Tag: extinction

It is the Best of Times, it is the Worst of Times

“This illustration depicts NASA’s exoplanet hunter, the Kepler space telescope. The agency announced on Oct. 30, 2018, that Kepler has run out of fuel and is being retired within its current and safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 exoplanet discoveries.” Credits: NASA/Wendy Stenzel.

Craig Axford | United States

 We live in an age of discovery far beyond any other our species has experienced so far, yet we hardly seem to even notice. We live in an era of staggering loss, but we seem paralyzed by the immensity of the problem. Had Charles Dickens foreseen the early 21st century, he may very well have reconsidered his opening line in A Tale of Two Cities.

Over this past week, two news stories drove home the point that we’re living in an extraordinary time. The first broke on October 29th. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced the results of a report indicating that between 1970 and 2014, global wildlife populations had declined by a staggering 60%. Even if their estimates are off by half, a 30% decline over such a relatively brief period would still be alarming.

The second story, coming just one day after the first, was NASA’s announcement that its Kepler space telescope had run out of fuel and would no longer be continuing its stunningly successful search for exoplanets. NASA’s Kepler had discovered more than 2,600 planets orbiting other worlds during its lifetime, further dislocating humanity from its perceived place at the center of the universe. By revealing “that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars”, NASA’s Kepler seems to support those convinced that we are unlikely to be the only place in the universe where life has emerged.

The tension these two stories represent stirs something deep within me, and not just because they arrived within 24 hours of each other. Because of their coincidental relationship to my own personal arrival on this planet, they each, in their own way, reflect the seemingly conflicting currents of history that have become increasingly evident with age.

 I was born just one month before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. I also entered this world just a few months before the WWF’s baseline year of 1970. So the 60% decline in wildlife populations and the nearly 28,000% increase in the number of known planets discovered during my lifetime is jarring, to say the least.

 As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not fond of adopting either optimism or pessimism as default outlooks. Going through life either perpetually cheerful or gloomy seems like avoiding confronting the world on its own terms, even if an often unconscious one. Even terrible news for us is good news for somebody. If you and bunch of your coworkers get laid off, odds are the company’s shareholders are happy. Even a corpse can be a reason to celebrate if you’re a bacteria or a vulture.

 I’m also not too keen on the way we often describe ourselves as a species. We tend to point to our impact upon the planet as though it was an indication either of genius or stupidity, leaving little room for the vast landscape of complexity and nuance that lies between these two extreme assessments. It’s just trade-offs all the way down.

As the Kepler telescope and all the other probes we’ve sent into space demonstrate, we aren’t idiots. That said, as the WWF study reminds us, scaling up our civilization to this point has also too often been an ad hoc operation that fails to consider all the possible consequences of our actions or quickly correct for them once those costs have become clear.

The progress paradox refers to a curious phenomenon that social scientists have documented over and over again: that there is often an inverse relationship between objective improvements in human well-being and people’s reported overall happiness. While those living in extreme poverty will report significant gains in personal life satisfaction following increases in income and access to resources, these gains don’t continue to follow a linear trajectory as income continues to grow. Instead, people’s happiness growth curve begins to flatten once their basic needs are satisfied. For many living in the wealthiest nations on the planet, they have even take a U-turn.

In a recent article published in the October 2018 issue of Science, researchers Carol Graham, Kate Laffan, and Sergio Pinto cite both the United States and China as strong examples of the progress paradox. “The United States has one of the wealthiest economies in the world,” the authors state, “yet life expectancy is falling owing to deaths driven by suicides and drug and alcohol overdose. This particularly affects Caucasians with less than a college education.”

In China, which “is perhaps the most successful example of rapid growth and poverty reduction in modern history,” with GDP increasing “fourfold between 1990 and 2005” and life expectancy during the same period skyrocketing by more than 6 years, life satisfaction none-the-less dropped significantly as the nation’s middle class ballooned and overall health improved. Graham, Lafan, and Pinto report that there too “suicide increased, reaching one of the highest rates in the world.”

In China’s case, however, it wasn’t those lacking an education but those with one that was “the unhappiest cohorts” surveyed. While they “benefited from the growing economy,” they also had to endure “long working hours and a lack of sleep and leisure time.”

