The problems arising from the current acceleration of mass species extinction and the global destruction of habitat are only now acknowledged as being of fundamental importance for humanity. Still, the fundamental importance of the Earth's remaining biodiversity remains under-studied and underappreciated. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, only a fraction of the estimated diversity of life has been identified. Numbers vary considerably, with the most conservative assessment at about 5 million species worldwide, and more generous estimates at about 30 million to 50 million.3 Of the 1.7 million species that are presently catalogued, only 5 per cent can be considered well known and the relationships between many of them are still a mystery.4
What we do know, however, is that planet Earth is losing species at a rate unparalleled in human experience. In the late modern era, the normal trickle rate of extinction has become a gushing hemorrhage as 100 species or more disappear every day.5 The current wave of extinction is rivaled only by the three large cataclysmic mass extinctions of the remote geological past.
The first crisis of mass extinction occurred on land and in shallow water environments some 250 million years ago, marking the close of the Permian period. Being the oldest, this event is still poorly understood, and its causes are largely unresolved. Paleontologists believe that it was brought about by a slow but inexorable change in climate and sea level occurring when forces of continental drift caused the Earth's great continents to merge together slowly into a single, gigantic super-continent. When the continents had finally separated from their tectonic embrace, more than 90 per cent of the Earth's species had died. This great extinction swept away most of the marine and land-living animal life, ending a 200 million-year-long evolutionary history that geologists have named the Paleozoic era.6
The second major crisis arose about 200 million years ago, just when the world's ecosystems reorganized themselves into a series of stable marine and terrestrial communities. The land fauna prior to this second cataclysmic period was a mix of newly evolving dinosaurs, large crocodile-like animals, with a few mammal-like reptiles. Most of these creatures disappeared from Earth, together with coral reefs and most shelled ammonites. The cause of this mass extinction event was not a single, rapid event, but a series of environmental catastrophes occurring in a close sequence spanning about 100,000 years or less. The two main causes are most likely a 1- to 5-mile-wide meteor colliding with the Earth, leaving a 70-mile-wide crater in Quebec, and the eruption of great lava flows beneath what are now the jungles of the Amazon River valley. In addition, the planet's climate changed dramatically. All of these events combined to create environmental change sufficient to produce this second wave of mass extinction. Yet, this catastrophe opened the way for the dinosaurs that emerged as the great winners at the end.7
The third great mass extinction took place 65 million years ago, annihilating the terrestrial dinosaurs along with hundreds of thousands of other land and aquatic species. Like its predecessor, this event was caused by several factors, including climate changes and a sudden change in sea level. But the culmination of this mass extinction, and by far its most dramatic element, took place when a giant, 6-mile-wide asteroid or comet crashed into the surface of the Earth near the Yucatan peninsula. The collision produced a fiery hell of burning forests over much of the Earth's surface, accompanied by giant tidal waves and great volumes of poisonous gas.8 But even more lethal were the months of darkness that enveloped the planet after the comet's impact. Millions of tons of earth and extraterrestrial debris blazed upward and blocked the sunlight, producing an endless ecocidal night. On land, and even more so in the oceans, plants died, leading to the starvation of many creatures that fed upon them. Well over 50 per cent of all species on Earth perished.9
In the 65 million years since the last of the dinosaurs perished, the surviving species and their descendants have multiplied to levels of diversity unseen during previous ages. Yet, with the emergence of behaviorally modern humans a new major crisis of mass extinction arose. It has been unfolding for millennia, and, unlike the greenhouse effect, global warming, or holes in the ozone layer, it is visible without sophisticated imagery or complex computer modeling. It is real, and it is happening all over the globe, most glaringly in the tropics.
