The Converging Extinction Crisis

biocultural diversity
Credit: Felipe Rodríguez Moreno

No doubt you’ve heard that there’s a big problem with the loss of biodiversity — a loss in the amazing variety of the world’s plant and animal species and in the health of the ecosystems that sustain them.

Biologists believe that we’re in the midst of the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth — the previous one being the episode that led to the extinction of dinosaurs, about 65 million years ago. Researchers also point out that this current extinction crisis is the first one to be entirely of our own making.

It’s the mounting pressures caused by human activities that are leading to the collapse of ecosystems and the disappearance of thousands and thousands of living species, every single day.

But did you know that there is another mass extinction going on at the same time? Just as with species, the world is now undergoing a massive loss of human languages and cultures. For the past several decades, anthropologists and linguists have been warning us about the tragedy of vanishing cultures and endangered languages, swept away by the rising tide of a global monoculture and dominant “world” languages like English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Portuguese, and Russian.

Up until very recently, though, we didn’t have any systematic information about the extent of this crisis. Researchers were relying on educated guesses, based on scattered reports in the literature telling us about this or that language on the brink as the last speakers pass away, or this or that Indigenous culture under threat of assimilation.

For the first time, our work has provided quantitative evidence of what’s really happening.

Credit: VOGA/Anvita Abbi
linguistic diversity
Credit: David Harmon and Jonathan Loh/Terralingua

Our Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) shows that since 1970 there has been a 20% decline in global linguistic diversity, as measured in terms of changes in the numbers of native speakers of each of the world’s languages. That means that more and more people are switching from the small languages to the more dominant ones.

More and more of the small languages are not being transmitted to the younger generations.

What’s more, there’s a striking parallel: the trend in the loss of global linguistic diversity revealed by the ILD closely mirrors the trend in the loss of global biodiversity for the same period of time, as measured by the World Wildlife Funds’s Living Planet Index.

This is another sign that what happens with diversity in nature goes hand in hand with what happens in diversity in culture.

Source: Living Planet Index, WWF
traditional knowledge

And along with the erosion of linguistic diversity comes the erosion of the traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) that languages encode. Our Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (VITEK) tracks changes in the transmission of TEK over time and helps identify the factors that account for the loss of TEK, including the presence of language shift, formal education, habitat degradation, and displacement.

Loss of biodiversity. Loss of ecosystem health. Climate change. We are rapidly losing our vital life-support systems. And now we are also losing the precious pool of human languages and knowledge systems that can tell us so much about living sustainably on earth — the only home we have.

As traditional cultures and languages decline and natural environments become degraded, our collective “survival kit” is becoming depleted.

It’s a “converging extinction crisis” of the diversity of life in all its forms.
And it’s happening before our eyes now.