Are we technically extinct?
A species becomes extinct when population numbers become so low that the size of the genetic pool of the few remaining individuals is too small to sustain and propagate a healthy population. Although healthy individuals of the species may still exist, they are like pages of a book that was impulsively thrown into a bonfire, then hastily salvaged as an afterthought. No matter how much they try, the orphaned pages cannot reassemble the story of the species. Half-burned fragments of words and passages that lead to nowhere, they fly past each other in the inferno but fail to reconnect in the right way. However many of them manage to come back together, they’re not enough. The story will always be limp: missing a beginning, middle or end.
In their desperation, the sentences begin to arrange themselves incoherently in any which way they can. The story becomes a raucous cacophony of random words, an endless rusty junkyard of symbols and sounds that have lost their purpose. The information of the species, encoded in its DNA, which took millions of years to assemble, evolve and painstakingly select through mutation trial and error, has just gone through the shredding machine and become forever unintelligible. Like any book that cannot be read anymore, it dies.
But there is more than one reason why a species would cross this lethality threshold and enter a death spiral. There are always early warning signs of a change in the environment that ceases to support a life form. Sometimes the species can enter a stage of intense hunt from a predator, like the billions of passenger pigeons of North America that used to be so populous, skies would turn dark for days as massive flocks migrated overhead. They all became food for humans, down to the last few dozen. Other times, the species can run out of resources, like the monachus tropicalis seals of the carribean who starved to death because of human overfishing of their main diet staple. We ate their food.
Whatever the reason for extinction, it always has to do with an environmental parameter that has changed, costing certain species their competitive advantage. But as extinction shocks reverberate up and down the food chain, nature always finds ingenious ways to recalibrate the system, achieving a new delicate balance each time between predator and prey. Any life form that disrespects this balance, wanting more for itself, eventually meets its match. Invasive species, super-multipliers, even most viruses, all have an achiles heel: their strength is actually their biggest weakness. The more parasitic a species is on an ecosystem, the more dependent it is on it, and the more sensitive it becomes to environmental perturbations. Behind their tough exterior, predators hide a fragile nature. They can become extinct almost as easily as their victims.
This applies even to predators who are “above the law”, like humans. In fact, the future of humanity is certainly that of extinction, because of the type of predation that we practice. Humans are not just predators of other life forms. They are predators of the entire life-support system of the planet. They are not just attacking parts of the system, but the entirety of the planet’s life supporting infrastructure. It is done through climate change, habitat elimination and toxic degradation that converts vast areas into biologically sterile wastelands. It is done through fascism and economic slavery. Comparing natural predators to humans is like comparing a bruise to a thermonuclear holocaust. However much evolved and complex our species is, there is one irony that defines it: the species we most closely resemble is the simplest lifeform that exists: a virus. This is because the most destructive viruses are also the most self-destructive: the more lethal they are to their host, the more likely it is they will die along with their host, without even managing to infect another individual. It all happens very quickly.
Collapse means Collapse
There are signs everywhere that our species has now entered its final chapter. We are warned by scientists that ecosystems are not just being degraded, diminshed, disturbed, or thrown off balance. The level of damage they are sustaining means that they are actually collapsing, a term used to describe a general, systemic and simultaneous decline across all species populations within a community. The collapse begins with certain key species, but its severity is so extreme that the ecosystem never fully recovers and, most importantly, never finds a chance to rebalance itself in between multiple shocks that are too closely spaced. Rather than a bumpy roll down the hill, the process becomes a free fall. While stressed species populations scramble for resources that do not exist, the permanent deficit in the food chain becomes a deadly feedback. The entire ecosystem enters an irreversible death spiral, and the countdown to ground zero begins.
The Final Extinction
The rate of this acceleration is so fast that this has been termed the 6th Mass Extinction, a term not appropriate for this “special” event. Aside from this being the first mass extinction caused not by geologic and cosmogonic phenomena but by another species, humans, it is also likely to be the last extinction, or Final Extinction. Humans are taking down not just the life forms, but the infrastructure. As the play comes to a close and the audience and colourful actors leave the theatre, there will never be another play. The audience seating is being ripped out. The curtains are being torn down. The stage is being dissasembled and the lights turned off, for the last time.
The sooner we accept that we have technically become extinct, the quicker we can retrieve the book from the bonfire.