We need to talk about the Global Extinction Crisis
The global extinction crisis (GEC) is hard to talk about – and I don’t mean metaphorically. There’s a broad, diverse and growing group of scholars, activists, artists and thinkers engaging seriously and eloquently with this phenomenon. But it can be surprisingly hard to communicate about it with colleagues in other fields, policy-makers, students and others outside of the academy. More often than one might think, talking about the GEC sparks a range of negative reactions, from skepticism to outright dismissal. Why is this the case?
I don’t think it’s down to ignorance or outright denial – although there are certainly a lot of misconceptions, which I’ll discuss shortly. There is widespread awareness of the term ‘extinction’, and of the fact that some species – ‘endangered’ ones in particular – are facing it. But unlike discourses on catastrophic climate change (which emerged in the same era as awareness of the GEC) there doesn’t seem to be a strong public sense of the scope and scale of the issue. For many of my interlocutors, the idea of a global extinction crisis just doesn’t resonate in a way that generates robust public discourse.
In the hopes of making these conversations a little easier, I’ve put together an FAQ including the most common questions I’ve come across – as well as the not-so-hidden objections, resistances and dismissals (in brackets).
I don’t know what a ‘global extinction crisis’ is (optional air quotes). Do you mean biodiversity decline/loss? (cue possible mansplaining).
No – I definitely mean the global extinction crisis. The term ‘decline in/loss of biodiversity’ refers to a particular way of understanding extinction drawn from Western secular scientific discourses. It measures the quantity of species, their richness and other factors (aggregated as ‘biodiversity’ – see my critique of the concept here) in relation to pre-calculated baselines. In other words, the concept of biodiversity decline/loss is a way of measuring patterns of species extinctions against scientific judgments of what does, or should, exist in a particular ecosystem.
Importantly, it also refers to the process through which the GEC happens, rather than the phenomenon itself – in the same way that ‘rising global average temperature’ describes the process that produces catastrophic climate change but does not capture the full meaning of the phenomenon. If we use the concepts of ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ synonymously with the concept of the GEC, we confuse one particular means of measurement with the much broader ecological, socio-cultural, ethical, economic and myriad other dimensions of the issue.
Talking about the GEC in terms of ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ also has a euphemizing effect: these terms suggest a slow, gradual diminution of biodiversity. In fact, the GEC is marked by a rapid and massive spike in species extinctions (see the graphs below). In terms of the distortion of scale and magnitude, referring to the GEC as ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ is similar to referring to war as a spike in violent crime rates, or to catastrophic climate change as ‘bad weather’. It misses the conceptual point, and significantly distorts understandings of what is at stake.
Source: Ceballos et al, 2015. “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the 6th Mass Extinction”, Science Advances, Vol. 1 No. 5. A shows a highly conservative estimate and B shows a conservative estimate of the spike in species extinctions.
Ah, now I get it – you’re talking about the effects of climate change (expression of relief at the introduction of a more familiar topic).
No: climate change and the GEC should not be conflated, but they are related in several important ways. First, catastrophic climate change is a driver of the GEC (see this article for a good explanation). Climate change affects global patterns of extinction in a number of ways, including by altering the composition of biomes to which particular life forms are adapted. For example, ocean acidification destroys the habitat of many marine species, while rising temperatures in montane areas may cause the extinction of specially-adapted tree species.
Second, climate change and the GEC share several drivers: for instance, deforestation contributes to both. However, it is important not to confuse a shared driver for the equivalence of two very different phenomena. Deforestation functions in specific ways within each respective phenomenon: by altering atmospheric conditions in the case of climate change, and by destroying unique habitats in the case of the GEC. In a related sense, it is crucial not to mix up the GEC with any one of its drivers. There is a tendency to assume that the GEC is a form of large-scale, generalized destruction, but it actually refers to something very specific: the total, global and irreversible elimination of a large number of interconnected life forms. To stick with our example, deforestation often produces extinctions that contribute to the GEC. However, it may instead produce local extirpations or decreases in population, but no extinctions. So despite the fact that both phenomena involve large-scale destruction, they should not be confused.
