Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Is More Severe Than Previously Thought—
Only Through Revolution Can It Possibly Be Stopped

September 25, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

A recent study by scientists from the Instituto de Ecología at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and the Department of Biology at Stanford University shows that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe than previously thought.

Extinction of species over long periods of time is something that has happened constantly over the course of the history of life on Earth, as fossil records show. A mass extinction is when there is a big increase in the extinction of species of various types in more than one geographical area over a relatively short period of geological time—which doesn’t mean years or hundreds of years but is relatively brief compared with the estimated 3.8 billion year history of life on Earth.

The first five mass extinctions were all caused by natural phenomena, such as the asteroid strike that is thought to have led to the extinction of all dinosaurs and other species.1 Many scientists have been warning that the greatly heightened level of extinctions currently is of crisis proportions and that we are approaching, or are already in, the sixth mass extinction. Unlike the previous ones, this extinction is not due to natural causes but is being driven by human activity—by climate change caused in large part by the capitalist-imperialist system’s burning of fossil fuels, cutting down of rain forests, and other ways that natural habitats are being destroyed: acidification of oceans... and other interrelated and interacting factors.

The study, by Gerardo Ceballosa, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzob,2 provides the scientific data backing their statement that the “Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations, which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization.” The scientists describe this as a “biological annihilation.” The study states that the causes for the “catastrophic declines” in vertebrate (a major taxonomic group of animals that includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes) species are due to “habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive organisms, pollution, toxification, and more recently climate disruption, as well as the interactions among these factors.”

Cheetahs, Borneo and Sumatran orangutans, African lions, and giraffes are examples of species of mammals that were relatively safe one or two decades ago but are now considered as endangered.

The scientists’ research shows that almost 200 species of vertebrates have gone extinct in the last 100 years. Under the “normal” extinction rate for the past two million years, it would have taken 10,000 years for 200 species of vertebrates to become extinct—so this makes clear the accelerating pace of extinctions. The scientists also point out that 41 percent of the 3,623 land invertebrate species and 25 percent of the 1,306 marine invertebrate species have been classified as threatened with extinction. One-third of the 27,000 vertebrate species examined “are experiencing declines and local population losses of a considerable magnitude.”

It is the mass decline of biological populations that is the most important finding in this report. The scientists point out those previous reports on the coming sixth mass extinction had a strong focus on species extinction. They say this does not address the seriousness of the problem that is posed when looking at both mass species extinction and the mass decline of geographical species populations.

There is a difference between the two—species and populations. A species is often defined as a group of individuals that actually or potentially interbreed in nature. In this sense, a species is the biggest gene pool possible under natural conditions. (A gene pool is all the genes in a population. Any genes that could wind up in the same individual through sexual reproduction are in the same gene pool.) A population is a group of living organisms that are found in a specific area and can reproduce with each other to give a fertile offspring. (For a further discussion of speciation and populations, read Chapter 1 of The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism by Ardea Skybreak.)

The report notes that looking only at species extinction is a problem because:

...that conveys a common impression that Earth’s biota is not dramatically threatened, or is just slowly entering an episode of major biodiversity loss that need not generate deep concern now. Thus, there might be sufficient time to address the decay of biodiversity later, or to develop technologies for “deextinction”—the possibility of the latter being an especially dangerous misimpression. Specifically, this approach has led to the neglect of two critical aspects of the present extinction episode: (i) the disappearance of populations, which essentially always precedes species extinctions, and (ii) the rapid decrease in numbers of individuals within some of the remaining populations.

These population extinctions of today are vastly greater than species extinctions. The scientists point out that “population extinctions are a prelude to species extinctions, so Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume.” This is causing damage to ecosystems that endanger things that are essential to human life, e.g., food, water, flood and disease control, and production of atmospheric oxygen.

The report concludes:

When considering this frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization, one must never forget that Earth’s capacity to support life, including human life, has been shaped by life....The sixth mass extinction is already here and the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most. All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.

A Shortcoming of the Report—and the Need to Get to the Real Root of the Problem

A problem with the report is in the solutions provided. The scientists say that if there is to be a chance to mitigate the extinctions and the threat to humanity, what need to be addressed urgently are human overpopulation and overconsumption, especially by the rich. They fail to address the other factors raised in the report—habitat loss, overuse of resources, invasive organisms, pollution, toxification, and climate change. In other words, the ecological and environmental crisis facing humanity because of the way the current system, capitalism-imperialism, is organized and operates.

The largest threat to the planet and its biodiversity is not the number of humans on the planet or overconsumption. The fact is, while especially the richest one percent on this planet consume and use up resources at gross levels, there are billions who have almost nothing to consume—who are literally starving, possess nothing, have very little access to any resources, etc. That situation is due to the way the current system, capitalism-imperialism, is organized and operates. And that system—based on the blind drive to maximize profit, whatever the cost to human lives and the environment—is also what is creating an environmental and biological catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

Fossil fuel energy, which capitalism is hooked on, is acidifying and warming the oceans. Just think about the horrible destructive forces of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, driven by the super-heated waters in the Gulf and the Caribbean and other factors due to global warming. Think about the massive deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesian jungles by capitalist-imperialist enterprises for large industrial cattle farming and growing crops.

