termination of a taxon by the death of its last member

In biology and ecology, extinction is the end of an organism or of a group of organisms (taxon), normally a species. The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, although the capacity to breed and recover may have been lost before this point.

The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again. —William Beebe
The most wretched of all current trends is of course the mass extinction of organisms, which has been escalating for decades and is still increasing in magnitude. —Pentti Linkola

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  • The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.
We have since built museums to celebrate the past, and spent decades studying prehistoric lives. And if all this has taught us anything, it is this: no species lasts forever. —Kenneth Branagh
  • It is noteworthy that human concern about human extinction takes a different form from human concern (where there is any) about the extinction of non-human species. Most humans who are concerned about the extinction of non-human species are not concerned about the individual animals whose lives are cut short in the passage to extinction, even though that is one of the best reasons to be concerned about extinction (at least in its killing form). The popular concern about animal extinction is usually concern for humans –- that we shall live in a world impoverished by the loss of one aspect of faunal diversity, that we shall no longer be able to behold or use that species of animal. In other words, none of the typical concerns about human extinction are applied to non-human species extinction.
  • We are now living in the era of the sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet, the last one occurring 65 million years ago when a meteor struck the Gulf of Mexico and annihilated half of existing species including the dinosaurs. Unlike the last five, however, the sixth extinction crisis is caused by human activity.
  • This time it is we who are the meteor crashing into the earth, and we keep crashing and crashing and crashing, never allowing the planet to recover. We are a meteor storm that continuously, repetitively keeps slamming into the planet, precluding adaptation and blocking recovery. If we cannot learn how to live on this planet and harmonize our existence with other species and the biocommunity as a whole, then, frankly, we have no right to live at all. If we can only exploit, plunder, and destroy, then surely our demise is for the greater good. Whereas worms, pollinators, dung beetles, and countless other species are vital to a flourishing planet, Homo sapiens is the one species the earth could well do without.
  • While certainly no cultures, peoples, and social systems have been as devastating to animals and the environment as modern capitalism, there was no Edenic time, no Golden Era, when humans lived in peace and harmony with one another, other species, and their natural surroundings. Problems like species extinction, resource depletion, desertification, and overall mindless destruction of life and ecosystems did not originate in European modernity but rather have deep roots in antiquity and prehistory.
  • We have since built museums to celebrate the past, and spent decades studying prehistoric lives. And if all this has taught us anything, it is this: no species lasts forever.
The extinct Dodo. Reconstruction of 1626 painting by Roelant Savery
  • EXTINCTION, n. The raw material out of which theology created the future state.
  • Life has now entered a sixth mass extinction. This is probably the most serious environmental problem, because the loss of a species is permanent, each of them playing a greater or lesser role in the living systems on which we all depend . The species extinctions that define the current crisis are, in turn, based on the massive disappearance of their component populations, mostly since the 1800s. The massive losses that we are experiencing are being caused, directly or indirectly, by the activities of Homo sapiens. They have almost all occurred since our ancestors developed agriculture, some 11,000 y ago. At that time, we numbered about 1 million people worldwide; now there are 7.7 billion of us, and our numbers are still rapidly growing. As our numbers have grown, humanity has come to pose an unprecedented threat to the vast majority of its living companions.
  • Let's not be too quick to blame the human race for everything. We must remember that a great many species of animals became extinct before man ever appeared on earth. At the same time it is probably true that when two husky representatives of Homo sapiens, with clubs, corner the last two birds of a species, no matter how far they have or have not evolved, both the phylogeny and the ontogeny of those birds are, to all intents and purposes, over.
  • Capitalism is not necessarily more immoral than previous social systems with regard to cruelty to humans and the gratuitous destruction of nature. As a mode of production and a social system, however, capitalism requires people to be destructive of the environment. Three destructive aspects of the capitalist system stand out when we view this system in relation to the extinction crisis: 1) capitalism tends to degrade the conditions of its own production; 2) it must expand ceaselessly in order to survive; 3) it generates a chaotic world system, which in turn intensifies the extinction crisis.
