Which predictions about the end of the world have come true
More threatening than climate change : The disappearance of species is the crisis of the century
Matthias Glaubrecht, author of this essay, is an evolutionary biologist, systematist, historian of science - and a regular author of the Tagesspiegel. He was head of the research department at the Berlin Natural History Museum. In 2014 he became the founding director of the “Center for Natural History” at the University of Hamburg.
When the astronaut William Anders circled the moon with Apollo 8 more than half a century ago, on Christmas Eve 1968, he saw and photographed the rise of the earth over our cosmic companion for the first time. The image “Earthrise”, the sight of our home planet from space, became a symbol for the fragility and isolation of the earth in the cosmos. This view also marks the beginning of a new environmental awareness.
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Perhaps the picture of this little blue marble in front of the infinite black of the universe impresses us so much to this day because we realize that we Earthlings only have this one planet. Even if people should someday fly to the planet Mars, we only have one of ours for life, which we have to protect and preserve.
Anders later commented: “We went to see the moon. But what we have really discovered is the earth ”. The look back from the moon has not only changed the view of mankind on our home planet. He shows us the unique cosmic stroke of luck: that the earth alone orbits this star at exactly the right distance between the terrestrial bodies inside and the gaseous planets further out in our solar system.
This perspective of the earth also holds a paradox in store: We spend billions flying to Mars to find traces of fossil water there, while we are on the - actually wrongly named - earth (whose surface is 70 percent of the water of the Oceans is covered) not only have not yet adequately explored the oceans with their depths.
Flying blind through creation
In fact, we live on a largely unknown planet that we do not yet know well enough from a biological point of view. "We are flying blind," is how evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson likes to describe our ignorance and ignorance of the life around us.
The majority of terrestrial animal and plant species are still undiscovered and unknown, scientifically neither named nor described. This hardly applies to conspicuous vertebrates such as birds or mammals, but even more so for the army of inconspicuous invertebrates - such as articulated animals such as insects, but also spiders, crabs and snails. As a first approximation, almost every animal is an insect, so the bon mot of the biosystematics in view of the actual abundance of species of precisely those arthropods. Current estimates assume eight million species; just a quarter of this tremendous variety of animal and plant species has so far been recorded. Bacteria and other microbes are not even considered here. This biodiversity is not only the greatest wealth on earth - and only on this planet; it is also threatened on a global scale.
From the evolutionary mayfly to the most terrifying predator in the history of the earth
We humans are, so to speak, the flash in the pan of evolution, a comparatively young newcomer in the history of the earth. The fossil tradition of life has existed for at least 550 million years; the first ancestors of those great apes emerged 15 million years ago, which learned to walk upright five million years ago and whose evolution finally led to our genus Homo two million years ago. We ourselves, homo sapiens, originated in Africa 300,000 years ago. About 70,000 years ago we left our home continent, colonized a large part of the earth in a very short time - and have now developed into the largest predator and most dangerous looter on the planet.
Wherever we went, we have massively changed the fauna and flora, especially in Australia and on the American double continent even having the largest mammals and birds ever living in the New Earth Era - including mammoths, mastodons and moas - in a kind of "blitzkrieg" extinguished.
Humans have been intervening in the natural processes of the earth for a long time. He has established himself as the ruler of the world and has meanwhile become a decisive evolutionary factor, the strongest driver of geological and biological, especially ecological processes. We dominate two thirds of the earth's land surface. We use them for our cities and settlements, industrial plants and traffic routes, but above all for agricultural areas to grow food or energy crops.
And for our farm animals. We overstrain our environment, on land as well as on water. And because we are destroying their habitats all over the world, the survival of many animal and plant species, for which we simply no longer leave any space, is at risk. The looting of raw materials and the overexploitation of biological reserves directly or indirectly destroy countless living beings.
Plastic, concrete and plutonium
The extent to which this is happening justifies speaking of a completely new geological age - the Anthropocene. This human time would officially end the Holocene - the post-ice age that began about 10,000 years ago. Enduring human signatures, argue those geoscientists who make this proposal, have long since marked this transition.
