Science

The disappearance of species is the crisis of the century

When the astronaut William Anders more than half a century ago, on Christmas Eve 1968, orbiting the moon with Apollo 8, he saw and photographed for the first time the rise of the earth above our cosmic companion. The image “Earthrise”, the view of our home planet from space, became a symbol for the fragility and isolation of the earth in the cosmos. This look also marks the beginning of a new environmental awareness.

Maybe the picture of this little blue marble against the infinite black of the universe still impresses us so much today because it makes it clear to us that we earthlings have only this one planet. Even if people should fly to the planet Mars at some point, we have only this one for life, which we have to protect and preserve.

Later Anders commented: “We flew there to discover the moon , But what we really discovered is the earth ”. Looking back from the moon has not only changed mankind's view of our home planet. He brings to mind the unique cosmic stroke of luck: that only the earth orbits the star at exactly the right distance between the terrestrial bodies inside and the gaseous planets further out in our solar system.

This perspective on the Earth also has a paradox: We spend billions flying to Mars to find traces of fossil water, while on Earth – which is actually incorrectly named – (the surface of which is 70 percent is covered by the water of the world's oceans) not only have the oceans with their depths not been sufficiently explored.

Blind flight through creation

In fact, we live on a largely unknown planet that we do not yet know sufficiently from a biological point of view. “We're flying blind,” evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson likes to describe our ignorance and ignorance of 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 the conspicuous vertebrates such as birds or mammals, but even more so to the army of rather inconspicuous invertebrates – such as arthropods such as insects in particular, but also spiders, crabs or snails. In the first approximation, almost every animal is an insect, so the bon mot of the biosystematics in view of the actual abundance of species in 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 taken into account here. This biodiversity is not just 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 terrible predator in the history of the earth

We humans are, as it were, the mayfly of evolution, a comparatively new addition to the history of the earth. At least 550 millions of years ago there is the fossil record of life, 15 Millions of years ago the first ancestors of those great apes were born, who 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 , are before 300 000 years ago in Africa. Before about 70 000 Years ago we left our home continent, settled a large part of the earth in a very short time – and meanwhile we have developed into the largest predator and most dangerous looter on the planet.

Kaspischer Tiger (Aufnahme aus Zoo), ausgestorben um 1970.

Caspian tiger (photo from zoo), extinct at 1970. Photo: mauritius images / FLHC 18 / Ala

Wherever we went, we changed the fauna and flora massively, especially in Australia and on the American double continent, even the largest ever living in the modern era Mammals and birds – including mammoth, mastodon and moa – were wiped out in a kind of “blitzkrieg”.

Humans have long been interfering in the natural processes of the earth. It has become the ruler of the world and has meanwhile become the 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 land to grow food or energy crops.

And for our farm animals. We overwhelm our environment, both on land and on water. And because we are destroying their habitats all over the world, the survival of many animal and plant species is at risk, to which we simply leave no space. The looting of raw materials and the overuse of biological reserves directly or indirectly destroy countless living organisms.

Plastic, concrete and plutonium

The extent to which this happens justifies speaking of a whole new geological age – the Anthropocene. This human age would officially end the Holocene – the post-ice age, which existed approximately 10 000 years ago. Permanent signatures of humans, so argue those geoscientists who make this suggestion, have long marked this transition.

Uraniafalter der Art Urania sloanus, ausgestorben um 1895

Urania butterfly of the species Urania sloanus, extinct at 1895 Fig .: Wikimedia Commons, drawing by William Swainson, 1829

Similar to the extraterrestrial iridium, which is otherwise only found in meteorites, marks the catastrophic impact that occurred before 66 Millions of years with the end of the Cretaceous period also sealed the end of the dinosaurs and at the same time led to the last of the known mass extinction of species during the history of the earth, such as the sudden increase in radioactive material such as plutonium from above-ground atomic bomb tests or the increasing carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere is a permanent one s geochemical signal. So far, the Anthropocene may only have been a blink of an eye.

