And Then, We Were, Alone, Alive

NASA photo of deforestation in Tierras Bajas p...
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I have been thinking about things–the living ones; the tens of millions of creatures in every class, order, phylum and kingdom–the ones we know and have names for, a tiny portion of them all, and the ones we will never know before they go extinct. Their extinction, in all probability, will be caused by some change I bring about. Or my ancestors in the past two hundred years. Or my children’s children in the next.

We–our species alone–cause most of the habitat destruction, the noise, light and chemical pollution and hormone disruption, the poaching, the introduction of alien competitors that lead to the decline of our fellow creatures. This has been going on now for a awhile, but nothing as rapidly as it is today. I’ll spare you the grim statistics.  But if you can face it, this Sixth Extinction piece is an eye-opener. Or at least, it was for me.

The Sixth Extinction (ActionBioscience) by Niles Eldredge, of Punctuated Equilibrium fame (if you’re a bioscience nerd like me.)

And there are a lot of you (not likely Fragments regulars) who would say “So What?” Who needs the creatures we never see, the ones the “do us no good”, the ones that seem to us obnoxious (Great if all the yellow jackets should suddenly be gone. Or the coyotes. Or poison ivy. Right?)

And so I wondered about our relationship with other life on Earth, threatened as it is by our sheer numbers and the massive size of our boot print. My mind wandered…

On January 1, 2015, we awake to find, because of (fill in the bizarre hypothetical science-fiction horror story cause here) that our species is the only living life form on Earth. 

Describe on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and (if it goes that far) annual scenario to describe how this story plays out.

â–¶ For argument’s sake, and so that the tale doesn’t end before it really gets cranked up (or down as the case may be) let us keep our intestinal bacteria intact after this sudden event, microorganisms without which we would likely succumb to some combination of dehydration, malabsorption or nutrient deficiencies, and die within a very short while. Let’s keep us going past that, so the story can unfold before our living but quickly failing eyes.

â–¶ What other kinds of considerations would impact humanity in urgent and significant ways over the unfolding hours and days?

â–¶ What if we protected from this list of global fatalities all photosynthetic oxygen-producing, food-type creatures, including phytoplankton?

â–¶ What if we protected from this list of global fatalities all invertebrate animals and photosynthetic organisms?

Those large-scale scenarios are somewhat calculable. What gets more difficult is when we start removing only certain Classes of animal, like the beleaguered Amphibians or birds. It gets harder still when we remove a genus or an individual species.

It’s pretty easy to imagine what would come of the world if our own species were to be alone in the sudden disappearance from Earth’s timeline. Without us, how would the world be different in a month? A Year? A Decade? A Century?

Can we exist here alone? Can we adapt so that we live in harmony with other creatures, and by our technologies and philosophies and religions and governments, reduce rather than increase the likelihood of large-scale extinctions? Do other creatures matter? Can “ecosystem services” go on if there is only US?

You have homework.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I have long been of the belief that we aren’t killing the planet, but that the planet’s immune system is reacting to us like an infection and will take us out if we keep on like this. A comedian once picked up a plastic six-ring soda can holder and said, “This is going to destroy the earth? Not likely.” I just though, “nope, but it’s going to make it uninhabitable for the likes of us.” Then whatever species DO survive our eradication will tootle along, probably quite happily.

  2. 30,000 species lost, per year? That is a staggering number. We do have some homework to tend to. And more.

    I think your imagined scenario would play out like a horror film. Soylent Green? Sweeney Todd?

    Thanks for bringing this to the forefront, Fred.