A Frank Take

Humans Must Stop Sucking the Life Out of This Garden Party


Barn owls are a threatened species in Rhode Island. (istock)

“I can kill ’cause in god I trust”

— Pearl Jam, Do The Evolution

The call of the wild will someday, perhaps soon, only feature the sounds of ticks, cockroaches, rats, and tardigrades — you know, creatures that can survive the apocalypse and, in the case of the latter, even space.

Humans aren’t included on the list with the microscopic eight-legged space explorers also known as water bears or moss piglets, disease-carrying bloodsuckers, insects that can live for a week without their heads, and rodents that begin breeding as soon as five weeks of age — even though we are working hard to make end times a reality.

Animal and plant variety is crucial to human health and well-being, but the planet’s once-rich biodiversity, built up over eons, is being throttled by shortsighted humans. This shortsightedness is blinding us from the bigger picture. We can’t see the forest for the trees … because the trees have been chopped down.

Humans have been able to evolve and advance because the natural world provides the conditions and resources that make our growth possible. But rampant consumption and the cascade of destruction it unleashes will eventually lead to ecosystem collapse. The foundation is deteriorating. The air is foul. Soil sour. Drinking water poisoned. Oceans acidifying. Plants and animals dying.

The planet’s sixth mass extinction is being driven by human activity though the burning of fossil fuels and our unsustainable use of land and water. For instance, Global Forest Watch has estimated the planet has 3 trillion fewer trees now than at the start of human civilization.

During a time when plants and animals are going extinct faster than any period in human history, the survival of species, including Homo sapiens, and the continued existence of healthy ecosystems, on which our fate hinges, requires us to change our behaviors and attitude, immediately.

We can’t see the forest for the trees … because the trees have been chopped down.

Human population growth and our devouring of resources are the main factors contributing to the smothering of biodiversity. Species find themselves confined to increasingly smaller areas. Their continued existence is unsustainable and, thus, ours is in peril.

In February, a Virginia-based conservation research group found that 40% of animals and 34% of plants in the United States are at risk of extinction, and 41% of ecosystems are facing collapse.

Sean O’Brien, president of NatureServe, has called the conclusions of the 28-page report “terrifying.” He hopes it will help lawmakers understand the urgency of passing legislation that protects the natural world.

The report found the threats against animals, plants, and ecosystems are varied, but include habitat degradation and fragmentation, invasive species, polluting of rivers, and climate change.

It is hardly the only report published in the past decade that has spotlighted such disturbing findings.

Another study published in February found the total weight of Earth’s wild land mammals, from aardvarks to zebras, is now less than 10% of the combined tonnage of humans living on the planet.

The biomass of wild mammals on land and at sea is dwarfed by the combined weight of cattle, pigs, sheep, and other domesticated mammals, according to the study. The team of researchers calculated that the biomass of livestock has reached about 630 million tons — 30 times the weight of all wild terrestrial mammals and 15 times that of wild marine mammals.

A 2022 study found wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 69% during the past five decades. Populations of marine vertebrates declined 49% between 1970 and 2012, with some fish species declining by nearly 75%, according to a 2015 report.

A 2019 report found the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing,” according to one of the report’s co-authors. “The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

A 2014 study, published in Conservation Biology, found species are dying off as much as 1,000 times more frequently than they used to before humans arrived.

As an example, the study noted that across the 10,000 species of birds, a single species should have disappeared in the last millennium. Instead, in just the past 600 years, 140 species of birds have gone extinct.

Jurriaan de Vos, a Brown University Ph.D. researcher at the time (he is now a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Basel in Switzerland) and the study’s lead author, said this when the study was released: “This reinforces the urgency to conserve what is left and to try to reduce our impacts.”

We can’t keep pushing nature into a smaller and smaller box.

“I’ll do what I want but irresponsibly”

Rhode Island is home to 41 federally and/or state endangered or threatened animals, including the endangered northern diamondback terrapin, eastern spadefoot, peregrine falcon, and the barn owl and the threatened bobcat, least bittern, and least tern.

The list of Rhode Island plants that are state endangered, state threatened, or of concern is significantly higher, by 372 species. Habitat loss — i.e., terrible land-use management — is a major reason why the Ocean State is less lively.

While the emergency that is the climate crisis has been shrugged off for decades — also to human detriment — let’s hope the loss of life around us is met with more urgency.