It’s difficult to appreciate all the new planets being unveiled by instruments like the Kepler space telescope when our lives here on Earth don’t even allow us to get enough sleep. Furthermore, all our city lights are blocking out the stars that our ancestors previously enjoyed: stars that we can no longer see without first traveling great distances deep into the heart of one of the few remaining desolate landscapes large enough for us to escape the nearly omnipresent urban glow.

This rapid scaling up of our civilization without regard to its toll on the individual psyche is also happening without much regard to its toll on nature as a whole. Our inability to find the time to spend even just a few hours each week outside smelling the roses, let alone spending a leisurely weekend in the woods now and then, is directly connected to our failure to find the political will to protect the environment upon which all life, including our own, depends.

In his book On Trails, the Canadian author Robert Moor writes “We can travel at the speed of sound and transmit information at the speed of light, but deep human connection still cannot move faster than the comparatively lichenous rate at which trust can grow.” As with individual connections to one another, so it is with connections to our wider world. Slowing down enough to observe and build a relationship with the earth can only happen at a “lichenous rate”.

We cannot continue to pull ourselves out toward the stars and toward an ecological crash simultaneously. Sooner or later the lights will need to be dimmed not only for survival’s sake but so that our children can again see what it is we are reaching for. Reaching into the heavens can sustain our spirits and bring us the wisdom we need to carry on, but only if we take the time to look at what we’re finding there. Ultimately, even our loftiest achievements are still grounded here on Planet Earth.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

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Can we Survive a World Without Bees? Part 2

By Noah LaVie | United States

Noah Berlatsky, in his book “Are Mass Extinctions Inevitable?” interviews melittologists and when asked what happens if the bees go extinct they say, “checkmate” (Berlatsky 2012). The simple fact remains that bees are a keystone family of insects that now supports over half the population capacity of the Earth. They accomplished this through millions of years of evolutionary growth alongside the rebirth of plant-life after the K-T Extinction Event.

Our worlds’ ecology depends on these buzzing bodies for so much and truly humanity has never lived without their assistance. Now, for the first time perhaps ever, the bee is endangered. This danger may be beyond something they can come back from. To say that only our “dinners” will suffer from such an event is such an understatement as to be laughable (Palmer 2016).

If they go, the Earth will have exceeded its capacity for human life as that capacity drops from twelve to six billion people. The first signs a citizen may notice is the rising cost of multitudes of produce and other products that depend on bees. Then industries (ie. the almond industry, and honey industry) will begin to quarantine bees and seek to use them in greater amounts and in concentrated areas to allow the industry to solve their production cost issues.

Not long after, that overcrowding and concentration will result in greater die-offs and speed the death of the bee family ever onward (Bowers 2012). The bees’ greatest ally will become its worst enemy as corporate desires for their protection becomes self-serving and conservation efforts fail to see the whole picture and the source-sink dynamic of the wild bee will spread to the honeybee and its dwindling numbers will fall further (Franzén 2013). Based on the evidence hereto put forward, the bee population will then be likely to hit eighty percent population loss. Barring a successful cloning or an ecological miracle, the bee will go extinct in the wild at this point.

…The bee will go extinct in the wild at this point.

Without the wild bee, the general population will notice that certain products have permanently disappeared. Nationwide efforts will begin in nations with the capacity to effect change to save the bee, the bees population losses will only fall further. At their core bees are a hive species. If a colony loses too many bees the hive dies. “Population losses below [18.7%] are sustainable; lose any more, though, and the colony is heading toward zero,” (Palmer 2016).

A removal of bees from hives to study them will simply result in the death of more bees. Studying bees in colonies will result in them being cut off from the world outside and will cause their slow demise. Markus Franzén, the lead on a project to study wild bees in Sweeden, found only one population of bees that was able to persist out of “the sixty-one” surveyed when studied and isolated (Franzén 2013). That success rate is low enough to kill large swaths of populations in the study effort to prevent extinction alone.