Similar to the extraterrestrial iridium, which is otherwise only found in meteorites, marks the catastrophic impact that also sealed the end of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous and at the same time led to the last of the known mass extinctions of species during the Earth's history For example, the sudden increase in radioactive material such as plutonium from aboveground atomic bomb tests or the increasing carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere are a permanent geochemical signal. In terms of geological history, the Anthropocene may only be the blink of an eye so far.
But since the middle of the 20th century at the latest, humans have been increasingly leaving behind a multitude of geologically distinctive signatures, including vast amounts of building materials such as concrete, cement and bricks, but also aluminum, plastic and devices. This “technosphere” already weighs an average of 50 kilograms on every square meter of the planet.
As another distinctive signature, humans are now causing one of the largest extinctions of species. It is true that mass extinctions have already occurred five times in the history of the earth. But this time we are the asteroid. Man alone is causing the sixth mass extinction of species - with similarly catastrophic proportions and effects. In the previous mass extinction events, a large part of the animal and plant world was destroyed in the shortest geological time, and evolution changed its direction, as it were.
The extinction of species - a global crisis
This time, too, shrinkage and death are of global proportions, but it happens on a planet densely populated by humans, with diverse ecological dependencies in functioning habitats and of vital species communities integrated into them. We are currently losing biodiversity dramatically all over the world - that biological diversity at various levels, from the genetic composition of individual populations to the diversity of organism species to the communities of entire ecosystems.
Soon the great charismatic animal species such as tigers and lions, leopards and jaguars, elephants and rhinos will be extinct. In Africa and Asia, for example, the populations of big cats as well as the imposing large mammals have collapsed. Often there are only remnants of them, in which the last of their kind are struggling to survive. But it is no longer just about the so-called "flagship species" of nature conservation, but about the disappearance of a large number of species. But even if the last specimens have not really disappeared yet, the loss is dramatic, drastic and irretrievable, among other things because the genetic diversity is massively reduced as a result.
It happens right in front of your own front door, in your own garden and in our cultural landscape, where tons of birds and insects are lost. It has been proven that three quarters of all flying insects in Germany are affected. But these are the food of birds, for example. As a result, 300 million farm and meadow birds have disappeared in Europe in the last four decades, and in North America it is likely to be as much as three billion birds, mainly on agricultural land and in settlements.
Likewise affected by the general decline in species are forests that have long ceased to be natural forests, but also rivers that we straighten, dike and block with weirs and barrages. So we lost salmon, sturgeon and smelt, and with them countless other fish. Or let's take the soil that we overfertilize and whose organisms we poison. Through all of this, species extinction has become ubiquitous. It ranges from the tropical rainforests and coral reefs to the vast savannah landscapes to the oceans, where the loss of natural spaces and living beings has now also become frightening.
Vanished forests, empty forests
At the forefront in terrestrial terms is the loss of forests worldwide. Around the globe, we have lost around half of the forest ecosystems in the past half century, of which there will soon no longer be any large, contiguous ones. Land use change is called euphemistically when, for example, in Brazil or Indonesia, forests on a large scale give way to agricultural land.
Even where remnants of original forests are still preserved or man-made secondary forests are growing up again, the populations of larger wild animals and birds have disappeared mainly through hunting and poaching. “Empty forest” is the name of this terrifying phenomenon that is spreading around the globe like a rampant epidemic. Deforestation, or “deforestation”, and consequently “defaunation”, the emptying of the animal world, are the two ugly sides of the same coin - the global loss of species, which biologically turns habitats into deserts.
A large number of relevant studies show that on all six continents and in all habitats the populations and occurrences of more and more species are shrinking dramatically and at an ever faster rate. Whole regions are becoming impoverished, apart from common species and a few profiteer species. This was recently confirmed by analyzes by the World Biodiversity Council IPBES (an independent international advisory body made up of experts, similar to the IPCC). According to this, up to a million larger and better-known animal and plant species will disappear by the middle of the 21st century.
The biodiversity crisis threatens to become a global crisis of life, a species drama with a planetary dimension. However, we must not underestimate the effects of an omnipresent loss of biological diversity. They are of enormous ecological explosiveness and considerable societal explosive power.
The real crisis of the 21st century
Man-made climate change is currently on everyone's lips. But that must not distract from the extinction of species - or better: from the need to preserve biodiversity. Because even without climate change, the mass death of animals and plants caused by humans is in itself one of the most pressing problems facing humanity. It is a massive threat to people themselves.
