The “McDonaldization” of the world continues apace. It’s not just that the golden arches’ fries and burgers can be found in any country. According to Anthony Barnosky, a palaeobiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, a “McDonaldization of nature” is going on right now.
While it is the case that, as a BBC report says, extinction is “actually a natural and common phenomenon” – some 99 percent of the estimated 4 billion species that have evolved on Earth are gone — Barnofsky emphasizes that extinction caused by humans is happening at an accelerated pace that is 1,000 times the natural rate.
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Barnosky, has predicted that, in just around 300 years, 75 percent of all mammal species will have disappeared. A sixth mass extinction may have actually happened now in our age, the Anthropocene Age.
Individual types of animals are disappearing (remember the dodo?) but so are “whole lines of phyla.” The biodiversity of plants and animals is declining rapidly because humans have been “artificially boosting the populations of certain select species, such as cows, dogs, rice, maize and chickens.” We’ve done this by breeding new varieties that are “radically different from their wild ancestors.”
Changes in the earth, such as the shifting of tectonic plates, have resulted in “separated biodiversity [mixing] for the first time”:
This happened when the North and South American continents collided into each other, around 3 million years ago, for example. In the invasions that followed, South America got its first large carnivore – the jaguar from North America – which proceeded to eat much of the native fauna, resulting in the loss of many species.
Humans have been orchestrating tectonic-scale species migrations of their own, either deliberately or accidentally, which has left its mark on the living planet. Some species including rats, goats, rhododendron, wheat and eucalyptus are found around the world while many others have become rare or vanished. Many introduced species are invasive – or “weeds” – which out-compete the natives for food, light and habitat, or like the jaguar simply consume them to extinction.
As Barnofsky says, 10,000 years ago the combined weight of humans and domesticated animals made up only 0.1 percent of the total on the earth’s surface. But today, the weight of humans and domesticated animals “outweighs all the wild back-boned creatures on the planet’s surface by a ratio of 95 to 5.”
We all know that the koala and the platypus are native to Australia and to that continent only. Many species have evolved to live in certain environments and many are now seeing those habitats threatened, often in the name of economic development. Others reasons for extinction are the introduction (or rather, sometimes, invasion) of non-native species, pollution and climate change. Hunting and a global black market of exotic and endangered animals are also taking a huge toll.
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With all this taken into account, some conservationists assert that, rather than seeking to restore a “pre-human state” to ecosystems, we need to accept that humans are, for better or for worse, “integral” to many ecosystems now. Accordingly. we ought to ”accept ecosystems that incorporate non-native species, value them and try to conserve them as ‘novel ecosystems‘ that are worth protecting.”
For instance, in the Galapagos, blackberry bushes introduced from the Himalayas are being kept in control, but efforts are underway to remove invasive species such as rats and goats that compete with rare tortoises’ food supply. To add biodiversity to “the vast monocultures we create through agriculture,” people are also seeking both to restore the native ecosystem and to introduce non-native plants and animals.
In Australia, scientists are considering introducing elephants or other large herbivores to control wildfires caused by gamba grass (an invasive species) and to reinstate dingoes to control populations of foxes and feral cats.
Such proposals have been met with mixed, and skeptical, responses and arguments that it would be better to “leave well enough alone.” But the reality is that, as the BBC concludes, “we are no longer just another part of the natural world, we are the planet’s gardeners” and therefore need to “develop our nurturing skills” — and wouldn’t we rather use them to tend to a rich variety of plants and animals rather than the equivalent of of McDonalds’ monotonous menu offerings?
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