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Extinction

03/05/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page

A horrifying painting titled "The Neozoic Era" appears in a recent Science News. It's from a book called Future Evolution. It shows a stretch of bare brown earth sporting only a couple of demented dandelions with trunk-like roots that curl like snakes under the surface, one rabbit that appears to be half-kangaroo, and a huge, insane rooster shrieking away from two indescribable winged creatures.

Is this what we're coming to? Paleontologists think it likely. Earth has undergone five mass extinctions in past millennia, each of which wiped out up to half of all life-forms on earth; the worst was 250 million years ago; it destroyed seventy percent of earth's living plants and animals. It can take far more than 10 million for evolution to refill those huge gaps. Many paleontologists, biologists, and ecologists say we are in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction -- the first to result from the actions of a life-form living on the planet: us.

Our uncontrolled population increase that consumes field and forest, and pours industrial poisons into air and water, is the cause. Scientists estimate we're losing at least three species every day or 1,095 a year. To slow such losses will take immense changes in human behavior.

We cut, burn, or replace rich forest ecosystems either with human communities or one-crop fields. Our ships pollute waterways that we also foul with trash, sewage and farm runoff. We fish in ways that destroy thousands of life-forms in the oceans; we poison the coral atolls that nurture ocean life; and we dump tons of green-house gases into the air, heating the earth in a vast unplanned "experiment" of which no one can predict the results.

Norman Myers of Oxford University in England says, "What we do or don't do in the next few decades will have influence for the next millions of years." FEW decades! Many scientists agree -- we've gone so far already, there may be only a single century left in which to turn things around -- this one.

A large international consortium has created a Red List of threatened species; each goes on the list if it is likely to go extinct in this century. It foresees wiping out one in five of our familiar species of birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians, along with millions of plant species. Biologists say the current extinction rate is from a hundred to a thousand times the "natural background" extinction rate -- what it would be if there were no human beings.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City discussed the question with four HUNDRED biologists; seventy percent agreed that earth's plant and animal life are now "in the midst of a vast extinction." Much of this is invisible to us in our comfortable suburban homes. It's a case of "what we can't see WILL hurt us."

This is Ruth Page, bringing you the latest discouraging news in hopes of encouraging all of us to help start a turnaround that might save Earth's gardens and the environment.

--Ruth Page is a writer, former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.

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