Third, catastrophic climate change and the GEC are threat multipliers: that is, they converge, compound and accentuate particular threats. For instance, the possible extinction of bees along with aridication of farmland could combine to produce massive famines. In such cases, the convergence of climate change and global patterns of extinction are more than the sum of their parts, and they exacerbate each other.
Fourth, the GEC may become an important (and underestimated) driver of climate change. For example, the large-scale extinction of plant species would have a substantial impact on the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The extinction of insects and other animals involved in the pollination of plants would also contribute to this trend.
So, climate change and the GEC are linked in important and complex ways but are undoubtedly distinct. This is often obscured by popular discourses, which often subsume the GEC within the category of climate change (or as one aspect of the Anthropocene). Indeed, the GEC rarely makes an appearance in international policy discourses except when it is mentioned as one of the many possible effects of climate change. As a result, its distinct causes, processes, significance and demands are often assumed to be the same as those of climate change. This leads policy-makers to underestimate the magnitude and significance of the issue, and discourages a clear focus on responses tailored to the GEC. Instead, the GEC should be recognised as a planetary crisis and threat on par with climate change and nuclear warfare in its potential effects on Earthly life.
Oh, you mean mass extinction, like the ones that killed the dinosaurs and dodos? (Optional subtext: that seems like a pretty niche topic, given the many, more urgent problems that humans are facing today).
Popular images of dinosaurs consign the GEC to history. Photo by Thomas Hawk.
Yes and no. An increasing number of scientists are predicting that the GEC will ultimately produce a sixth mass extinction event – formally defined as the elimination of 75% or more of extant species. If that does occur, then yes, the alteration of life on Earth may be similar – that is, similarly extreme – to what occurred during the previous five mass extinction events. Dominant species may disappear, along with entire branches of the evolutionary tree. And yes, some life forms will almost certainly survive, evolve and eventually fill these vacant niches – whether they turn out to be bacteria, giant rats or something completely unpredictable on the basis of existing life forms.
However, the global extinction crisis is not a distant historical event: it is happening now. The public popularity of narratives about extinct life forms – and dinosaurs in particular – has had the ironic effect of consigning mass extinction events to history. That is, people think of them as things that happen to other species, so long ago and far away that they seem fictional or mythical. This effect may be partially because of the physical and temporal scales of the crisis. No one can see the GEC ‘as a whole’, and it is spread out across a time period that, although miniscule in geological terms, far outstrips public memory and governmental planning. Also, mass extinction events are defined retrospectively, since every other one preceded the existence of humans by millions of years. So, since it hasn’t run its course yet, we can’t talk about the GEC in the same way that we discuss the five mass extinction events. However, it is currently unfolding into the recent past and the deep future, and transforming the fundamental possibilities of life on Earth. (So no, I doubt it qualifies as a ‘niche’ topic.)
Is there any actual/conclusive proof that a mass extinction is going to happen? (optional tone of knowing skepticism)
People tend ask this because they are (a) afraid that it might be true and/or (b) quite reasonably concerned about the distortionary effects of fear-mongering and securitization. Indeed, the extinction of 75% or more of extant life forms seems extreme, and perhaps too bad to be true. For some people, it sounds like the kind of scare-tactic used to strong-arm governments and business into inconvenient ‘environmental’ policies. For others, it sounds more like the kind of affective manipulation that governments and businesses might use in order to consolidate biopolitical power and control. These approaches are not entirely wrong-headed, wherever one stands politically. No one knows beyond a doubt exactly how many life forms might be eliminated in the GEC, and whether or not it will cross the threshold of a mass extinction event. There is substantial and growing evidence to suggest that this is likely to occur (for starters, see here, here and here) – and also lively contestation of this data (see, for instance here).
Either way, the debate over whether the technical threshold for a mass extinction event is passed is far beside the point. We may not be able to know whether or not 75%, 20%, 5% or 97% of currently existing life forms will still be extant in a few hundred years. What we do know is that the rates at which they are disappearing are rapid and extreme. The entire, intricate fretwork of life on Earth is undergoing a dramatic change – and not just a transformation, but rather the total destruction of many of its elements. It matters whether the numbers eventually add up to 75%, 20%, 5% or 97%, since each of these scenarios would produce a very different world. But this is not the only thing that matters. More significant, I think, is the global-scale destruction of the unique, irreplaceable worlds that have nurtured life on this planet for millions of years. We don’t need to wait for this destruction to pass a particular threshold to know how significant this is.