After the bees are extinct, populations of humans in already food-challenged areas will collapse entirely. Unless wind-pollinated plants are at this point optimized enough, populations in advanced civilizations will suffer dramatically. Our dinners will certainly get a lot less interesting as people die from lack of nutrition and the diversity of plant life is reduced two-thirds (Palmer 2016). The world will at that point be able to only sustain six billion populace, the billion and a half that has grown over that amount will either starve or be killed. Rationing will be the least a government may do, population control and execution at the most.

The world gets ugly when resources get scarce…

The world gets ugly when resources get scarce and while this report does not seek to discuss the intersectionality of war, food scarcity, nuclear proliferation, climate change, human’s impact on species, the dependence of other animal species on bees, the diplomacy of the world without bees, ect., it does seek to answer the question of whether bees’ extinction will mean our own.

Bees operate as a lynchpin (Berlatsky 2012). While the direct effect of the extinction on the world may not result in our extinction, their extinction will indirectly result in tensions between nations, scared communities, and hungry people becoming irrational. Irrational people, leading scared communities, into a tense global world will not end well. The Doomsday Clock is only two minutes to midnight, and that is without the starvation that a bee extinction would cause.

Whether the extinction of the bee results in the extinction of man is not an easy question. It is true that bees are vital to the ecology of our planet. It is true that bees are going extinct. Humans have never existed in a world without bees. If the bees go extinct the world will be overpopulated by a billion and a half humans. Yet even then, our survival depends on so many human variables as to make it impossible to answer the question.

The only sure answer is that it will then be up to the human race on how to continue, to fight or coexist. If one were to look at our past history one might say there is no evidence that coexistence is achievable. If that is the case, then humanity is already on the way to extinction. Humanity is a big branch. It rest on a very big tree. If the trunk dies, so do all the branches. It takes “respect for the whole tree” to have anything but extinction (Boulter 2002).


Sources:

Berlatsky, Noah. Are Mass Extinctions Inevitable? Greenhaven Press, 2012.

Boulter, Michael Charles. Extinction : Evolution and the End of Man. Columbia University Press, 2002.

Bowers, Michael A. “Bumble Bee Colonization, Extinction, and Reproduction in Subalpine Meadows in Northeastern Utah : Ecological Archives E066-001.” Ecology, vol. 66, no. 3, 1985, pp. 914–927.

Colla, S. R, et al. “Documenting Persistence of Most Eastern North American Bee Species (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Anthophila) to 1990–2009.” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, vol. 85, no. 1, 2012, pp. 14–22.

Franzén, Markus, and Nilsson, Sven G. “High Population Variability and Source-Sink Dynamics in a Solitary Bee Species.” Ecology, vol. 94, no. 6, 2013, pp. 1400–1408.

Meeus, Ivan, et al. “Effects of Invasive Parasites on Bumble Bee Declines.” Conservation Biology, vol. 25, no. 4, 2011, pp. 662–671.

Palmer, Brian. “Would a World Without Bees Be a World Without Us?” NRDC, National Resource Defense Council, 15 Dec. 2016, www.nrdc.org/onearth/would-world-without-bees-be-world-without-us.

Rehan, Sandra, et al. “First Evidence for a Massive Extinction Event Affecting Bees Close to the K-T Boundary.” Plos One, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013, p. 76683.

United States, Congress, National Agricultural Statistics Service. “Honey.” Honey, National Agricultural Statistical Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 2018.

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Can we Survive a World Without Bees? Part 1

By Noah LaVie | United States

Bees have been with humans as long as the dog, longer than wheat, and far beyond the wheel. In tandem, the human and the bee have created a cohabitation that benefits both species worldwide. Bees pollinate; humans protect and harvest. Bees have become such an important pollinator and spread to so many corners of the globe that any great depletion in numbers has been hypothesized to be catastrophic to the point of an extinction level event for humanity. That possibility begs the question, what happens if all the bees disappear? Will humanity really suffer?

The question itself isn’t conjecture. Bees are disappearing at rates alarming not just to melittologists but to the general public (Palmer 2016). Recent USDA NASS surveys suggest that the epidemic has reached critical mass, with bee losses in summer time surpassing that of bee losses in the winter for the first time (USDA 2018). This is caused by beehives being invaded by parasites (Meeus 2011), the proliferation of Colony Collapse Disorder (Bowers 1985), and the failure of Utah and Swedish teams to solve the mystery of continuing dropping numbers (Franzén 2013).

