Essay on Extinction and Capitalism

Published: 2021/11/11
Number of words: 1167

Of the four billion species estimated to have evolved over the past 3.5 billion years, 99% of them are gone. (Barnosky et. al, 51). Extinction, therefore, is not at all uncommon. Natural selection drives some creatures to thrive and others to die off, but this is almost always balanced by the evolution of new species to fill the newly opened niches. Only six periods are known to have reached such catastrophic levels of extinction that they can be classified as mass extinctions; the Holcone epoch, our current period of geological time, is one of them. Extinction rates have been increasing since the beginning of this epoch around 12,000 years ago, but it is only within the last 500 years that species have been dying off at alarming rates. The root of this sudden change is not one typically suspected. By encouraging overconsumption and exploitation of the natural world, capitalism has and is continuing to be the driving factor in the current Holocene extinction.

It is necessary, before beginning to analyze the contributing factors of this crisis, to defend the assumption that there is a crisis at all. While experts agree that modern extinction rates are concerningly high, there is debate as to how this situation should be classified (Barnosky et. al, 51). The issue lies in that, of the approximately 2 million known and named species existing today, less than 3% have been formally evaluated for extinction status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Barnosky et. al, 52). This poses a real challenge for researchers wishing to collect accurate data. However, using the more thoroughly researched species groups, Barnosky and his fellow researchers compare both the rate and magnitude of extinctions past and present to extrapolate a sound conclusion from the uncertainty: “Current extinction rates for mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles, calculated over the last five hundred years… are faster than or as fast as all rates that would have produced the Big Five extinctions.” (Barnosky et. al, 55) From this, it is predicted that the magnitude of extinctions could reach 50% of all species in as little as three centuries. Braje and Erlandson reach a similar conclusion in their journal by comparing the current extinction rates to the natural background extinction rate. In the periods between mass extinctions, depending on what group of creatures is being considered, the background extinction rate is approximately one species extinction every 1-10 years. (Braje and Erlandson, 15) However, Braje and Erlandson claim that current estimates put today’s extinction rates at 100-1,000 times that average (14). Both groups of researchers claim that these results are calculated to err on the side of conservative (Braje and Erlandson, 14) (Barnosky et. al, 51). These figures support the claim made by many scientists that this crisis is our sixth mass extinction (Braje and Erlandson, 14).

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If the planet’s next mass extinction is underway, as research suggests, it then follows to ask what the cause of it is. Previous mass extinctions were caused most prominently by dramatic changes in temperature or the level of CO2 in the atmosphere (Barnosky, 51). While the earth is currently undergoing global warming and a rise in CO2, it has not been this way for very long. The climate began to change rapidly a mere 500 years ago (Braje and Erlandson, 15), yet the current rate of extinction is disproportionately high compared to this relatively short time scale. What, then, is the reason? Research points to one simple and massive cause: humans. Even before capitalism globalized ecocide, humans have been detrimental to the ecosystem. Braje and Erlandson found that the arrival of anatomically modern humans coincides with the extinction of more than 60% of all megafauna genera in the Americas, Europe, and Australia (15). A combination of overhunting, habitat disturbance, and disease triggered the population collapse that would begin the long legacy of human interactions with the natural world. However, it wasn’t until the advent of domestication and agriculture that human influence became the primary driver of plant and animal extinctions (Braje and Erlandson, 20). A dramatic change in the relationship between humans and the environment was underway. Native creatures were exterminated, seen as pests or food sources; huge swaths of biologically diverse forests and jungles were cut down to make way for monoculture farming; non-native plants and animals were introduced that further increased pressure on the native species (Braje and Erlandson, 20).

There has been a significant factor at work during the last 500 years, driving the ever-increasing exploitation of the environment. It is an ideology that, in many ways, has done more to harm the earth than any other factor. Capitalism, along with its forefather imperialism, is an economic system that extends so much farther than it seems. As Dawson claims, “it is only with the expansion of Europe and the development of modern capitalism that ecocide has taken on a truly global extent and planet-consuming destructiveness” (42). Many of the ideas necessary for capitalism to be successful are directly harmful to the environment, such as that of ceaseless expansion. Competitors in a capitalist market must continue to expand their business if they are to succeed against others, “driving capital to expand at a compounded rate” (Dawson, 53). While implicating capitalism as a driving factor may seem close to a conspiracy, it does indeed hold a fair quantity of truth. As Braje and Erlandson noted in their research,“the wave of catastrophic plant and animal extinctions that began with the late Quaternary megafauna of Australia, Europe, and the Americas has continued to accelerate rapidly since the industrial revolution” (20) In the competitive economy that is the basis of capitalism, there was little concern for the sustainability of their exploits.

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Capitalism, although a relatively recent development in the geological time scale, has had perhaps a greater impact on the ecosystem than any other single factor. It is the driving force behind much of the exploitation that runs rampant throughout the world, and as such it should become the focal point for efforts striving to combat this growing ecological crisis. Green capitalism, which holds businesses accountable for their impact on the environment, is a tentative first step in the right direction. Although it is far from a perfect answer and will not reverse the harm that has already been done, it could slow the rate of damage just enough to salvage our remaining ecosystems while a more sustainable solution is being developed. However, people cannot continue to content themselves with the mediocre efforts currently in place, because “when the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted, you will realize, too late, that you cannot eat money” (Alanis Obomsawin).

Work Cited

Barnosky, Anthony D., et al., “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?” Nature, vol. 471, no. 7336, 2011, pp. 51–57., doi:10.1038/nature09678.

Braje, Todd J., and Jon M. Erlandson. “Human Acceleration of Animal and Plant Extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene Continuum.” Anthropocene, vol. 4, 2013, pp. 14–23., doi:10.1016/j.ancene.2013.08.003.

Dawson, Ashley. “Capitalism and Extinction.” Extinction: A Radical History, OR Books, 2016, pp. 39–63.

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