Earth’s New Mass Extinction: The Unnoticed Cost of Increased Consumption

By SARAH CHARLES | Published: NOVEMBER 29, 2018

Sixty percent of the world’s species have been lost in less than 50 years, and almost nobody noticed. How could this alarming and cataclysmic destruction of over half of the Earth’s species go almost completely unnoticed?

The current news cycle is exhausting.  In November, on the day that the World Wildlife Fund released their bi-annual Living Index report, the news was busy discussing the midterm elections, Trump’s deployment of up to 7,000 US troops to the border of Mexico, the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in our nation’s history, and Megyn Kelly’s claims that blackface is no big deal.

The recent report by the United Nations stating that we need to drastically change society and the way it functions by 2040 was able to get some coverage for a day or two, but then the cycle just moved on, but we  those that care, shouldn’t move on so quickly.

On the tails of the harrowing report from UN climate scientists comes more shockingly bad news from the World Wildlife Fund. Since 1970, over 60% of species on earth have been lost due to a massive increase in human consumption as countries across the world continue to develop. The report cites massive deforestation due to agriculture and livestock grazing in the world’s most biodiverse areas as one of the biggest problems on land. In our oceans, increasing temperatures and plastic pollution have caused the majority of die-offs.

One of the most alarming statistics to come out of this year’s Living Index report is that freshwater species declined by 83% since 1970. This significant loss is undoubtedly affecting the health of freshwater systems. We rely on freshwater as a drinking water source globally. How will such a massive change to the ecosystem affect our public health?

The biggest losses came in Central and South America, where a loss of 89% of the vertebrate population was observed. Cattle ranching and deforestation in the Amazon and the rainforests of South America has been exploding since the 1990s as global demand for meat continues to grow. Our rainforests are our biggest resource for biodiversity, and they are being burned and destroyed to make room for pastures and factory farms.

The 2018 report explains that while currently 25% of the world’s surface shows no impacts of human activity, by 2050 that number will drop to 10%. Human consumption has now caused a mass extinction of their own, with no signs of slowing down. Tanya Steele, the WWF’s chief executive in Britain, told CNN: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.” Current science is overwhelmingly telling us that the very way our society functions needs to make changes now if we want to save our ecosystems and the health of our planet. Those changes start at the individual level. We can all start to consider our impacts, our carbon footprint, and identify waste we produce in our daily lives. Our decisions will make or break the vibrancy, health, and existence of even more of the Earth’s species, including our own.

Divesting From Fossil Fuels

For several years, student protesters at Syracuse University and SUNY ESF called for the divestment of fossil fuels. It was not until last April that both institutions announced the policy change. Syracuse University and SUNY ESF committed to complete fossil fuel divestment within five years. In addition, both institutions pledged to no longer directly invest in companies whose business is the extraction or transportation of fossil fuels. Institutions like SU and SUNY ESF allow for grassroots activism to take place so that each individual has the opportunity to be heard. Without student activism, there would not have been a policy change that ultimately led to social change. Two student organizations, Divest ESF and Divest SU, are responsible for taking this positive action, and hope to move towards a brighter environmental future both at home and around the world.

One year later, neither institution has any direct investments in fossil fuel companies, with no plans to invest in the future. At the divestment goal’s completion, any indirect investments made to companies with the biggest potential climate impact will be relinquished. Several universities followed suit after Syracuse University and SUNY ESF set divestment goals, fueling a larger movement towards social change.

There are currently over 500 institutions working towards fossil fuel divestment. Among these institutions are universities, governmental organizations, faith-based groups, NGOs, pension funds, foundations, for-profit corporations, and health care groups. Some of these organizations have made full divestment commitments, while others have only made partial commitments. Divestment commitments – whether full or partial – work to end the profiteering off of harming the environment.

Divesting from fossil fuels makes a strong statement that these institutions do not condone and will not finically support harming the environment or the public's health. Divestment movements are not just a moral statement, but are an effective strategy in promoting change. Divestment movements have a long history of leading to political change (i.e. South African divestment in the 1980s) and the fossil fuel divestment movement has gained momentum.

Fossil fuel divestment has now reached statewide efforts. New York State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Assistant Speaker Felix W. Ortiz announced the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act (S.5873/A.8011). This would require the State Comptroller to divest the Common Retirement Fund (CRF) from fossil fuel holdings by 2020.

After its announcement, the bill received the endorsement of several outside groups – including environmental and community organizations. Senator Krueger is among one of the strong supporters that shared a video, stating “it is critical that we send the message that we are no longer going to invest our public funds in activities that do enormous damage to our environment, not just in New York, not just in the United States, but throughout the world.”

To start, divestment from coal companies must be completed within one year. Moving forward, divestment from all other fossil fuel companies must be completed by January 1, 2020. In addition, the Comptroller will annually report on the progress of divestment from fossil fuel companies. Statewide efforts are natural to the progression to federal legislature. As Senator Krueger mentioned, fossil fuel divestment is an imperative action that will positively affect not only New York State, but also the entire world.