I chose the term "ecocide" to refer to this most recent crisis of mass extinction of species. Ecocide indicates the horrifying scope and cumulative effects of the human-induced crisis of mass extinction and habitat destruction. The aim and purpose of this study is to sharpen our historical and sociological understanding of ecocide and to explore possible emancipatory alternatives. My central objective is to examine the sociological underpinnings of this global predicament. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to investigate the social, political, and ideological forces that lead to ecocide, the book is part of recent efforts to bridge the social and the natural sciences. This interdisciplinary framework also contributes to a more holistic understanding of ecocide. As paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould notes, "we need a broad perspective on this most portentous of all ecological and evolutionary disasters."10 Ultimately, this study is about one aspect of globalization, that is, the global processes leading to the colonization and destruction of our planet's life-support systems.111 hope to offer a sociological critique of ecocide as an exceedingly damaging global configuration, showing it to be a conditional historical product of human agency. Paleo-biologists - scholars who study the consequences of the death of individual species in the historical record - distinguish two types of species extinction: background extinction and mass extinctions. The ordinary background extinction of species occurs all the time, usually after a prolonged period of "success" during which neither species nor their ecological niches change significantly. Unlike the random disappearances of species "gradually" through background extinction, mass extinction brings about cataclysmic changes in the distribution and number of species. Gould states that "mass extinction must, by four criteria, be reinterpreted as ruptures not the high points of continua. They are more frequent, more rapid, more profound (in numbers and habitats eliminated) and have effects more different than those of normal times."12
Extinction is the ultimate fate of every species. Just as an individual is born, lives out its time on the Earth, and then dies, so too does a species come into existence, exist for a number of years (usually counted in millions), and then eventually become extinct. Like the obituary page of a newspaper, the fossil record reflects background extinctions taking place throughout time. But paleontologist David Raup and other researchers have shown that the rate at which these random extinctions have taken place through geological time is remarkably low. According to Raup's calculations, the background extinction rate during the past 500 million years has been about one species going extinct every five years.13 In contrast, Norman Myers, one of the earliest scientists to warn of a current mass extinction, has estimated that, for the past 35 years, four species per day have been going extinct in Brazil alone.14 Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimates that before humans existed, the species extinction rate was (very roughly) one species per million species per year (0.0001 per cent). Estimates for current species extinction rates range from 100 to 10,000 times that, but most hover close to 1,000 times prehuman levels (0.1 per cent per year), with the rate projected to rise, and very likely sharply.15 If one considers that the forests and other habitats of the
Earth's remaining 25 biological hotspot areas have already been reduced to as little as 10 per cent of their pre-human levels, and most are at immediate risk of disappearing,16 and that species extinction is increasingly enhanced by pollution, climate change, and the growing flood of invasive species, the foregoing estimates of mass extinctions based on habitat reduction are, "sadly, minimal and modest."17
Homo sapiens has only been in existence for little more than 130,000 years.18 Yet, it would take somewhere between 10 million and 25 million years for the natural process of species evolution to rectify the devastation of the Earth's biodiversity unleashed by human societies over the past millennia, and particularly by recent generations.19 The human-induced changes to the global biosphere are unprecedented. They include the worldwide disruption of biochemical cycles, rapid climate change, massive soil erosion, extensive desertification, and the unchecked release of synthetic toxins and genetically modified organisms.
The globalization of environmental degradation and mass extinction demands a re-examination of human hierarchical traditions and social practices. Ever since agriculture began and class society emerged, the socialization (humanization) of nature has been subject to new rules, defined by struggles over surplus production. Modern industrial societies in particular distinguish themselves by their unprecedented capacity to transform nature, including the historically unique capacity to destroy species habitats on a planetary scale. Yet, the prevailing spirit of late modernity seems to distinguish itself by a conspicuous denial, or at least obliviousness to the ecological consequences of human social behavior. Many social scientists have been largely complicit in this project, for they have tended to be concerned with abstract structures rather than with real-life processes. Frequently, they have been preoccupied with abstract collectivities rather than with interacting individuals and their concrete material conditions; with discursive shell games rather than with observable behavior in a real and particular historical environment; with statistical manipulation of aggregated data and maps rather than with normative study of ongoing social-ecological processes.20
In contrast, the goal of this study is to direct critical attention to the historical nexus of ecological and social relations, leading to progressive ecocide. I argue that the apparent social success of humans in eliminating other living species is turning into a severe handicap. The self-destructive record of some 480 generations since the Neolithic revolution deserves more scrutiny on both social and ecological grounds. The tendency of humans to eliminate other living species - at times unwittingly or accidentally - is an indicator of the extent to which we are transforming nature in a self-defeating way. The globalizing capitalist economy exacerbates these problems by threatening to destroy the entire biosphere, inflicting grievous and irreparable injury on an intricate life-supporting system. Complex ecosystems are undermined to the point of collapse. Practices of over-grazing, deforestation, and brush clearing extend the deserts, a factor now accelerated by climate change. Coastal wetlands are being drained for agricultural purposes, allowing toxic chemicals to spill into the sea, where they add to already-accumulated industrial pollutants and sewage.
Late modern societies have been losing ground on important environmental issues in part because they have allowed these issues to disappear from the public's intellectual radar screens. After all, organized efforts undertaken by vested interests systematically seek to undermine critical public support for the environment.21 The glacial pace of negotiations related to the globalization of environment degradation over the past decades can similarly be attributed to broad and well-organized corporate opposition. But ecocide is not, as some commentators have suggested, a "morbid exaggeration," "gloomy invention," or "melodramatic disaster scenario of alarmist academics" or "eco-quack environmentalists." In fact, if daily news broadcasts were informed by ecological realism, then people around the world would hear evening after evening something like the following announcement:
Also today as many as 100 animal and plant species have become extinct, some further 50,000 hectares of tropical rainforests have disappeared; the deserts have expanded worldwide by another 20,000 hectares; the global economy has consumed today the equivalent of 22 million tons of oil and we will consequently have collectively released during the same 24 hours another 100 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere...
