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The 6th mass extinction

Alan Braunholtz

Vail CO, ColoradoThis is a great time to not do much and enjoy soaking up the changes as the valley springs to life around you. It’s especially satisfying to watch nature’s den-izens waste no time as they get to work. The beavers are well, busy as, well, you know, bolstering their dams and escorting the newborn kits around the pond.The broad-tailed hummingbirds didn’t even wait for the snow to leave before buzzing and trilling around as I rushed to put out their feeder. I can watch these shimmering acrobatic jewels for hours, marveling at the iridescent scales on their plumage, their long tongues sipping away and their unparalleled flying ability. These are the only birds that can fly backward and upside down.They’re my reality TV show and a much healthier form of procrastination. After watching them, I don’t feel inadequate and wanting a whole bunch of created needs to feel better. Violence doesn’t seem normal and a good solution to most problems, either. Instead, I get all sentimental, nurturing and in awe of these ounce-sized birds that migrate from South America to Canada and back. Some of my human hubris is stripped away by this little creature that links two continents together.Before the global marketplace existed, nature had the global biosphere. Although we still don’t realize it, it’s much more important to us. Biodiversity provides us with what we need to live. Air, water, food, raw materials and all the yet to be made discoveries of what millions of years of evolution have created for humankind’s unguessed future needs. If there’s a cure for aging, it’s going to come from some organism somewhere.All the various genes in all the species in all the ecosystems make up the world’s biodiversity. This creates a living membrane around a lifeless ball of rock we call the Earth. That’s what we live in.Extinction is the loss of a species and all of its genes. It’s been described as the death of birth itself. It’s also natural. There’s an estimated baseline extinction rate of one species per million per year. As the web of life shifts, one species fails and another evolves to fill the hole. It’s sustainable and there’s a natural synergy in which each species provides something for another, creating more niches to live in and a richness and productivity in nature that is unrivaled.Bio-diversity acts like a huge insurance policy. It’s so interwoven that losses can be absorbed and replaced. Only a huge cataclysm could affect the whole network, causing it to collapse – like a giant meteor. There have been five mass extinctions in Earth’s history where 50 percent to 90 percent of life went extinct. It takes 10 million years for life to rebuild its diversity after one of these extinction events, according to Nature magazine.We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, and the disaster is us. Thanks to habitat loss, exploitation, climate change and invasive species, the extinction rate is at least 1,000 times the base rate. In a 100 years, half the planet’s species will be extinct. This matters because we’re undermining life’s insurance system and it’s our habitat, too. We could be one of those species.Wildlands are the reservoirs of biodiversity, but they’re getting too fractured to even refuel each other. Nature abhors a vacuum, but it has to get there and we have to leave it some space. Separated islands don’t provide a chance for organisms to move, mix their genes, adapt to a changing world and replenish after bad streaks of luck. “United we stand and divided we fall” applies to ecosystems, too. One reason to oppose the Ginn development is the hindrance it will create for local wildlife.At some point, as we destroy too much habitat, change the climate and timing of flowering plants, lose flowering plants because we lost the bees, etc., humming birds won’t survive their arduous migrations. It’ll be sad but seen as just another inevitable cost of progress, except that no one is really counting the environmental costs. We’re not keeping balanced books. Tallying “profits” while ignoring a whole category of expenses is a fraud. We expect the thin membrane of life to keep sliding us never-ending credit. Sustainability or environmentalism asks only that we balance the books before our credit runs out and the loans are called in. Our children may not be able to cover our debts.Historically, mankind has controlled the environment to benefit the human population. It may be time to control our populations to help the environment. Hopefully, hummingbirds will be around and a valuable symbol of linked ecosystems and biodiversity for our children to enjoy.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a column twice a month for the Daily.


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