The Causes Big and Small of the Sixth Mass Extinction

Cave paintings record the now vanished giant cave lion in Chauvet, France, shown here in a reproduction in the Anthopos Pavillion of the Moravian Museum. (Photo by HTO)

Though the causes of past extinctions within human history are still shrouded in some mystery, the modern stretch of the sixth mass extinction is undeniably a human affair. As we reach out across the planet and attempt to exploit it, for better or worse, the cost of our activities appears ever more burdensome. What could be driving such an obviously risky enterprise for our species?

It seems that humanity is directly responsible for everything happening to the natural world at the moment. It is perhaps strange, though, that we should be so quick to defend our ancestors against culpability and to blame ourselves for almost everything in the present. Take climate change, for instance. Though evidence strongly suggests that humans are having some lesser or greater impact, it is worth noting that climate has changed drastically many times in the past, and it has managed to do so without human help. Perhaps, just as in the case of studying our ancestors’ effects on ancient animals, extreme conclusions shouldn’t be drawn so hastily.

There is, at least, a direct connection between global species loss and human activity, but the impacts are different for us compared to our ancestors. What might the neolithic cavemen who saw mammoths disappear from their lives have thought about it—mammoths they would never see return? Did they believe that there were inevitably still mammoths elsewhere, in some distant land, or did they believe that the mammoths had finally left them for good? What did they feel when they finally realized they wouldn’t have access to this vital part of their culture and livelihood anymore, one that had defined their —> Read More