No method currently exists to estimate the total bee population, outside of domestication. However, scientists have recorded dramatic losses upwards of seventy percent of their population (Colla 2012). Clearly, the bee population is under threat and little can be done to stop it. What remains to be seen is what will happen to the human population.

Bees are disappearing at rates alarming not just to melittologists but to the general public.

What do bees do that makes then so vital? Bees pollinate. They are such good pollinators that they have evolved in tandem with many of the commercial food bearing plants such as apples, onions, and avocados. Their origins are so closely tied to the plants they pollinate that these plants reproduce solely through this process of pollination (Rehan 2013). By some estimates, two-thirds of food bearing plants depend primarily on bees for pollination (Palmer 2016).

Scientists have approximated the human capacity of the Earth to be about twelve billion. This number, however, is dependent on the diversity of plant life, the ability of the Earth to replenish resources, and modernization of agriculture. The bee is a key component to the diversity of plant life and Earth’s resource replenishment. Yet, it hasn’t yet been replaced by any modern technique (Berlatsky 2012). 

The likelihood of extinction is indisputable and the amount we depend on the bee is insurmountable. The question then becomes, have humans ever survived without the supplement of the bee? The answer is no. Bees’ relationship with humanity stretches further back than domestication (Bowers 1985), past humanity’s evolution into Homo Sapiens, and into the Late Cretaceous Period (Rehan 2013). This period of time features the breakup of the first Pangaea, the rise of mammals, and the K-T Extinction Event. This event is also known as the moment the dinosaurs went extinct and thousands of other species with them.

Bees’ origins are closer to that of the Tyrannosaurus Rex than the Human. It was here that plant life received a reboot in evolutionary terms. Based on the evidence received from an investigation into the origins of bees, led by famed melittologist Sandra Rehan and funded by the Australian Parliament, this plant life reboot happened while the Earth moved on from Pangaea, before the asteroid struck, and at the right time when bees also were evolving into a pollinating species (Rehan 2013). This took place over seventy million years ago.

For context, the first modern humans likely appeared on the scene only three hundred thousand years ago and the Homo Genus only came to be about two and a half million years ago. After humanity began to understand itself, around the same time that humanity domesticated the dog, they domesticated the bee about twenty thousand years ago. This came before the agricultural revolution when humans were still operating on a hunter-gatherer basis. The bee had spread across the entire globe and proliferated itself as the main pollinator to such an extent that even primitive man realized the importance of these small, but busy, bees.

Humans have never survived on this planet without the assistance of bees.

If the extinction of bees is likely, if humans depend on bees, and humanity has never existed without the bee, what happens when bees disappear? Bees are currently estimated to be down forty percent in population since just last year. This trend has been going on since 2006 when the die-offs first began (Colla 2012). Since 2006 over fifty-five percent of the bee population has irrevocably been eliminated through the various causes discussed.

At fifty-five percent of the bee population down, we’ve already begun to see symptoms of their demise. Onion prices have skyrocketed, reaching selling prices previously not imagined as bee populations die off in their production areas. This same trend is visible in watermelon, cucumber, squash, carrot, clover, and many other plants.

This is different from inflation, where the price rises due to consumer’s value of all products and the value of the dollar. It is directly caused by the rise in bee deaths and the slow, painful extinction of them across the globe (Palmer 2016). These plants simply aren’t reproducing as much, bearing fruit as much, or producing as much food as they would with the bee population down. A reasonable observer may posit that high prices and scarcity are nothing to be feared. A more careful examination, however, would produce a different result. This is with the bee population only at fifty-five percent. Even estimating what losses at seventy percent would be is eye-opening.