It's the real crisis of the 21st century! The anthropogenic climate change is intensifying the extinction of species even more, whereby it is becoming increasingly clear how closely the biosphere is linked to the geosphere. Without the unique biological treasure of biodiversity, the earth's ecosystems, on which we all depend, will not function. Our nutrition is based on them, from clean water and healthy soil to the free pollination services of the insects, which provide coffee and cocoa, apples, pears, tomatoes, cucumbers and many other foods.
The fact that the biomass of insects has collapsed dramatically, both in nature reserves and in agricultural areas, and here in Puerto Rico, for example, indicates - contrary to other, unfortunately erroneous assumptions - that industrialized agriculture, including that of agriculture, is in fact worldwide We have used highly effective and easily distributable poisons that, overall, our way of using land is the cause and trigger of the general decline in species.
If we want to continue to eat fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, which we should produce as regionally as possible, then we need intact habitats all over the world, which can only be guaranteed by an intact species community. Without a diverse nature, we cannot feed ourselves and we cannot survive. The areas used by humans will not produce sufficient yields without insects or without the activities of macro and microorganisms in the soil.
An inconvenient truth - about man
Very few people are aware of the extent to which we are dependent on nature and a diverse networked diversity of its organisms - from bread to bananas, from coffee in the morning to salad at lunchtime to wine or beer in the evening.
That is why the preservation of species and functioning natural ecosystems for human nutrition is a key future issue - and not just the question of energy and mobility. In case of doubt, however, the current one-sided debate about the climate obstructs the view of the biological realities of species extinction.
Most importantly, it ignores another inconvenient truth.
How did humans, as a comparatively young species, even manage to become so enormously - and thus so potentially suicidal - successful? Deeply anchored in our nature, we are a pioneer species with a pronounced exploration and conquest mentality. It is not only metaphorically, but literally in our DNA, to exploit our environment, to loot what we find in one place and then move on. We were very successful with it for a long time.
Because we are the way we are thanks to our first nature and biological roots, because we can hardly do anything else in terms of our evolution, we meanwhile cause global problems and endanger the future of humanity and animal and plant species worldwide. But we suppress that. This is another reason why most people are not aware of the drama and dimensions of species extinction. In the meantime we are squandering the evolutionary heritage of this earth. We do this out of myopia and ignorance - and precisely because humans have not learned otherwise in their evolution, do not really understand and live the benefits of sustainability.
Overpopulation, the repressed issue
One topic that we still largely turn a blind eye to is overpopulation: because it is historically burdened several times, either as neo-colonial or fascist, because it is religiously charged. But certainly also because all earlier calls from Kassandra, for example from a “population bomb”, have so far not come true thanks to the “green revolution”, among other things. However, those supposed all-clear that global population growth is declining are highly misleading. Because before the growth curve gradually flattens out towards the end of the century, there will certainly be many more people in the decades ahead of us. But these decades will be the decisive ones.
Almost eight billion people now live on earth. According to the most recent forecasts of the United Nations, which have the most well-founded figures, another two billion people will be added by the middle of the century and almost three billion by the end of the century. However, we are all already consuming excessive resources and space, which in turn threatens biological diversity and the survival of many animal species on earth. We are already destroying the most important treasure troves of biodiversity for our nutrition.
We pillage the forests, vacuum the soil and plunder the seas. We hardly understand what this means for our planet. And it is not just becoming more and more people who do more agriculture and use more land for it. Many of them also want a way of life that we are living in the western industrialized nations.This means that we will continue to overuse natural habitats, even if we use the most modern agricultural technologies and molecular genetic innovations, such as the "gene scissors" Crispr.
It has always been part of man's hubris that he hopes to find a technological solution for everything. But natural laws cannot be undermined in this way. To feed another three billion people, we will sacrifice even more nature. With our way of land use and agriculture, we will find ourselves in a quandary with even more people, who all want to get full and eat better, to produce even more food on even more land. Therefore, overpopulation and scarcity of resources will exacerbate the biodiversity crisis.
When our long, steeply upwardly pointing population curve finally tips, when our form of cultivating landscapes for human nutrition reaches its ultimate limits, mankind will have long since caused species extinction on a global scale.
