Earth’s sixth major extinction: Why loss of biodiversity matters

Photo of a Zanzibar red colobus monkey
Sergio Boscaino/Creative Commons

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For a class assignment, I stumbled upon a link to an environmental news article from 2007 by Julia Whitty titled “By the end of the century half of all species will be extinct. Does that matter?” Luckily, this article was stored by the Wayback Machine, a digital archive of the internet, and can still be accessed. Although it’s been 15 years since the article was published, it appears that little has changed. Those of us who have taken a basic environmental sciences class have learned that Earth has gone through five major extinctions within the past 439 million years. The most recent extinction event, the end of the age of dinosaurs, is probably the extinction most are familiar with. However, there is currently a sixth mass extinction happening at this very moment.

Current estimates indicate an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity, roughly 100 times higher than the standard rate of extinction normal to the evolutionary process. It’s not only well-known endangered species like pandas or rhinos that are going extinct, estimates say that roughly 15,000 of Earth’s 8 million species are threatened with extinction.  The scope of this problem is only further exacerbated by the fact that millions of unidentified species are also subject to the disastrous effects of human-driven climate change.

This rapid loss of biodiversity will affect humans negatively in many ways. The proper functioning of ecosystems is a necessary component for various “ecosystem services,” such as providing clean air, fresh water, medicine and food security.

Whitty suggests proper conservation efforts as the only way to preserve biodiversity. She cites The Wildlands Project, a conservation group operating in North America, as an organization seeking to “rewild” remaining wildernesses. The process of “rewilding” involves reconnecting areas of wilderness that span across the continent in an effort to create “mega preserves.”

Fifteen years after Whitty wrote her article, The Wildlands Project, now operating as The Wildlands Network, celebrated 30 years of sustaining biodiversity in 2021. While operating under a new name, the central commitment to continental “wildways,” or interconnected corridors of wilderness spanning North America, has not changed. Wildland Network’s recent blog post highlights the ever-increasing miles of bollard walls that close off the U.S.-Mexico border. Recently, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol released a plan to restore and remediate public lands that were affected by border wall construction. However, these plans fail to address the disastrous ecological effects of the border wall. The 230-mile border wall currently being constructed in Arizona creates an impassable barrier for any animal bigger than a cottontail rabbit.  To preserve biodiversity, the construction of large, constricting man-made structures must be designed with ecological intent and integrity to mitigate its effects on species loss

From 2007 to 2022, the story remains unchanged. The effects of human activity continue to negatively impact Earth’s biodiversity. The ways in which we all collectively benefit from a rich variety of species in our ecosystems remains unappreciated. Understanding the importance of Earth’s biodiversity is the first step to recognizing and saving this indispensable resource.

Contact Adrian Fontao at [email protected].