But humans have been leaving no later than the middle of the 20. Century also a large number of geologically striking signatures, including tons of building materials such as concrete, cement and brick, but also aluminum, plastic and equipment. This “technosphere” is already on average 50 Kilograms on every square meter of the planet.

As another striking signature, humans are now causing one of the largest extinctions of species. So far, there have been mass extinctions five times in the history of the earth. But this time we are the asteroid. It is human beings alone who are causing the sixth mass extinction of species – with similarly catastrophic proportions and effects. During the previous mass extinction events, a large part of the flora and fauna was destroyed in the shortest possible geological history, and evolution changed its direction.

Species extinction – a global crisis

This time, too, shrinkage and death are global, but it is happening on a densely populated planet, with diverse ecological dependencies in functioning habitats and the vital species communities that fit into them. We are currently dramatically losing biodiversity all over the world – that biodiversity at different levels, from the genetic composition of individual populations to the diversity of organisms to the communities of entire ecosystems.

Variabler Buschfrosch, ausgestorben um 1860.

Variable bush frog, extinct at 1860. Fig .: Wikimedia Commons, Albert Charles Lewis Günther

The large charismatic animal species such as tigers and lions, leopards and jaguars, elephants and rhinos will soon be extinct in nature. The populations of big cats and the imposing mammals have long since collapsed in Africa and Asia. Often there are only residual stocks of which the last of their kind are fighting for survival. But it's no longer just about the so-called “flagship types” of nature conservation, but the disappearance of a large number of species. But even if the last specimens have not really disappeared, the loss is dramatic, drastic and irretrievable, among other things because the genetic diversity will decrease massively.

It happens right on your doorstep, in our own garden and in our cultural landscape, where birds and insects are lost en masse. In Germany, it is proven that three quarters of all flying insects are affected. But these are food for birds, for example. In Europe alone has therefore disappeared in the past four decades 300 Millions of field and meadow birds, in North America there should even be three billion birds, especially on agricultural land and be in the settlements.

Also affected by the general loss of species are forests that are no longer natural forests, but also rivers that we straighten, embank and block by weirs and barrages. So we lost salmon, sturgeon and smelt and with them countless other fish. Or let's take the soils that we fertilize and poison their organisms. All of this has made species extinction 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 organisms has also become frightening.

Vanished forests, empty forests

At the forefront in terrestrial is the loss of forests worldwide. Around the world, we have lost about half of the forest ecosystems in the past half century, of which there will soon be no large contiguous ones. Land use change is said euphemistically when, for example, forests in Brazil or Indonesia give way to agricultural land on a very large scale.

Even where remnants of original forests have been preserved or secondary forests created by humans are growing up again, the stocks of larger wild animals and birds have disappeared, above all due to hunting and poaching. “Empty forest” is the name of this terrifying phenomenon that stretches around the world like a rampant plague. 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 makes habitats biologically deserts.

Wandertaube, ausgestorben 1914.

Walking pigeon, extinct 1914. Fig .: Wikimedia Commons, after a watercolor between 1910 and 1914

A large number of relevant studies show that the populations and occurrences of more and more species are shrinking dramatically and faster on all six continents and in all habitats. Whole regions are 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 board made up of experts, similar to the IPCC). Accordingly, until the middle of 21. Century up to a million larger and better known animal and plant species disappear.

The biodiversity crisis threatens to become a global crisis of life, a species drama of a planetary dimension. However, we must not underestimate the effects of a pervasive loss of biodiversity. They are of enormous ecological explosiveness and considerable social explosiveness.

The real crisis of the 21. Century

At the moment everyone is talking about man-made climate change. But that must not distract from the extinction of species – or rather: the need to preserve biodiversity. Because even without climate change, the man-made exit of animals and plants is one of the most pressing problems for mankind. It puts people at great risk.

It is the real crisis of the 21. Century! Anthropogenic climate change further increases the extinction of species, whereby it becomes increasingly clear how closely the biosphere is linked to the geosphere. Without the unique biological treasure of biodiversity, the earth's ecosystems, which we all depend on, will not function. They are the basis of our diet, from clean water and healthy soils to the insect's free pollination services, which provide coffee and cocoa, apples, pears, tomatoes, cucumbers and many other foods.