  • It is clear that only a giant change in human culture can significantly limit the extinction crisis. Humanity must face the need to reduce birth rates further, especially among the overconsuming wealthy and middle classes. In addition, a reduction of wasteful consumption will be necessary, accompanied by a transition away from environmentally malign technological choices such as private automobiles, plastic everything, and treating billionaires to space tourism. Otherwise growthmania will win; the human enterprise will not undergo the needed shrinkage, but will continue to expand, destroying most of biodiversity and further wrecking the life-support systems of humanity until global civilization collapses
    • Rodolfo Dirzo, Gerardo Ceballos, and Paul R. Ehrlich, (2022). "Circling the drain: The extinction crisis and the future of humanity". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 377 (1857). DOI:10.1098/rstb.2021.0378.
  • The Brontosaurus had a brain no bigger than a crisp.
    The Dodo had a stammer, and the Mammoth had a lisp.
    The Auk was just too awkward. Now they're none of them alive;
    Each one, like Man, had shown himself unfitted to survive.
    Their story points a moral; now it's we who wear the pants.
    The extinction of these species holds a lesson for us ants.
  • We are experiencing an accelerated obliteration of the planet’s life-forms — an estimated 8,760 species die off per year — because, simply put, there are too many people. Most of these extinctions are the direct result of the expanding need for energy, housing, food and other resources. The Yangtze River dolphin, Atlantic gray whale, West African black rhino, Merriam's elk, California grizzly bear, silver trout, blue pike and dusky seaside sparrow are all victims of human overpopulation. Population growth, as E. O. Wilson says, is "the monster on the land." Species are vanishing at a rate of a hundred to a thousand times faster than they did before the arrival of humans. If the current rate of extinction continues, Homo sapiens will be one of the few life-forms left on the planet, its members scrambling violently among themselves for water, food, fossil fuels and perhaps air until they too disappear. Humanity, Wilson says, is leaving the Cenozoic, the age of mammals, and entering the Eremozoic — the era of solitude. As long as the Earth is viewed as the personal property of the human race, a belief embraced by everyone from born-again Christians to Marxists to free-market economists, we are destined to soon inhabit a biological wasteland.
  • Nature cannot be destroyed. Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, but in so doing opened the way forward for mammals. Today, humankind is driving many [if not all] species into extinction and might even annihilate itself. But other organisms are doing quite well. Rats and cockroaches, for example, are in their heyday. These tenacious creatures would probably creep out from beneath the smoking rubble of a nuclear Armageddon, ready and able to spread their DNA. Perhaps 65 million years from now, intelligent rats will look back gratefully on the decimation wrought by humankind, just as we today can thank that dinosaur-busting asteroid.
    • Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), Chapter 18: "A Permanent Revolution"
  • A few years ago, virtually no one was talking about this . . . everyone just assumed that the web of life would always be intact. Now the situation is so severe that the United Nations has set up a special task force to monitor it: the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). In 2019, it published its first comprehensive report – a groundbreaking assessment of the planet's living species, drawing on 15,000 studies from around the world and representing the consensus of hundreds of scientists. It found an accelerating rate of global biodiversity decline, unprecedented in human history.
    • Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, 2021, pp. 8-9
  • It's no wonder that we react so nonchalantly to the ever-mounting statistics about the crisis of mass extinction. We have a habit of taking this information with surprising calm. We don't weep. We don't get worked up. Why? Because we see humans as fundamentally separate from the rest of the living community. Those species are out there, in the environment. They aren't in here; they aren't part of us. It is not surprising that we behave this way. After all, this is the core principle of capitalism: that the world is not really alive, and it is certainly not our kin, but rather just stuff to be extracted and discarded – and that includes most of the human beings living here too. From its very first principles, capitalism has set itself at war against life itself.
    • Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, 2021, p.80
  • Humans have caused extinctions since leaving Africa 60,000+ years ago; in the last twelve millennia post-foraging societies have systematically increased their exploitation and control of the Earth. Humans groups rearrange the natural world in their own image, taking the homes and food of other species for their own.
  • Our leaders willfully ignore the wisdom and the models of every other species on the planet—except of course those that have gone extinct.
