Life on Earth has existed for over 3.5 billion years, though it has gone through some significant changes during this time. What began as single-celled organisms expanded and diversified into millions of different species, ranging in size from bacteria all the way to blue whales.
Of course, not every species that has ever graced our planet still exists today. Species go extinct for various reasons, but it happens slowly enough to where the effects are balanced, and there is usually something to replace the hole left in the ecosystem.
Other times, cataclysmic events cause a large number of species to go extinct in a short period of time. This is known as a mass extinction event, and has happened five times during the history of life on our planet. The one people are most familiar with came in the form of an asteroid that wiped out most of the dinosaurs, but that isn't the most recent one. We're actually smack dab in the middle of one right now.
If you're confused because you don't remember a terrible event befalling the Earth, just take a look around the room you're in. We humans are the reason that species are dying at a rate thousands of times faster than they would be under normal circumstances. In fact, the ongoing mass dying has actually been named after us: the Anthropocene Defaunation.
There are several ways that humans are the cause of this event, as outlined by It's Okay To Be Smart.
Habitat destruction is the most obvious way we are destroying life on the planet, and it happens in a number of ways.
When you cut down a tree, it isn't just bad for the tree. It's also bad for the fungi, plants, insects, and animals that have made their home there, as well as the animals who eat what lives in the tree. The competition gets pretty fierce when resources are so limited, and not everyone survives.
The Amazon Rainforest has the highest rate of biodiversity on the planet, but considering over 46,000 square miles are cleared each year, it won't remain that way.
Additionally, fragmenting a forest or wild area means that animals have to travel in search of mates and food, which they are not always able to keep up with. This is one of the main reasons for decline in cheetahs during the 20th century.
If you've heard that scientists disagree about climate change and human involvement in it, you've been lied to. Climatologists nearly universally agree that human activity is contributing to the warming climate and causing some widespread effects, including increased extreme weather that threatens animals and humans alike.
The additional carbon pumped into the atmosphere dissolves into the oceans, making them more acidic. The change in chemistry is particularly devastating to coral reefs as well as animals like clams and snails, who rely on hard, calcium based shells to protect them from predators.
Glacial ice is declining at a problematic rate, increasing sea levels and causing problems for the animals who depend on the ice, such as polar bears, penguins, and walruses.
Additionally, the changing seasons are affecting when many species migrate, which complicates food supplies and presence of certain predators.
Some species aren't dying out due to unintended side effects of our industrialization; they are dying out because we're killing too many of them, and typically for ridiculous reasons.
Certain regions still believe that animal products have medicinal properties, curing everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction (although there is zero scientific evidence to support this). Rhino horns, elephant tusks, shark fins, and tiger whiskers, to name only a few, have become highly sought after. While many of these species are under protection, the laws of supply and demand make the potential payout worth the risk to poachers.
Typically, poachers have more guns and better resources than the conservationists tasked with protecting them. To make matters worse, the poachers generally retrieve the part they are after and leave the rest of the animal to die. For instance, sharks will be brought aboard a fishing vessel, have their fins cut off, and be tossed back into the ocean.
This one is another that humans are to blame for, however unintentionally. As humans travel and explore the world, they often bring animals as pets, food, or have pests that have stowed away, all of which can have pretty big consequences.
Some animals that come into new areas are able to severely out-compete native species, using up all of the resources and choking out other species.
When a predator is introduced to an area that hasn't had a predator like that before, the animals endemic to the area do not have the evolutionary adaptations necessary to protect themselves. Essentially, they're sitting ducks, just waiting to be obliterated.
If we're going to even attempt to make things better, we need to get real.
Let's drop the Urkel-like disbelief that we lowly humans could be capable of such an atrocity, because the first step to being able to fix the problem is being realistic about the problem in the first place. Humans have undeniably caused these problems, and it will be up to us to solve them as best we can. How we can actually accomplish that isn't entirely clear yet, but we can start by individually reducing the negative impact on our planet.
[Header image: It's Okay To Be Smart]