If we do not act quickly, half of all species on the planet will face extinction by 2100. That is the view of the world’s leading biologists, ecologists and economists who gathered together at the Vatican for the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican last week. Their goal is to figure out how to stop it.
While beloved animals like the rhinoceros and tiger garner the most attention on the endangered species list, conference participants say of possibly greater importance are the less famous animals and plants that help maintain the Earth’s biosphere. These species absorb carbon emissions, regenerate soils and keep the pest population under control.
Peter Raven, a biologist at the Missouri Botanical Garden called the looming mass extinction “very frightening,” noting that we rely on the living world to sustain the human population. “The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilization than climate change—for the simple reason they are irreversible.”
There are many causes of the impending mass extinction, most of them man-made. Activities like burning fossil fuels, clear-cutting forests, filling in wetlands, and polluting the ocean have caused species to become extinct at 1000 to 10,000 times the normal rate, according to a Harvard Medical School 2008 report.
“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cell phones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?