Again, this report is not observing the loss of honeybees (Apis mellifera), a subspecies of the Anthophila family, but the loss of all bee species in totality. What each species brings to the palate of the human race however cannot be underestimated. Once Honeybees reach seventy percent extinction, their total extinction is inevitable. All one-hundred and eighty-three plant species that depend on the honeybee will be doomed to go extinct (Palmer 2016). The effect on the world’s population carrying capacity is estimated to be about a net loss of six billion in hold capacity. If the world’s carrying capacity was twelve billion before, the loss of the bee drops it to six billion. That puts humanity over the top at seven and a half billion.

The world would no longer be able to feed the average citizen (Boulter 2002). 

Once Bumblebee population losses have reached seventy percent lost since 2006 there will be no reversing the trend of loss. The average world citizen will say goodbye to the Tomato, the Eggplant, the Lima Bean, the Soybean, the Green Bean, and the Potato (Meeus 2011). The plants will be either too expensive or extinct at this point.

Once Solitary Bees, also known as wild bees, reach seventy percent lost they will be unrecoverable. Avocado, Beet, Papaya, and Mango will be bound for extinction at this point. These plants depend solely on this bee for pollination and barring some ecological miracle are already bound for this destination as their prices and yield have reached critical mass. After the proliferation of the Honeybee in North America, Solitary Bees have been driven to near extinction already and are estimated to have reached critical percentages of seventy-five percent population loss since the days of Columbus (Franzén 2013).

This loss of population is not the wild bees’ fault, honeybees possess nothing wild bees do not. Instead, wild bees possess better pollination skills and are found to suffer much less from colony collapse disorder. One would expect they would fare better and in an equal world, they would. Honeybees, however, have one thing wild bees by definition can never possess: human cultivation.

Honeybees are a foreign body anywhere outside the Philippines, their origin, and were once considered an invasive species in North America and Europe (Colla 2012). This invasiveness has led to a high degree of variability in native wild bee populations and has caused a source-sink dynamic to result. High-quality wild bee populations are forced to be on the move while low-quality wild bee populations absorb their higher quality peers into their own populations. This results in the future of the wild bee changing from population growth to decline as greater portions of the wild bee populace move to the “sink” which then becomes the source and causes the population to drain.

An article written by journalist Brian Palmer for the National Resource Defense Council in 2016 on the topic of the bees’ extinction claims that their disappearance “would make [some] foods scarce.” He states that “humanity would survive—but our dinners would get a lot less interesting.” On the claim that our dinners would get “less interesting,” he is certainly not mistaken. However, when he claims that humanity would survive he is talking about just honeybees’ extinction (Palmer 2016). This failure to extend his premise to the greatest sufferers, wild bees and bumblebees, results in a false summation: humans will survive. The fact is this: humans will die in this agonizing process of bee extinction.

The fact is this: humans will die in this agonizing process of bee extinction.


Sources:

Berlatsky, Noah. Are Mass Extinctions Inevitable? Greenhaven Press, 2012.

Boulter, Michael Charles. Extinction : Evolution and the End of Man. Columbia University Press, 2002.

Bowers, Michael A. “Bumble Bee Colonization, Extinction, and Reproduction in Subalpine Meadows in Northeastern Utah : Ecological Archives E066-001.” Ecology, vol. 66, no. 3, 1985, pp. 914–927.

Colla, S. R, et al. “Documenting Persistence of Most Eastern North American Bee Species (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Anthophila) to 1990–2009.” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, vol. 85, no. 1, 2012, pp. 14–22.

Franzén, Markus, and Nilsson, Sven G. “High Population Variability and Source-Sink Dynamics in a Solitary Bee Species.” Ecology, vol. 94, no. 6, 2013, pp. 1400–1408.

Meeus, Ivan, et al. “Effects of Invasive Parasites on Bumble Bee Declines.” Conservation Biology, vol. 25, no. 4, 2011, pp. 662–671.

Palmer, Brian. “Would a World Without Bees Be a World Without Us?” NRDC, National Resource Defense Council, 15 Dec. 2016, www.nrdc.org/onearth/would-world-without-bees-be-world-without-us.

Rehan, Sandra, et al. “First Evidence for a Massive Extinction Event Affecting Bees Close to the K-T Boundary.” Plos One, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013, p. 76683.

United States, Congress, National Agricultural Statistics Service. “Honey.” Honey, National Agricultural Statistical Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 2018.

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