Scientific and philosophical skepticism are crucial contributors to public discourses on the GEC. They help to interpret, examine and criticize the various knowledge claims competing for the public’s attention. However, taken to an extreme, they may produce the kind of (un)intentional denialism that fuels climate skeptics in the face of overwhelming evidence. This means that we should focus on the concrete manifestations of the GEC instead of demanding certainty from the abstract terms used to interpret it. We should also turn more of this invaluable critical attention to responding to the GEC, whatever it turns out to ‘be’ in abstract terms.
Wait, do you mean just animals might go extinct, or humans too? (gasp)
I mean, potentially, everything currently alive (see title). Humans tend to think about extinction as something that happens to ‘animals’ (even though many of the most threatened life forms are plants) and not to ‘us’. The GEC doesn’t discriminate along species lines, no matter how much members of homo sapiens might like to be exempt. It involves the collapse of interconnected life forms, and it is not possible to determine in advance exactly which ones will go extinct and which ones will survive – this will be determined by the particular patterns and extinction cascades that occur. Even if this could be determined, it is not a matter of ‘losing’ particular species in a subtractive manner. What is threatened by the GEC is not an aggregate of species, but rather the unique, irreplaceable worlds formed amongst and across them. It is these worlds – and all of the life forms that constitute them – that will be affected by the GEC. This is not to suggest that all life forms are affected equally, for instance, those species designated as ‘endangered’ are more likely to go extinct than others. However numerous examples from history show that previously abundant species (e.g. African elephants or Great Auks) were subject to sudden extinction. So, it is misleading to assume that a life form is ‘safe’ simply because it does not make the IUCN ‘Red List’.
Humans should not uncritically assume that their species will survive the GEC, particularly in its current form. In fact, discussions about the possibility of human extinction in discourses of ‘existential risk’ should be brought into more critical encounters with discussions of the extinctions of other species. For instance, nuclear or biological warfare, asteroid strikes or hostile artificial intelligence might not only threaten the continued existence of homo sapiens, but rather of all living things. Potential drivers of the GEC – whether relatively gradual species extinctions or a suddenly nuclear blast – should be examined in concert. The most important factor, ethically speaking, is that they threaten the continuity of life forms – humans included.
It is important to note that for some of my Indigenous interlocutors, the idea of ‘extinction’ is negatively loaded. When applied to Indigenous groups, it tends to frame them as ‘endangered species’ that will inevitably face extinction. In this way, it also naturalizes the elimination of peoples, obscuring the central role of colonial violence. It’s crucial not to reinforce such destructive narratives (in fact, I think more attention needs to be paid to the role of colonial violence in the GEC). Here, the term ‘extinction’ doesn’t apply to just some humans, but rather to the idea that homo sapiens as a whole is not exempt from it. I am attempting to break down the siloed bodies of thought that separate discussions of ‘biodiversity’ from those of ‘human extinction’ by thinking of extinction in ontological terms. That means viewing it through the lens of the possibilities of being, non-being and negation – which do not stop at the boundaries of species.
Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of IR theorist or ethics expert? Why are you talking about this? (And what makes you think you’re qualified to talk about this – you’re not a proper scientist).
True, I am not a scientist, ‘proper’ or otherwise. But the GEC is not only a matter of science, nor is scientific inquiry the only way to respond to it. This crisis raises profound challenges to the continuity and possibility of life on Earth. I struggle to think of a more relevant topic for IR, which is concerned primarily with survival and security (which I have written about here), or global ethics, in which the largest-scale harms, dilemmas and problems are debated.
The possible collapse of Earthly life undermines the basic assumptions and principles of IR theory, demanding new paradigms and frameworks. Meanwhile, in global ethics, its magnitude and significance calls into question major concepts such as harm, responsibility and responsiveness. Across both of these disciplines, there are important frameworks for responding to large-scale harms and catastrophes, including genocide and nuclear warfare. Yet no such frameworks exist for the GEC.