Indeed, already gone forever are the European elephant, the European lion, and European tiger. The Labrador duck, the giant auk, and the Carolina parakeet will never again grace this blue planet. Lost for all time are the Eurasian woolly mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, the musk-ox and the giant Irish elk of the ice age. Gone are the enormous mammoth and mastodon, the giant bison and the saber-toothed tiger, the giant beavers, the giant sloth and the large short-faced bear, the camel, the tapir, the horse, the stag-moose and the half-ton lion of North America. Gone are the dwarf elephant and pygmy hippo of Cyprus and Crete and ancient Egypt; the New Caledonian crocodile, the half-ton elephant bird, the dwarf hippo, the giant iguana, the giant tortoise and the gorilla-sized giant lemur of Madagascar; the giant ground sloth of the West Indies; the Nauman's elephant and giant deer of Japan; the giant koala, the giant emu-like genyornis, and the giant wombat of Australia; the spiny anthe and giant guinea pig of South America; the antlered giraffe of nascent Africa; the Eurasian musk; the flightless rails, ibises, and a variety of waddling giant ducks and geese of Hawai'i ; the 13 or more species of the New Zealand/Aotearoa moa, flightless wrens and small petrels, and the dodo of Mauritius; the spiny anteater and wolf of Tasmania; the North American passenger pigeon, great auk, and the Atlantic gray whales; the Biscayan right whales and the stellar sea cow. Future generations will never look upon the California condor in the wild or watch the Palos Verde blue butterfly dart from blossom to blossom.
We have already forgotten that, only two centuries ago, billions of passenger pigeons, once the most abundant bird on the planet, still adorned the landscape now known as the United States. That 60 million bison once roamed the North American plains. Walrus once mated and bred along the coast of Nova Scotia.22 Between 30 million and 50 million 500-pound giant sea turtles once flourished in the Caribbean sea.23 A mere hundred years ago, the white bear populated the forests of New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Now it is called the "polar" bear because that is where it now makes its last stand. Like the ruins of a medieval castle, contemporary "nature" is a mere vestige of its past glory.
The above list of impressive megafauna is but a small fraction of the species-diversity spectrum that is currently being irreversibly destroyed by human societies. Given the mounting evidence of our cataclysmic historical record, it might be time to rename our species "Homo esophagus colossus" - the creature with a gigantic esophagus capable of devouring entire ecosystems.24
Why should social scientists be concerned about mass extinction and loss of biodiversity? Why bother to develop an explanatory sociological account of the social and historical roots of ecocide? Why expend a great deal of energy to save species? Why should this matter be of collective concern to humans? The answers to these questions can be developed along several different lines. A short response would emphasize collective existential imperatives and concerns. Like all species, we collectively depend on other species for our existence. Some of the most obvious ways are that other species produce the oxygen we breathe, absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale, decompose our sewage, produce our food, maintain the fertility of our soil, and provide our wood and paper. Humans are not only part of biodiversity, but also profoundly dependent on it.
Another good reason pertains to the irreversibility of extinctions. Loss of species is final. When an ecosystem is destroyed, re-creating it is either impossible or extremely difficult. Some environmental problems, such as the increasing concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, can be reversed. However, once an element in biodiversity vanishes, it is literally "as dead as a dodo."25 Each species and ecosystem adds to the richness and aesthetic beauty of life on Earth. Each species is unique and has a right to exist. Each species is worthy of respect regardless of its cash value to human beings. These claims are recognized in the World Charter for Nature, adopted by the United Nations in 1982. Nine years earlier, the US Congress passed the official Endangered Species Act in recognition that species of animals and plants "are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the nation and its people."26
Therefore, many naturalists have argued that the extermination of species represents a spiritual and intellectual impoverishment for humanity. A world without other earthly companions would not merely be a more dangerous place, it would also be much lonelier and more desolate.27 What is to become of the human spirit when the inspirited creatures we have invoked over millennia in our most enlightened cultural traditions are gone? The power of human dreams, as philosopher Elias Canetti argues, is tied to the multiformity of animals. With the disappearance of dreams, people's imagination and creativity dry up as well.28
However, many of the dominant rationales against progressive ecocide and loss of biodiversity are not aesthetic or sentimental but practical and utilitarian. One of the most compelling rational-utilitarian arguments is that of collective self-interest. In addition to the basics of food and shelter, the natural world provides countless medical, agricultural, and commercial benefits. Besides the plants and animals that we use for food, shelter, raw materials, decoration, and companionship, there are thousands of species whose natural products are literally lifesaving. Biological products and processes, for example, account for 45 per cent of the world economy, and the annual economic and environmental benefits of biodiversity in the United States alone total approximately $300 billion.29
