As strange as it may sound, we could actually be living in the middle of a mass extinction right now. In recent times, there have been no colossal outpourings of lava, nor have there been any huge asteroid impacts, so what's the cause of this, the seventh, mass extinction? We are. Humans almost certainly contributed to the demise of some of the Pleistocene animals, some of which appear in this book. More recently, around 780 species have become extinct since 1500, but as the vast majority of species disappear without us knowing anything about it, the real number is far higher. Scientists estimate that during the last century, somewhere in the region of 20,000 to 2 million species became extinct, and in the next 100 years, humanity's wholesale destruction of habitats around the globe could result in the extinction of 50 percent of all species.
The problem is that the human population is growing out of control. In around 8000 B.c., the human race numbered around 5 million individuals. In 1750, there were around 750 million people, but today, there are around 6.6 billion of us. At the moment, the human population grows by 76 million people every year. Imagine trying to find living space, food, and water for all those people. Also, better health care means that the population growth is accelerating. As the human population grows, more and more pressure is placed on the natural world. We destroy natural ecosystems to make space for our crops and buildings, and yet more pristine habitats are ruined by the poisonous products of our agriculture and industry. The tropical rainforests are the most biologically diverse habitat on the planet. They cover only 2 percent of the earth's surface, yet they are home to 50 percent of all living species. They are so rich in life that a single rainforest tree may be home to several species of plant, animal, and microbe found nowhere else on earth, but with every passing year, they are being burned and chopped down. Every second that passes sees the loss of one and a half acres of tropical rainforest, and if the present rate of destruction continues, the tropical rainforests will be consumed in 40 years, with tragic consequences for every living thing on the planet.
Like the tropical rainforests, the world's oceans teem with life, but the condition of the marine ecosystem is now nothing less than a global emergency. Huge fleets of fishing vessels haul millions of tonnes of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks out of the water every year, and many stocks of commercial species have collapsed completely because of this relentless and senseless hunting. Millions of liters of toxic effluents, dangerous wastes, and agricultural run-off make their way into the ocean every year, and in some places, these have already killed off much of the marine life.
We have no idea how many species of organism live in the world's most biodiverse places, and with every passing year, species become extinct before we even knew they existed. Until we understand that we are one species among many and that our continued survival depends on living in harmony with the natural world, the future looks very bleak for the human race and the other species with which we share this planet.
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