Saturday, March 14, 2020

Coronavirus should not have surprised anybody

People are surprised that coronavirus is spreading all over the world so fast. They are terrified because it’s killing a few people. Nobody expected this. Why not?

Here’s why it’s no surprise: The rapid spread of coronavirus is a manifestation of the same crisis that’s been going on for more than 50 years all over Earth. As human beings have increased their travels around the globe, their shoes and clothes and stomachs have carried microbes out of their original micro-biomes and into other ecologies where living things were unprepared and unsuspecting.

This human-borne transfer of germs, bacteria and fungi has been a major force that has wiped out whole species (alongside deliberately destructive human behaviors). A whole lot of species: It’s the Sixth Mass Extinction. It’s also called the Anthropogenic (human-caused) Extinction, because it’s known that we are causing it.

In her Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert relates the story of the extinction of Panamanian Golden Frogs as a result of humans carrying a type of Chytrid fungus, not native to Panama, into the frog’s ecological niche. She then reports how various other frog species have experienced a like fate in different parts of the world, including the United States.

I was impressed at the time I read it, but it really came home to me in 2017. In my area of the Midwest, every spring is marked by the chirping of peepers. Peepers are frogs that spend the winter buried in the mud, and make a joyous peeping sound every spring as they seek their mate. Every year, I’ve heard the peepers along the creek below my house, until 2017. I was sitting in my backyard late one spring evening, and it occurred to me how quiet it was.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I realized, there were no peepers. I listened for weeks, and no peepers. I listened in 2018 and 2019. No peepers. Something got them. The Sixth Extinction came to my backyard.

The coronavirus is just another example of the same thing that happened to the golden frogs and the peepers, only it was much harder on the frogs.

On average, we’ve seen an astonishing 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years (since 1970), according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report 2018.

In fact, there’s a long history of decline in the populations of large animals as soon as humans arrive on a continent. (See below.)

A 2018 study published in PNAS found that since the dawn of human civilization, 83% of wild mammals, 80% of marine mammals, 50% of plants and 15% of fish have vanished.

The coronavirus is just another example of the ever-increasing threat of human activity on the Earth. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy. No surprise.
The timing of extinctions follows the "march of man"
The timing of extinctions follows the "march of man": Martin P. S. (1989). Prehistoric overkill: A global model. In Quaternary extinctions: A prehistoric revolution (ed. P.S. Martin and R.G. Klein)., accessed March 9, 2020.

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