An article in the Independent in August 2017, “Industrial farming is driving the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, says leading academic,” cites the work of Professor Raj Patel of the University of Texas. Patel states, “The footprint of global agriculture is vast. Industrial agriculture is absolutely responsible for driving deforestation, absolutely responsible for pushing industrial monoculture, and that means it is responsible for species loss. We’re losing species we have never heard of, those we’ve yet to put a name to and industrial agriculture is very much at the spear-tip of that.”

There are objective material reasons why this is happening. Capitalist-imperialist enterprises are very highly organized in producing goods and in harvesting food. All of these enterprises are privately owned while they are in fierce competition with each other in order to expand, control resources, and then turn that into profit. It’s a dog-eat-dog competition between them—either expand, while eating up other capitalist enterprises, or face being eaten up yourself.

These privately owned capitalist enterprises are faced with this deep contradiction—production is highly organized on a certain level (and on a globalized scale), while the competition they face forces them to carry out their production in a completely anarchic and irrational way in order to survive. The deeper scientific understanding of the contradiction between “anarchy” and “organization”—and how anarchy is the “principal form of motion” of capitalism and its fundamental contractions—is an important breakthrough brought forward by Bob Avakian (BA), as part of the new synthesis that has put communism on an even more scientific foundation. For more on this, see BA’s THE NEW COMMUNISM, in particular the section “The Basic Contradictions and Dynamics of Capitalism.” Also, the article by Raymond Lotta, “On the ‘Driving Force of Anarchy’ and the Dynamics of Change. A Sharp Debate and Urgent Polemic: The Struggle for a Radically Different World and the Struggle for a Scientific Approach to Reality.”

A Real Answer to the Question: “Will Human Survive the Sixth Great Extinction?”

In a 2015 National Geographic interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction, science journalist Nadia Drake raised the question “will humans survive the sixth great extinction?” Kolbert told Drake that there are actually two questions: One is whether, even if we save an X number of species, we can “keep going down the same trajectory, or do we eventually imperil the systems that keep people alive?” And two, “Even if we can survive, is that the world you want to live in? Is that the world you want all future generations of humans to live in?”

These are important questions. And there are real answers.

As the special Revolution issue on the environment made clear:

The only viable way to deal with the crisis of the environment is revolution. The recent message and call from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Revolution We Need…The Leadership We Have, puts it this way: “It is this system that has got us in the situation we’re in today, and keeps us there. And it is through revolution to get rid of this system that we ourselves can bring a much better system into being. The ultimate goal of this revolution is communism: A world where people work and struggle together for the common good...Where everyone contributes whatever they can to society and gets back what they need to live a life worthy of human beings...Where there are no more divisions among people in which some rule over and oppress others, robbing them not only of the means to a decent life but also of knowledge and a means for really understanding, and acting to change, the world.

I encourage people to get into the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, written by Bob Avakian, to see how the society after revolution will function in all aspects, including the approach to dealing with the environmental emergency humanity is facing:

[T]he New Socialist Republic in North America, in its development of a socialist economy, in all spheres of government and social activity, and in its international relations, will apply itself—an the initiative, knowledge, energy and creativity of the masses of people who make up the backbone of this Republic—to addressing this environmental emergency, in its various dimensions, and will seek out ways to do so through increasing cooperation and common endeavor with scientists, and people from all walks of life, in every part of the world, struggling and joining with others in struggle to overcome barriers that are placed in the way of such efforts by the operation of the capitalist-imperialist system and the functioning of imperialist and other reactionary states.


One of the distinguishing features of the New Socialist Republic in North America is its determination to apply the principles set forth ... by the Revolutionary Communist Party [in Revolution’s Special Issue on the Environment]—and what has been learned since, with further developments with regard to the environmental crisis and in the world more generally—in order to contribute all it can to solving the environmental crisis and, to the greatest degree possible, reversing its terrible and manifold effects, and to ushering in a new era in which human beings and their society can truly be fit caretakers of the earth.


1. The five previous mass extinctions were:

a. 360 million years ago: A prolonged climate change event, hitting life in shallow seas very hard, killed 70% of species, including almost all corals.

b. 250 million years ago: The big one—more than 95% of species perished, including trilobites and giant insects–strongly linked to massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia that caused a savage episode of global warming.

c. 200 million years ago: Three-quarters of species were lost, again most likely due to another huge outburst of volcanism.

d. 65 million years ago: After a giant asteroid impact on Mexico and large volcanic eruptions in what is now India; involved the end of the dinosaurs and ammonites among other species.

e. 3 million years ago: A severe ice age led to sea level falling by 100 meters, wiping out 60-70% of all species which were primarily ocean dwellers at the time. [back]

2. “Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines,” published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [back]



Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.