Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Eating Down the Food Chain

Europe once teemed with large mammals, including species of elephant, lion, tiger, bear, moose and bison.

America was also home to a number of huge and unusual animals: mammoths, dire wolves, lions, giant sloths and others.

The same goes for Australia, where giant kangaroos, huge wombats and marsupial 'lions' once roamed.

What do these extinctions have in common? They all occurred around when humans arrived. The idea that humans caused them is hotly debated, because they also sometimes coincided with climactic and vegetation changes. However, I believe the fact that these extinctions occurred on several different continents about when humans arrived points to an anthropogenic explanation.

A recent archaeological study from the island of Tasmania off the coast of Australia supports the idea that humans were behind the Australian extinctions. Many large animals went extinct around the time when humans arrived in Australia, but that time also coincided with a change in climate. What the new study shows is that the same large animals survived for another 5,000 years in Tasmania... until humans arrived there from the mainland. Then they promptly went extinct. That time period didn't correspond to a major climate change, so it's hard to explain it away.

It's a harsh reality that our big brains and remarkable adaptability give us the power to be exceptionally destructive to the environment. We're good at finding the most productive niches available, and exploiting them until they implode. Jared Diamond wrote an excellent book on the subject called Collapse, which details how nearly every major civilization collapse throughout history was caused at least in part by environmental damage. It's been a hallmark of human history since the beginning.

I don't think it will take much to convince you that the trend has accelerated in modern times. Ocean life, our major source of nutrient-rich wild food, has already been severely depleted. The current extinction rate is estimated to be over 1,000 times the baseline, pre-modern level, and rising.

Humans have always been top-level predators. We kill and eat nutrient-dense prey that is often much larger than we are. But today, the extinction of such walking meat lockers has caused us to eat down the food chain. We're turning to jellyfish and sea cucumbers and... gasp... lobsters!

While it's true that we've probably always eaten things like shellfish and insects, I find it disturbing that we've depleted the oceans to the point where we can no longer sustainably eat formerly abundant carnivorous fish like tuna. We need to make a concerted effort to preserve these species because extinction is permanent.

I don't want to live in a future where the only thing on the menu is bacteria patties, the other other other
other white meat.