The Green Space | Extinction

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

If you venture into the forest during a Pennsylvania summer, you will see amongst the undergrowth thousands of spindly plants, a few feet tall, with tiny white flowers and heart-shaped leaves. These plants are called garlic mustard, and they are among the most destructive invasive species in America.

What can a mere plant do that’s so harmful? Every ecosystem exists in a delicate balance in which each component — soil, fungi, bacteria, plants, animals — fits with the others like a puzzle piece to create a coherently working whole. Nonnative plants like garlic mustard, which originally hails from Europe and Asia, can blitz this entire system simply by existing. 

Garlic mustard blocks trees and other important natives from growing by shading them out and interfering with the fungi composition within the soil. Other invasives, like Burmese pythons and the emerald ash borer, cause destruction more directly by preying on flora and fauna. This too causes indirect destruction as the numbers of other species balloon to fill the now-empty niche, with a resulting dip in biodiversity and increasing peril to the ecosystem as a whole. This is only exacerbated by climate change — as the more delicate native species, specifically calibrated to their environment, fail to adapt to the new conditions, the invasives continue to thrive, crowding out all other species.

No wonder, then, that up to one million plant and animal species face extinction as a result of human activities. This includes 25% of mammals, over 40% of amphibians and 25% of all plant groups. Along with invasives, which are introduced by the global movements of humans into habitats in which they have no natural predators, we have also caused massive habitat destruction, exploitation of natural resources, pollution and climate change, all of which present huge threats to entire ecosystems and their various life forms.

Let me be clear — this is not natural. Extinction can be a natural process — in fact, 99.9% of the species that once existed on Earth are now extinct, and most of that happened before humans were even around. With humans on the scene, the pace of extinction has sped up alarmingly to tens or even hundreds of times what it was in the last 10 million years. 

Extinction doesn’t only affect those species that perish. It affects entire ecosystems, and despite our efforts to separate ourselves as much as possible from the natural world, we are still tethered to those ecosystems. We use natural resources in everything — wood to build our homes, clean water to drink, plants and animals as food, paper in books, natural fiber in clothing. Plants act as carbon sinks and provide us with oxygen, animals keep plants from taking over the world, and other animals keep those animals from taking over the world (except for humans, that is). We don’t want to live in a world where extinction outpaces generation, but that’s where we’re headed.

According to a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the loss of species and habitats poses just as much danger to life on Earth as climate change. If all this sounds scary, that’s because it is. It’s even scarier because, as we direct all our focus toward climate change, extinction rates continue to creep up, mostly unnoticed by the general population. This is not to say that we shouldn’t focus on climate change — of course we should. But we have to address both issues in tandem in order to have a hope of preserving life on this planet. 

Many conservation efforts are already underway to reverse or keep at bay the effects of human-caused extinction. But the destructive actions of the Trump administration, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused loss of funds for many conservation nonprofits that depend on tourism, have made a bad situation much worse. There is much work still to be done. 

The Sierra Club, an American environmental organization, lists four ways in which the Biden administration should address this crisis. These are all relatively straightforward, actionable items, the first of which involves strengthening the Endangered Species Act, which Trump gutted during his four years in office. The Club also urges Biden to protect wildlife habitats by establishing national parks and wilderness areas, as well as creating conservation incentives for private landholders. 

Biden should also join the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is a global association that resembles the Paris Climate Agreement, but specifically focuses on the preservation of biodiversity and equitable sharing of natural resources across countries. Last but not least, and most controversial, Biden could declare the extinction crisis a national emergency, which would allow him to bolster conservation efforts while avoiding the mire of the half-Republican Senate.

You may not be a head of state or industry, but you too can help the conservation effort. Though not many of us have funds to spare, consider donating whenever you can. This is one area in which your money can make a tangible difference and create a future world that is better for all. You don’t have to spend your money, though — all you need is time and effort. You can volunteer through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, or the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy or any number of organizations local to Pittsburgh. You could join the Pitt Green Team, which helps with all manner of community sustainability efforts. You could just go out into your parent’s backyard and start ripping up garlic mustard, as I used to do for hours when I was a kid. Every little bit counts!

I know that it can be easy to see all those horrifying statistics and think “yikes! We’ll never be able to fix this!” I often avoid reading environmental articles for that very reason. To be fair, I also avoid reading the news in general for that very reason. But we simply can’t afford to think that way. Fatalistic thinking can only lead us toward the unpleasant end that we think is inevitable, and which is very much not inevitable. We still have an opportunity to pull back from the precipice, but we have to pull together. Nothing could be more crucial.

Sarah writes primarily about trees, climate change and walking. You can reach her at [email protected].