In 1997 an international team of researchers from the University of Maryland's Institute of Ecological Economics published a landmark study of the importance of nature's services in supporting human economics.30 The study provided, for the first time, a quantification of the economic value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. The researchers synthesized the findings of over 100 studies to compute the average per hectare value for each of the 17 services that the world's ecosystems provide. They concluded that the economic value of the world's ecosystem services is in the neighborhood of $33 trillion per year, exceeding the global GNP of $25 trillion.31
Species do not simply contribute to commerce by virtue of the potential commodities they supply. Species also provide so-called "ecological services," such as purifying water, cycling nutrients, and breaking down pollutants. Species make up the fabric of healthy ecosystems - such as coastal estuaries, prairie grasslands, and ancient forests - which we depend on to purify our air, clean our water, and supply us with food. When species become endangered, it is an indicator that the health of these vital ecosystems is beginning to fail. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that losing one plant species can trigger the loss of up to 30 insect, plant, and higher animal species. Species evolve to fill particular niches or habitats. Many species depend on each other in intricate ways for survival. This ecological insight has been exemplified by the classical extinction example of the dodo. This flightless bird, whose name is synonymous with extinction, formerly lived on the island of Mauritius. The dodo was exterminated and disappeared in the seventeenth century, most likely through the use of its eggs rather than direct hunting. At least one tree species became extinct following the exter mination of the Dodo due to its ecologically strategic role as a species as a seed distributor or germinator. The extermination of the dodo was followed by destruction of half of all land and freshwater bird species of Mauritius in the wake of the island's colonization by Europeans.32
Worldwide, some 40 per cent of all prescriptions written today are either based on or synthesized from natural compounds from different species. Not only do these species save lives, they contribute to a booming pharmaceutical industry worth over $40 billion annually.33 For example, the Pacific yew, a slow-growing tree found in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, was historically considered a "trash" tree and was burned after clear cutting. A substance in its bark - taxol - was identified as one of the most promising treatments for ovarian and breast cancer. More than 3 million American heart disease sufferers would find their lives cut short within 72 hours without digitalis, a drug derived from the purple foxglove. The American Cancer Research Institute identified 3,000 plants that contain active ingredients against cancer; 70 of them originate in the tropics.34
More than half of all medicines today can be traced to wild organisms. Chemicals from higher plants are the sole ingredients in one-quarter of all prescriptions written in the United States each year. Many of the organic compounds currently being used can be obtained more cheaply from their natural sources. However, despite their rich rewards, only 5 per cent of the world's plant species have been investigated for their pharmaceutical applications.35 From the tropical rosy periwinkle one can extract vincristine, a drug that is a critical component in the treatment of pediatric leukemia and Hodgkin's disease. Chitin, the substance in the shell of crabs and other crustaceans, is being used to produce a suture material that promotes the healing process. Dolstatin 10, derived from the sea hare, a fist-sized shell-less mollusk, has been hailed as a new anti-cancer drug.
Genetic diversity is also of vital importance in breeding crops and livestock.36 Each species is of potential value to humans, as are healthy ecosystems. The global collection of genes, species, habitats, and ecosystems provides for human needs and is essential for human survival in the future. The loss of biodiversity with regard to crop species cultigens has potentially disastrous implications for global food security and economic stability.37 Crop breeders need a diversity of varieties in order to breed new varieties that resist evolving pests and diseases. Many crops have been "rescued" with genetic material from wild relatives or traditional varieties. Biodiversity represents a living library of options for adapting to local and global change.
Even so, amplified by economic-structural factors such as patterns of rapid urbanization, only a small percentage of humankind has any direct, daily, active engagement with other species of animals and plants in their habitats (other than domesticated species or pets). Few people are in the position to validate from personal experience that mass extinction of species and progressive ecocide ultimately run counter to their own long-term interests. But even among those individuals who recognize the danger, only a few are in a position to translate environmental insights into meaningful and effective measures.
Public policies that halt ecocide must be connected to a comprehensive effort to rethink historical, social, and economic models in which culture is celebrated in a Promethean manner and nature is devalued as "passive." Contrary to conventional wisdom, most of the value and sustenance in the world economy does not come from pulling things out of nature, but from the proper functioning of rivers, forests, and fields.38 Humans are only part of the evolutionary process. Nonetheless, we have taken on a major role in shaping its future course. We are cutting the cords of nature's safety net even as we depend on it to support the world's growing population.
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