The importance of biodiversity to human survival is paramount, regardless of where we live, play, or work. A planet with a variety of life provides “resilience — from the microbes that contribute to the formation of the human biome to the genes that help us adapt to stress in the environment — supports all forms of livelihoods, may help regulate disease, and is necessary for physical, mental, and spiritual health and social well-being,” according to an article posted on the National Park Service website.

The article notes human “dependence on biodiversity extends beyond the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.” It also includes the medicines we use to stay healthy and the materials we wear or use to build our homes. It influences how disease occurs in an individual or population, how the local climate is able to support life, and how resilient an area will be against flooding or a powerful storm.

Biodiversity also provides the building blocks for life. The services it provides include the production of new organic matter, the cycling of nutrients, and pollination.

“Without this constant creative process, life would quickly grind to a halt,” the authors of the National Park Service article wrote. “Primary productivity is a key determinant of biodiversity, meaning that plants and animals alike are dependent upon this supporting service for survival. Humans may be the best example of this, as humans are estimated to use or co-opt 40% of all net primary productivity.”

Much of the biodiversity that we are crushing, stomping, swatting, and mindlessly spraying with poisons are insects. While ticks and mosquitoes do us no favors, insects play a major role in the lives we are allowed to led.

Like many of the other creatures we share this planet with, insects are in trouble, because of artificial light pollution, the climate crisis, deforestation, and the overuse of pesticides.

A 2019 global scientific review found more than 40% of insect species are declining, and a third are endangered. The total mass of insects is falling by 2.5% annually, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

Humans wouldn’t last long without insects. Bees, beetles, butterflies, and many other bugs pollinate plants, enrich soils, and provide a protein source for species around the food web.

“Without pollinators, the human race and all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive,” according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Dung beetles alone are worth some $380 million annually to the U.S. cattle industry for their work breaking down manure and churning rangeland soil, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Insects feed us, directly and indirectly. Some 2,000 species of insects are eaten by humans. Insects pollinate about 75% of global crops, a service valued at up to $577 billion annually, according to the IPBES.

During a conservation about climate change with a co-worker (not ecoRI News) some two decades ago, he said, “Who cares if all the polar bears die.” My answer then is the same as now: all of us should.

Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected].


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  1. You should do an in-depth report on Rhode Island’s municipal Conservation Commissions. There are 34 of them, I believe. They get very little attention from the State, from our private conservation organizations, or the media. As a result, in the absence of guiding and educating resources, most CC’s don’t do much. They could and should be doing a lot more, such as devising municipal conservation plans, getting involved in local land use decision making, and utilizing what resources are available from the state such as the state’s Wildlife Action Plan which potentially could have a positive impact on local land use planning. As the Wildlife Action Plan’s “Community Wildlife Conservation Guide” bluntly tells us, there is no state protection for state endangered wildlife whose habitats are outside the bounds of “jurisdictional wetlands.” It’s up to municipalities alone to devise such protection. But they largely aren’t doing it. Their Conservation Commissions are in the dark and need help to switch the lights on. Saving habitat through acquisition alone, where so much attention is paid by our private organizations and the media, is insufficient to do the job. Potentially, our Conservation Commissions could.

  2. In 1967 I started reading about endangered species and how the rate of extinction was going up. We have known for 55 years, and for 55 years the planet has been under a devastating assault, primarily benefitting a criminal corrupt ruling elite masquerading as protectors of conservative values (like racism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, war, and letting polluters pollute and miners run rampant). We know more but are still falling behind. Sometimes speaking truth to power is what we must do.

    We also have to take more responsibility in making sure our reaction to the climate catastrophe puts justice at the core of greening the economy. That too requires us to look at the real data rather than follow the received wisdom. The rich do not want to give up their power even if they are driving us off the cliff. Yesterday i tried to deliver that message to the RI Commerce Corporation as they conducted a focus group on preparing for a climate economy. I pointed out they continue to treat climate as an add on to their economic discussion, but rather they need to put climate right at the heart of economic planning as developing resilience requires that we reduce overall consumption, because if we do not, the climate catastrophe will include famine. Even in Rhode Island.

    RI is still wedded to the growth model. humans already use 185% of the global biological productivity each year. Which means more forest dies every year. All the money going into fossil fuels needs to be diverted to future friendly industries. No plastic allowed.

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