Kapverdischer Riesenskink, ausgestorben um 1940.

Cape Verde giant skink, extinct at 1940. Fig .: Wikimedia Commons, J. Terrier – Rochebrune, A.-T. (1883 – 85), Faune de la Sénégambie I-Atlas. Vertébrés. Reptiles: Planche XIII.

The fact that the biomass of insects has plummeted, both in nature reserves as well as on agricultural land, and with us, such as in Puerto Rico, indicates – contrary to other, unfortunately erroneous assumptions – to the fact that industrialized agriculture, including the highly effective and easily distributable poisons used worldwide, that our overall way of land use is the cause and trigger of the general loss of species.

If we want to continue eating fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, which we should produce as regionally as possible, we need intact habitats all over the world, which are only guaranteed by an intact species community. Without a diverse nature, we cannot feed and 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 humans

Very few people are aware of the extent to which we are dependent on nature and a diverse network of organisms – from bread to banana, from coffee in the morning to salad at noon to wine or beer in the evening.

That is why the preservation of species, of functioning natural ecosystems for human nutrition is a central topic of the future – and not just the question of energy and mobility. When in doubt, however, the current one-sided debate about the climate still obscures the biological realities of species extinction.

Above all, it ignores another uncomfortable truth.

Kleiner Kaninchennasenbeutler, ausgestorben um 1970.

Little rabbit nose poacher, extinct at 1970. Fig .: Wikimedia Commons

How did man as a relatively young species manage to do it so enormously – and with it so potentially suicidal – to become successful? Deeply rooted in our nature, we are a pioneer with a strong 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 to move on. We have been very successful with this 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 are now causing global problems and endangering the future of mankind and animals. and plant species worldwide. But we are repressing that. This is another reason why most people are not aware of the drama and dimension of species extinction. In the meantime we are squandering the evolutionary legacy of this earth. We do this out of nearsightedness and ignorance – and precisely because humans have not learned it differently in their evolution, do not really understand and live the benefits of sustainability.

Overpopulation, the repressed topic

One topic that we still largely close our eyes to is the overpopulation: because historically it has been preloaded several times, either as neocolonialist or fascist, because it is religiously charged. Certainly also because all previous Kassandra calls, for example from a “population bomb”, have so far not come true thanks to the “green revolution”. However, the all-clear signals that global population growth is declining are highly misleading. Because before the growth curve may gradually flatten out towards the end of the century, there will certainly be a lot more people in the decades immediately ahead of us. These decades will be the decisive ones.

Labrador-Enten, ausgestorben um 1875.

Labrador ducks, extinct at 1875. Fig. : Wikimedia Commons, Illustration Louis Agassiz Fuertes, from A Natural History of Ducks, 1922

There are now almost eight billion people living on Earth. According to the latest forecasts by the United Nations, which have the most solid figures, there will be another two billion by the middle of the century and almost three billion by the end of the century. However, we are already consuming excessive amounts of resources and space, which in turn threatens the biodiversity and survival of many animal species on Earth. We are already destroying the most important treasure troves of biodiversity for our food.

We treasure the forests, vacuum the soil and loot the seas. We hardly understand what that means for our planet. And it’s not just that more and more people are doing more farming and using more land. Many of them also want a way of life that we exemplify in the western industrialized nations. This means that we will continue to overuse natural habitats even if we use the latest 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. We will sacrifice more nature to feed another three billion people. With our way of land use and agriculture, we will find ourselves in the bind of even more people who are all fed up and want to eat better, to produce even more food on more land. Overpopulation and scarcity of resources will therefore exacerbate the biodiversity crisis.

If our long, steeply rising population curve finally falls, when our form of landscape management for human consumption reaches its last limits, humanity will have long since caused a species extinction of global magnitude.

Cumulative Cultural Evolution

In addition, mankind is unlikely to shrink peacefully. It is more likely that this will go hand in hand with distribution struggles and migration movements, with hunger and chaos, wars and diseases. We should actually do everything we can to spare our children and grandchildren.