  • Beginnings, it’s said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name—nothing does—but it has the capacity to name things. As with any young species, this one’s position is precarious. Its numbers are small, and its range restricted to a slice of eastern Africa. Slowly its population grows, but quite possibly then it contracts again—some would claim nearly fatally—to just a few thousand pairs. The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push into regions with different climates, different predators, and different prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; farther inland, they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle, they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe, they encounter creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living on the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creatures and then, by one means or another, kill them off. The end of this affair will turn out to be exemplary. As the species expands its range, it crosses paths with animals twice, ten, and even twenty times its size: huge cats, towering bears, turtles as big as elephants, sloths that stand fifteen feet tall. These species are more powerful and often fiercer. But they are slow to breed and are wiped out. Although a land animal, our species—ever inventive—crosses the sea. It reaches islands inhabited by evolution’s outliers: birds that lay footlong eggs, pig-sized hippos, giant skinks. Accustomed to isolation, these creatures are ill-equipped to deal with the newcomers or their fellow travelers (mostly rats). Many of them, too, succumb. The process continues, in fits and starts, for thousands of years, until the species, no longer so new, has spread to practically every corner of the globe. At this point, several things happen more or less at once to allow Homo sapiens, as it has come to call itself, to reproduce at an unprecedented rate. In a single century the population doubles; the doubles again, and then again. Vast forests are razed. Humans do this deliberately, in order to feed themselves. Less deliberately, they shift organisms from one continent to another, reassembling the biosphere.
  • We are currently, in a systematic manner, exterminating all non-human living beings.
    • Anne Larigauderie, IPBES executive secretary, quoted in Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, 2021, p. 9
  • The most wretched of all current trends is of course the mass extinction of organisms, which has been escalating for decades and is still increasing in magnitude.
    • Pentti Linkola, Can Life Prevail?: A Revolutionary Approach to the Environmental Crisis, 2011, page 183.
  • Having initiated a sixth mass extinction, carried out by access to energy, continued powering of modernity (via electricity, for instance) most likely means compounding ecological harm, piling up accelerating extinctions, under which conditions high-maintenance humans are unlikely to fare well. (More likely, electricity will stop before modernity manages to extinguish most species on the planet, giving humans a chance to try again without electricity/modernity.)
  • Finding out that 1 million species face extinction without radical corrective changes in human behavior is akin to finding out you have a fatal disease. One day you have a thousand problems; the next, you have just one. Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the catastrophic potential posed by climate change and the decimating effects of careless consumerism around the globe.
  • Indeed, in the long run, extinctions of species are as inevitable as the deaths of individual animals, and it may be that the causes of extinctions are as varied as the causes of individual deaths.
    A wave of extinctions—a sudden diminution in the number of species—is analogous to a sudden big drop in the size of a human population, an event that deserves to be explained even though the individual people would inevitably have died sooner or later anyway. Catastrophes in human populations have many causes: war, famine, and pestilence are the possibilities that first spring to mind. There may be equally many causes for evolutionary catastrophes, as waves of extinctions could well be called. Another possibility, however, is that extinctions come in waves that are part of a recurring cycle. It would then be the cycle itself, rather than each individual wave in the cycle, that would need to be explained. If there is such a cycle, it presumably follows a cycle in the inorganic world, such as cyclic climactic changes.
  • Since after extinction no one will be present to take responsibility, we have to take full responsibility now.
  • This did not happen yesterday because we suddenly became aware of the dangers of global warming. It began 50,000 years ago when a relatively hairless primate stumbled out of equatorial Africa and began wiping out the megafauna of the time. Wherever this creature (our ancestor) went, their arrival was followed by large die-outs of megafauna. Primitive hominids were well-organized, efficient, slaughter crews. As they advanced, the mammoth, sabre-toothed cats, cave bears, giant sloths, camels, horses, and wholly rhinos fell to their stone weapons and deliberately set fires. The extinction of all of these great mega-species is directly attributable to "primitive" human hunters. The hunting down of the mega-fauna was followed by the advent of agriculture and the domestication of selected animals. Domesticated cows, goats, sheep, and pigs grew in numbers and denuded large areas of grasslands. Irrigation systems began to toxify land. Then agriculture was followed by industrial activities, and finally, by the burning off of vast amounts of fossil fuels.
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