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Plastic Stones, Melting Snails: 3 New Ways To Maim a Planet

Humans to Earth: "Drop dead"

Keegan Meyer saves equipment from DBE Manufacturing via boat after an area of town flooded in Greeley, Colorado.
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
June 24, 2014 12:20 PM ET

Let’s just admit we’re an invasive species whose virulent impact on the natural world resembles science fiction.

Last month, the National Climate Assessment bluntly detailed the devastating effects of human activity being experienced in every part of the U.S.; page after page of plague and pestilence including drought, flooding, heat waves, wild fires, water scarcity and forests consumed by heat-loving bugs. March’s terrifying IPCC report flatly stated that the warming planet was under assault and warned of the dire consequences to come, particularly for the world's poorest citizens. 

The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate, by Al Gore

"It’s clear that we're irretrievably past the point of 'stopping' climate change," environmentalist and author Bill McKibben tells Rolling Stone. "Every week brings new bad news, most recently from the Antarctic, where it's clear that no matter what we do there's a huge loss coming on the West Antarctic ice sheet, with about 10 feet of extra sea level rise as a result. So we don't get our old world back. The most important thing that's happened in the lifetime of any human now alive is that the Holocene [epoch, which began roughly 12,000 years ago] has come to an end."

If the Holocene epoch is over, which epoch are we in? Many scientists argue we're in the Anthropocene, defined chiefly by human activity permanently altering the Earth. Three horrifying discoveries support the argument:

1. PLASTIC STONES

This month brought news of plastiglomerate formations on beaches. These "stones" are monstrous anthropogenic composites of plastic, sand, wood, rocks, shells, rubber tubing and fishing junk including nets, rope and anything else melted plastic might adhere to. Because plastic degrades so slowly, these plastic stones are now part of the planet’s geological record; a permanent marker of our civilization.

Oceanographer Captain Charles Moore, a marine plastic pollution expert who discovered the stones, also identified the hideous North Pacific gyre, a plastic-saturated stretch of ocean that's one of the most polluted areas in the world. In 1999, plastic pollution in the gyre outweighed zooplankton 6 to 1; now it’s 36 to 1.

What's to be done with the estimated 600 billion pounds of plastic manufactured every year? "Because of the properties of plastic itself, you've got this product defining our age that has no endgame, no take-back infrastructure," Moore says. "It has to become waste. Designing for recycling is a challenge that is simply beyond our economic model."

Moore asks rhetorically, "Am I horrified by these plastic stones? To me it's far more stomach-turning to see the insides of fish and birds who've eaten plastic and died slow gruesome deaths. We’re going in the wrong direction. If we’re not focused on radical change, we haven’t got a chance."

2. MELTING SNAILS

In April, scientists reported that an acidifying Pacific Ocean had corroded and dissolved the shells of sea snails, a critical food source for fish including herring, mackerel and salmon. Chemical processes triggered by acidification were depleting the carbonate ions needed by corals, mussels and oysters to form their shells and skeletons.

Oceans suck up a lot of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere; they've absorbed more than 560 billion tons of carbon dioxide since the 1850s, a 50 percent faster increase than any known historical change. The result: ocean acidification, the "other CO2 problem."

In Maine’s Casco Bay, scientists placed juvenile clams in mudflats bathed by an acidifying Atlantic Ocean — the clams promptly disintegrated. In addition to CO2 pollution, nitrogen runoff sourced to sewage plants and over-fertilized lawns also threatens Maine's $60 million shellfish industry. "If I try to talk about climate change and ocean acidification, I lose people," says Casco baykeeper Joe Payne. "I make it very short-term; the next three years. We’re focused on the fertilizer from people’s lawns that comes down the rivers and down the bay. It’s fertilizing microscopic plants in the water; when they die, bacteria breaks them down and takes oxygen out of the water. The byproduct of decomposition is CO2. We’re getting huge coastal acidification. What’s happening to the mud is astounding."

3. SPECIES EXTINCTION

An asteroid caused the Earth’s fifth great species extinction, but humans have launched a sixth that may rival the effects of that deadly event.

Last month, Science reported that animal and plant species are being wiped out at 1,000 times the natural rate. "This is a death rate," explains the study's lead author, Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation at Duke. Examining the fossil record, scientists determined how long it took a species to die out there and compared. "We read the obituary notices of species — if not exactly the newspapers but in the scientific literature," Pimm tells Rolling Stone. "And that tells us that species are dying off at a rate of between 100 and 1,000 extinctions per million species per year." Comparing this as a rate is important. "If somebody comes to me and says 130 extinctions per million species per year, I can name them, I can tell you where they lived and where they died."

Habitat destruction threatens plants and animals around the globe. In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that human beings have so altered the physical world that species literally cannot survive: "One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers – roads, clear-cuts, cities – that prevent them from doing so."

In Coastal Brazil, where Stuart Pimm works to restore tropical forests, more species are going extinct than anywhere in the Americas. Only patches of forest remain on a landscape that is now highly fragmented.

"We’re being enormously poor stewards," observes Pimm. "The debate about species extinction is we’ve got a few decades to get our act together. Species are going to die, but the question is, 'Can we postpone that event?' We’re not going to get biodiversity back within millions of years. As a global community, are we going to do something about this or are we going to go recklessly headlong into one environmental disaster after another? Yes, this is an emergency. If we don’t do something in the next few decades we will lose. The Sixth Extinction hasn’t happened yet. We’ve done a lot of bad things. But we can stop."

Can we really stop? McKibben says pessimism's a waste of time."'No hope’ is both inaccurate and unhelpful. There's no hope everything is going to be okay, there's plenty of reason to hope we can keep it from getting worse than it has to. Which may mean lots of human lives, and lots of other DNA, make it through to the future."

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