A phenomenon as complex as the GEC should not be approached through a single definition or mode of response, even one as wide as ‘science’. As environmental humanists point out, the phenomenon of extinction is experienced in multiple ways across cultures and multi-species communities, who respond to it in diverse ways. Scientists have an important role to play in conceptualizing the GEC and considering possible responses, but theirs is not the only form of knowledge needed to confront this phenomenon. Insights from the arts and humanities, anthropology, geography and philosophy are helping to elaborate the nature, scope and depth of the GEC. Crucially, Indigenous and non-Western cosmologies, and the plural bodies of knowledge that they produce, offer distinct ways of conceptualizing the GEC and modalities of response. All of these forms of knowledge need to be engaged and brought into creative confrontation in order to respond to the GEC.
As an interdisciplinary researcher, I’m interested in drawing together, contrasting and critically combining different ways of knowing and experiencing the GEC in order to produce new and unexpected modes of response. Don’t expect me to answer specific questions about the rates of extinction facing your favourite species (a common test of a person’s ‘scientific chops’), or to reproduce the results of a particular study. What I do is to interpret what these data mean in terms of ethics, across cultures and forms of knowledge, in relation to existing norms and practices in international governance, politics, law and security, how they affect politics and how they might translate into effective collective action.
The GEC is too important to be ‘left to the scientists’ –not scientists specifically, but any group of people working within a single knowledge framework. This issue is big enough, and important enough, that we’re going to need every possible source of insight, wisdom and vision to confront it.
Yeah, I know what you mean about extinction (guilty look). But at the end of the day, it’s a ‘dirty word’/depressing topic and nobody in policy circles wants to talk about it.
This rings true, since policy-makers seem to avoid the term ‘extinction’ like the plague (see above). Of course policy-makers need to sell their ideas, and the promise of comprehensive demise is not necessarily a strong motivator – although, as mentioned earlier, the fear factor might be. But unfortunately, this attitude produces a profound inarticulacy about the GEC in governance circles, and encourages the use of misleading formulations.
For instance, as discussed above, policy-makers often use the term ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ to talk about aspects of the GEC. In most cases, the general area of policy-making is simply called ‘biodiversity’ or sometimes ‘conservation’. Both of these terms obfuscate in important ways. ‘Biodiversity’ is the ‘good’ that policy-makers want to protect or secure. To focus only on the positively-charged idea of biodiversity would be akin to using the term ‘survival and well-being’ to talk about disaster relief. It doesn’t address the threat at hand, but only the desired outcome of policy-making.
Using the term ‘conservation’ focuses not only on the positively-charged action being taken, but it also reduces the entire set of possible responses to one logic and approach. Certainly, conservation may play an important role in addressing the GEC, but it does not exhaust the gamut of ethical, socio-cultural, spiritual, political, economic and other modes of responsiveness that should be mobilized. It also entrenches the dominance of Western, scientifically-based and increasingly capital-driven forms of activity that not only exclude other approaches but may exacerbate the problem. It is very important not to assume that ‘conservation’ is a unified field, or that it is a proven ‘solution’.
What’s more, talking about the GEC in terms of ‘biodiversity’/’conservation’ makes it sound as if this phenomenon is manageable within the boundaries of existing frameworks and practices. This obscures the potentially unprecedented, radically disruptive nature of the problem, for which no existing policies, frameworks or norms are adequately prepared. After all, if they were, the GEC would not be occurring.
This FAQ demonstrates how difficult it can be to talk about the GEC. Often I find myself silently (or less silently) exclaiming: “Everything is *&$#ing dying! How much more clearly can I put it?” Of course this is an exaggeration, and of course the GEC is nowhere near this simple to grasp. But I stand by the sentiment: we need to be talking about the GEC directly, seriously, and, if not quite unflinchingly, then with reflexivity and critical thinking. We – and I mean a big, wide, profoundly plural, multi-cosmology, cross-disciplinary, inter-sectoral, intersectional, multi-species ‘we’ – need to confront the GEC face on, and with everything we’ve got.