinction rate, and the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event lasted a relatively short period (compared to geological time scales). In that case, it’s plausible to suggest that the current rate is several orders of magnitude higher than during the dinosaur extinction event. To provide a more accurate answer, scientists would need to calculate the specific extinction rates for both periods, considering the number of species that became extinct and the timescale over which these extinctions occurred.