However, if we continue to overuse all habitats, poison the cultural landscape in Germany, destroy forests in the tropics and loot 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.

Gravenche, ausgestorben im frühen 20. Jahrhundert.

Gravenche, extinct in the early 20. Century. Fig .: Wikimedia Commons, Illustration in the book Fresh-Waters Fishes of Europe. A History of their Genera, Species, Structure, Habits and Distribution by Harry Govier Seeley

We cannot afford both. Although the biodiversity crisis is costing us our survival, the protection of nature is far from being politically as important as climate protection, which is literally moving 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 overlooked. And it would be fatal to hope for a technological solution in the old belief in progress and trusting the motto “It was still going well”. Then biology will catch up with us too.

Evolution has given us intelligence – it 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 more just economy. To do this, we need new global rules to protect a diverse and vibrant nature.

But this will only succeed if the Homo sapiens finally lives up to its name, and its ability and intellectual strength to cope plays out complex problems in order to find solutions in a worldwide cooperative manner. Our very own “first nature”, our evolutionary disposition, is in our way. Even our “second nature” alone, our learned and learned behaviors in social interaction, will not help us all. What we need is a kind of new, faster evolution that adapts to the circumstances.

“Cumulative cultural evolution”, a kind of third, a reason-nature of the human being, is therefore the solution of man-made problems. It would be a step in our development that would really mean change, really climbing a higher level. There is already an impressive example of this kind of problem solving that is only possible for us humans: When the transition from being a hunter and gatherer to a sedentary lifestyle with agriculture and animal husbandry once posed a multitude of new challenges, mankind managed to do it develop new binding standards of behavior.

They manifest themselves in the world religions with their commandments. In fact, some anthropologists see the Old Testament as a new code of conduct for each other.

Quagga, ausgestorben 1883

Quagga, extinct 1883 Photo: akg / North Wind Picture Archive

Limiting the effects of humans and their activities to a level that is tolerable for the earth's systems, including biodiversity, is again a global human project. It requires the collective attention of the whole world, all countries and thereby both the individual and the common politics.

From the end of evolution as we know it

In fact, we can all do something about species extinction: by being more aware of nature and a more sustainable way of life. We know that, especially in the rich countries of the north, we use resources far too wastefully. But the emerging and developing countries will also be challenged. It is all 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 need is a fundamentally different understanding of – and relationship to – nature, of which we have to put much more protection.

We don't have much time left for that. We must overcome our own pioneering behavior and the conqueror and subject-do mentality of man with the strength of our minds in the next ten, twenty or at most thirty years and develop a new behavior. We need to preserve more natural habitats and effectively protect natural landscapes on a large scale.

Instead of the currently 15 percent on land and seven percent in the sea (which will actually become fewer) should at least in future 30 percent of the earth to be protected in order to preserve biodiversity there. It would be better, experts warn, to even protect half of the earth and leave it “green” by the middle of the century.

Man disappears in the Anthropocene

The next few decades will decide whether we can save millions of species from extinction. It is one of the greatest promises of every generation to the following that they should have it better one day. If we continue our fatal way of doing business with nature, the overexploitation of nature, there will be a huge loss of species and species extinction, which will cause irreparable damage to the ecosystems.

An animated environment with larger mammals, with many different birds, frogs and fish will long be a thing of the past. But above all, insects and the host of other useful animals will be missing. This will endanger our diet and ultimately the survival of the majority of people.

What we are currently doing is an attack on the present and the past: we are destroying the products of evolution, but without them the habitats of the earth, which are our basis of life, will have no future It would be the end of d he evolution as we know it at least since the last great extinction. There is no doubt that life will continue even then. But it will take other paths. And very likely it will do so without us.

Matthias Glaubrecht ist Direktor des

Matthias Glaubrecht is director of the “Center for Natural History” at the University of Hamburg. Before that he headed the department … Photo: Uni Hamburg

Der Autor dieses Essays hat zum selben Thema bei C. Bertelsmann (2019) das Buch

The author of this essay has on the same subject with C. Bertelsmann (2019) published the book “The End of Evolution”. It has … Fig .: Publisher

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