Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Are We In the Sixth Mass Extinction?

A few months ago, we read about the passing of Lonesome George. No one knew for sure, but he was thought to be around 100 years old. This much is certain: There will never be another one like him.

That’s because Lonesome George was the last of his species, the Pinta giant tortoise. They are now extinct, gone forever. Tens of thousands of George’s forbears used to roam on tiny Pinta Island in the Galapagos chain. But generations of sailors and hunters decimated them for meat on sea voyages, and ship-borne goats ravaged their feeding grounds. In the end, there was only Lonesome George, tended by researchers who clung to the hope that he would mate with females from other giant tortoise species. 

No such luck. George is gone, and with him, his race. We can cross off another of God’s species from the list.

Lonesome George: The last of his kind
A pity, no doubt. But this can’t be that big a deal, right? After all, can you even name more than a few species to have died off in the modern era? The dodo, a flightless bird eaten by hungry sailors on Mauritius.  And the once-ubiquitous passenger pigeon, consumed in mass quantities by Americans in the 19th century. Any others? Wasn’t there an obscure golden toad a few years ago?

If you’re like me, you’ve had a hard time ginning up much concern, given the minimal exposure we’ve had to extinction. So this will probably come as a shock to you, as it did to me: Many highly-respected scientific associations tell us that we are now in the midst of a global mass extinction, like the one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. 

Scientists tell us that there have been five mass extinction events in earth’s history. The first occurred more than 400 million years ago, and brought to an end the Ordivician Period, with its ten-foot-long predatory mollusks, ancestors to today’s nautilus. We’re told that sixty percent of all species worldwide were exterminated.  And the most recent extinction brought down the curtain on the Cretaceous Period – dooming the dinosaurs and virtually all large land animals – some 65 million years ago.  In between, the earth lost 80-95% of all marine creatures at the end of the Permian Period, a time so lethal to living creatures that it’s called “the Great Dying.”

The first thing that comes to mind in such times is the death of land creatures, but the effect on marine life was catastrophic in each instance. Oceans warmed or cooled, sea levels rose or fell, CO2 concentrations increased in the atmosphere, and ocean acidity rose to levels beyond the tolerance of marine life. And always, coral reefs died en masse, and did not recover for millions of years. 

But with such events coming along only every fifty million years or so, what’s the worry? Getting struck by lightning is no fun either, but given the odds, we don’t fret too much. In this instance, that would be a mistake. The next Great Dying has already begun, and human fingerprints are all over it. 

It’s a shame that so few have paid attention, but researchers are following the Great Dying as it unfolds. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes an extinction score card called the “Red List” every four years.  The Red List (or Red List of Threatened Species) analyzes the status of 44,838 animal and plant species worldwide. The statistics are alarming. Actual extinctions to date are – perhaps – not so bad: 869 species are known to have vanished in our era. But there are another 16,928 species that are threatened with extinction, and another 3,796 species on the bubble. Together, they comprise more than 46 percent of all plant and animal species assessed by the IUCN, and they outnumber by far the species that the IUCN deems to be healthy, or “least concern.”

IUCN 2008 Red List
More ominously, the Red List has only scratched the surface of the earth’s living species. For every one of the species evaluated in the Red List, there are another 44 known species waiting to be assessed. And the approximately two million known species on earth are widely thought to be outnumbered around 4-to-1 by species yet to be discovered and described. Bottom line? For each Red List assessed species, there are likely another 150 species whose threat status is known today to no one.

The Red List trends give us an idea of where we’re headed, if humans don’t act decisively, and soon. In the most recent report, the threat status of 187 species of mammals had deteriorated from four years earlier; only 37 saw improvements. For birds, 30 species were more threatened than before; only two improved. For amphibians, the ratio was 7-to-1.

With almost half of all assessed living species threatened with extinction, how could things possibly get worse? Well, it turns out that things could get a lot worse – and they are. That’s because we’re adding climate change and its “evil twin” – ocean acidification – into the mix.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that approximately 20-30% of plant and animal species will be at high risk of extinction as global mean temperatures exceed warming of 2-3oC above preindustrial levels.  Another synthesis study predicts 15-37% “commitment to extinction” (passing the point of no return) by 2050. And if we fail to act on climate change during the next fifty years, then as many as 70% of living species could well vanish.

It’s important to note that the projected climate contribution to extinction is, in many cases, above and beyond the ongoing pace of dying identified by the Red List.

There is, of course, a term for all this: Mass Extinction Event.

Against this backdrop, two biblical narratives stand out which may direct God’s people. First, in Genesis 2, we read that God placed the man he had created in his perfect garden “to work it and take care of it.” From the beginning of the Bible, man’s purpose was to care for all the things God had made.  And over time, as the earth filled with violence and corruption, we read in Genesis 6 that God instructed another man to build an ark to protect the lives of “every kind of bird, every kind of animal and every kind of creature that moves along the ground,” in the face of looming catastrophe. Christians can hardly take the Bible seriously – however we interpret these texts – without also seeing our God-given responsibility for all creatures, and his care for each of them.

And for those of other faiths, or none at all, it is worthwhile noting something else. In each of the prior five mass extinction events, vast numbers of species of plants and animals perished. But in each case, the dominant species at the top of the food chain was not spared either. They perished along with the smallest things. In our day, that would be you and I, or our children and grandchildren.

In the coming posts, we will be taking a closer look at extinction threats and conservation efforts, including the following:

  • Detailed stories from the Red List: Who’s most at risk, and why? How threatened are they?
  • How does climate change contribute to the risk that species will vanish forever?
  • A close-up look at climate-driven species decline on a tiny island off the coast of Washington.
  • Dying reefs: Why corals died then; why now; and why it matters.
  • How much longer for the Great Barrier Reef? And what happened to the Caribbean?
  • How bad is ocean acidification? What does it harm? What can we do to stop it?
  • What caused prior mass extinctions? Any parallels for us?
  • Species conservation: How can you and I “take care of the garden?”

I hope you benefit from these coming posts. It’s taken most of my life for me to hear the call to seriously care for God’s other creatures. Maybe this exercise will help motivate us to take seriously this most basic element of our created purpose as humans.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood


  1. John, thanks for this great post, and the coming series. If I can get back to more regular blogging with Not One Sparrow in the coming months, perhaps I could dialogue with you about sharing the series there somehow? grace and peace,
    Ben D.

    1. Ben: Not One Sparrow is a great blog, and I look forward to your new posts. I would be glad for you to use the extinction series. Already A Rocha and IUCN have agreed to help make sure I get it right, and I am enormously grateful for that. I would be glad for you to use these however you like, including whole cloth reproduction on your blog.

  2. Blessed and inspired by the calling to take care of HIS creation. Quite amazing to me, personally, that I come to know God in my life, get connected with HIS creation calling to some extent, and walk with somebody somewhere far away from where God's laid on this earth. None of these things has I ever imagined.
    Always my honor to know one who knows God and follow HIS calling. Blessings