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'Biological Annihilation' Another Challenge For Humanity, MoBOT's Peter Raven Says

Peter Raven is the president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
M. Jacob

In between all the news updates about the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against police brutality, a totally different story jumped out from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the other day. “Mass species extinctions are accelerating,” the headline began.

That’s the existentially disturbing takeaway from a new study co-authored by Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Examining the populations of nearly 30,000 vertebrates, and particularly the 515 species that are on the brink of extinction, Raven and his colleagues found that 20% of all species could be gone by the middle of the 21st century. From there, the numbers could grow far worse in the coming decades because of how “extinction breeds extinction.”

It’s all part of what Raven describes as an accelerating, human-caused “ongoing sixth mass extinction” — and it’s also a state of affairs about which Raven refuses to despair. In fact, he told St. Louis on the Air, he remains hopeful that humans will see the signs of existential threat and change course on both individual and collective levels while there’s still time.

At this point, Raven said, it’s clear “we’re headed toward a more difficult world” in the decades ahead. But, he added, humans can still choose to act in ways that will make it either more or less difficult. 

On Tuesday’s show, he joined host Sarah Fenske to dissect the new study’s findings and explore where to go from here in trying to prevent ecological collapse.

Raven emphasized that while previous mass extinctions millions of years ago were caused by volcanoes, climate changes, a huge meteorite hitting the Earth and other factors, the cause of this sixth one is humanity.

“There are now 7.9 billion of us, going for nearly 10 billion in the next 30 years,” he said. “We are absolutely, indelibly and inextricably a part of the global biosphere, the living system of other animals and plants and other organisms that produce the air we breathe, the soil and everything else. But we’re one that’s now blown the rest of them away, so to speak.”

He noted that 40% of the Earth is now devoted to agriculture and farming, and the collective weight of human beings and domesticated mammals such as cattle and sheep is equal to 20 times the weight of all wild mammals on the planet.

When Fenske asked if what Raven describes as “biological annihilation” is inevitable, he said some major loss of species is definitely going to happen. And once those species are gone, there’s no bringing them back.

“A lot of the species that are around now are going to disappear between now and the end of the century. … It’s also true that we don’t know the exact effect of that,” he said.

But Raven isn’t one to accept inevitability, and he turned the focus to what can still be done.

“The important answer is, everything we do will have a bearing on how bad it is,” he said. “Everything — what kind of transportation we use, how close we live to work, what kind of food we eat. For example, you do a lot more damage to the ecosystem eating meat, which takes a lot more out of its productivity than if you’re a vegetarian.

“Anything you do helps, and anything we do in the United States particularly helps, because we’re using about three and half times what we produce.”

In illustrating just how lopsided current human consumption is in some corners, Raven noted that if everyone in the world consumed at the same level that people in the U.S. do, “it would take five planet Earths to support us all.”

What needs to change more than anything at this moment, the botanist said, is people’s posture toward others all over the globe.

“The most important thing we can do is love one another,” Raven explained, “care about one another around the world, recognize the fact that we’re all individuals and that we’re all operating this single planet together. … We don’t act that way. We have us and them, and we take away from them to give to us. ‘Making America great again’ means squeezing it out of the other countries in the world. Love and charity and caring are what are really going to make the world stable, and to do that we’ve got to overcome our intrinsic selfishness.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.