By Isabella Caldarelli
Scientists recognize five mass extinction events that have occurred throughout the history of the earth. Many think that we now are living through a sixth mass extinction event, which is driven by the destruction of our natural ecosystems from an oversaturation of hazardous waste and harmful chemicals. This pollution directly impacts the rate of biodiversity loss. Yet the use and production of chemicals and industrial byproducts continues to grow because of increased population growth and consumption rates.
In 2017, it was estimated that “global sales in chemicals were worth approximately USD 3.5 trillion[…] and chemical production is expected to double in size again between 2017 and 2030.” A rise in chemical production, without proper management, mitigation, and disposal techniques, would increase the already large quantity of hazardous chemicals, litter (such as plastics and microplastics), and other pollutants that are released into the environment. This contamination is extremely widespread — more than 90% of America’s waters and fish are contaminated with pesticides. These chemicals can persist in the environment for years, destroying entire ecosystems and accelerating the rate of biodiversity loss, which is already occurring at a breakneck pace. Biodiversity loss is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate (the extinction rate that would presumably occur without human influence). Using a generous estimate of species numbers, between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct each year.
The damage we are causing to the earth’s ecosystems and species also poses a grave personal risk as human-caused biodiversity loss among plant and animal species in turn negatively impacts our quality of life and health. Animal and plant species provide material for food, shelter, energy, and clothing. A reduction in the diversity of species in existence causes a decrease in both the amount and type of goods that can be produced for human benefit. A decrease in biodiversity could also have enormous consequences for human health, both physiologically and psychologically. As of 2013, 50% of all prescribed drugs contain or are based on plant, animal, or microbial products. A decrease in the number of plants and animals in existence would decrease the subjects available for study and use in the medical field, inhibiting the growth and capability of the medical industry. From a psychological perspective, nature has a proven positive impact on mental wellness. Nature underpins all dimensions of human health and directly contributes to non-material aspects of quality of life, such as inspiration, learning, stress reduction, and other physical and psychological experiences.
Animal species have a direct effect on the environment too. Though keystone species such as coral, wolves, and sea otters are often recognized as the linchpins of their specific ecosystems, the extinction of even minor species can have major consequences for the entire environment. For example, the extinction of pollinator species such as bees can negatively impact crop yield and food production. Likewise, the extinction of species such as dung beetles can lead to dung accumulation that causes disease. Ecosystems and the many species living within them perform functions that sustain air, water, and soil quality, regulate the climate, provide pollination, and control pests. The complete removal of a species from a singular ecosystem can have wide-ranging consequences.
Human beings are inextricably linked to the environment in which we live, and the extinction of our fellow organisms deeply impacts human lifestyle and health. Because the improper disposal of toxic waste and harmful chemicals released into the environment during production and manufacture are unchecked, our planet’s biodiversity is threatened. We need to learn to take greater care of the environment to protect ourselves and our fellow inhabitants.