No one wants to read the phrase “biological annihilation” to describe the impending fate of earth’s wildlife. But, in the words of a professor who coauthored a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”
Despite previous, less damning research, a study led by Professor Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México argued that earth’s sixth mass extinction has already begun. Ceballos’s team studied endangered, common, and rare species populations; their results contradicted the idea that Earth’s wildlife is “not immediately threatened, just slowly entering an episode of major biodiversity loss.”
According to their research, even the most common species have experienced unprecedented population decline. The group studied a sample of 27,600 vertebrate species; within that sample size, 32% of each species’ population had decreased in size and range. Of the wildlife not currently classified as endangered, about a third had seen their populations decrease.
Speaking to The Guardian, the scientists explained their findings in two abysmal sentences. “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences,” the researchers said. “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”
Another scientist who worked on the paper, Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich, summarized the paper’s warning to The Guardian:
“The time to act is very short. It will, sadly, take a long time to humanely begin the population shrinkage required if civilisation is to long survive, but much could be done on the consumption front and with ‘band aids’ [such as] wildlife reserves, diversity protection laws, in the meantime.”
While other scientists contend that earth has not yet crossed the “biological annihilation” line, the paper’s analysis of population decline reiterated previous research. In 2014, the World Wildlife Fund’s research asserted that the number of animals on earth had decreased by 50% in the last 40 years.
Duke University’s Stuart Pimm told The Guardian the new study’s claim that a “mass extinction” has already begun was slightly inaccurate. “It is something that hasn’t happened yet,” Pimm said. “We are on the edge of it.”
Whether we have careened over a mass extinction cliff, or just teetering on the edge: the outlook is still not good from either position.