Cumulative cultural evolution
In addition, humanity is unlikely to shrink peacefully. Rather, it is to be feared that this will go hand in hand with distribution struggles and migration movements, with hunger and chaos, wars and diseases. Actually, we should do everything we can to save our children and grandchildren from doing this.
However, if we continue to overexploit all habitats, poison the cultural landscape in this country, destroy forests in the tropics and plunder the oceans worldwide, then even progressive man-made climate change will no longer contribute much to the ecological apocalypse. The species crisis will have done this long ago.
We cannot afford either. Although the biodiversity crisis is costing us our survival, the protection of nature has by no means the same political status as the so-called climate protection, which is currently literally affecting the whole world. The “defaunation” of the Anthropocene - the emptying of the animal world in human time - and what it means, has yet to reach people's minds.
Even in the face of the climate crisis, the protection of habitats and nature must not be forgotten. And it would be fatal to just hope for a technological solution in the old belief in progress and trusting the motto “It still went well”. Then biology will catch up with us too.
Evolution has endowed us with intelligence - that is now essential for survival
So what can we do? We have to work towards a sustainable system for the use of nature and an ecologically fairer economy. To do this, we need new global rules to protect a diverse and living nature.
But that will only succeed if the homo sapiensFinally lives up to its name, and uses its ability and intellectual strength to cope with complex problems, this time to find solutions in a globally cooperative manner. It is true that our very own “first nature”, our evolutionary disposition, stands in the way. Even our “second nature”, our trained and learned behavior in social interaction, will not help us all-round. What we need is, as it were, a kind of new, faster evolution that adapts us to the circumstances.
“Cumulative cultural evolution”, a kind of third, a rational nature of man, is therefore called the solution of man-made problems. It would be a step in our development that would really mean change, really climbing to a higher level. There is already an impressive example in the past for such a way of solving problems that is only possible for us humans: When a multitude of new challenges arose in the transition from the hunter-gatherer existence to a sedentary lifestyle with agriculture and cattle breeding, mankind made it to develop new binding norms of behavior.
They manifest themselves in the world religions with their commandments. In fact, some anthropologists see such a new code of conduct for togetherness in the Old Testament.
Limiting the impact of humans and their activities to a level that is tolerable for the Earth's systems, including biodiversity, is another global human project. It requires the collective attention of the whole world, of all countries, and of individuals as well as common politics.
From the end of evolution as we know it
In fact, we can all do something about the extinction of species: through a more conscious approach to nature and a more sustainable lifestyle. We know that we are far too wasteful with resources, especially in the rich countries of the north. But the up-and-coming threshold and developing countries will also be challenged. Above all, it is about how we use our meadows, forests, rivers and oceans.
And for the individual it is specifically about how we design our gardens and cities, how many resources we use. At the moment this is anything but sustainable. What we therefore need is a fundamentally different understanding of - and relationship to - nature, of which we have to protect much more.
We don't have much time left for that. We have to overcome our own pioneering behavior and the conqueror and subject-maker mentality of people with the power of our intellect in the next ten, twenty or at most thirty years and develop a new behavior. We have to preserve more natural habitat and protect large areas of natural landscapes effectively.
Instead of the current 15 percent on land and seven percent in the sea (which will in fact become less), in future at least 30 percent of the earth should be protected in order to preserve biodiversity there. Experts warn that it would be better to put half of the earth under protection and leave it “green” by the middle of the century.
Man disappears in the Anthropocene
The next few decades will determine whether we can save millions of species from extinction. It is one of the greatest promises of every generation to the next generation that they should have it better one day. If we continue our fatal mode of economic activity, the overexploitation of nature, with billions more people, there will be enormous species loss and extinction, which will cause irreparable damage to the ecosystems.
A living environment with larger mammals, with many different birds, frogs and fish will be a thing of the past. Most of all, there will be a lack of insects and hosts of other useful animals. This will endanger our diet and ultimately the survival of a large number of people.
What we are currently doing is attacking the present on the future and the past: We are destroying the products of evolution, without which the living spaces of the earth, which are the basis of our life, will have no future. It would be the end of evolution as we have known it at least since the last great extinction of species. There is no doubt: life will go on even then. But it will take other paths. And then very likely it will do so without us.
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