Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what the hell happened.

Cora Harvey Armstrong

The Sixth Extinction

Species are mortal too.

They appear, they die out. Some quickly, some slowly. Sharks are an old species. Sharks appeared 450 million years ago. Humans, two million. Homo neanderthal is gone already. How will homo sapiens do?

The Earth’s fossil record shows five mass extinctions, in which many or most species disappeared over a few months or centuries. The first four are mysterious. We don’t know for certain what caused them.

The Fifth Extinction we know about. 250 million years ago, an asteroid the size of Manhattan slammed into the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

The energy released was like a hundred million atom bombs. The Earth’s forests burned down. A vast tsunami swamped every coast on the planet. The Fifth Extinction was as sudden as they get.

Mass extinctions are part of the life of the planet. We are now at the end of the Sixth. It started centuries ago. We just noticed.

Land Mammals, by xkcd.com

Species loss is now hundreds of time faster than the ‘background’ rate over the millennia. Some of this is now widely known. We have hunted lions, tigers and whales near to extinction. We have almost emptied the oceans of fish. Warming from our carbon emissions is melting the ice polar bears live on.

But the Sixth Extinction is not recent. Species loss has been accelerating for centuries. It matches the spread of humans. Species disappear as we farm and build. Where humans flourish, other species disappear.

Climate change is the closing paragraph of a story that began before we started writing.

Yeast in a warm container of nutrients consumes all the food then dies in its own waste. Any animal that sees its species double in a lifetime has cause to worry.

Of course, humans are not yeast. We’re talking about it.

But that’s about all we’re doing. There are ways to soften the end of the Sixth Extinction. Although polar bears won’t survive, there are things we could do so humans might. But we’re not doing those things. Nothing remotely like them. As a species we don’t seem to have whatever that takes.

The next decades will see species of life disappearing faster and faster. The human population will crash. What we do right now determines how soon, how far and how fast.

We’re not doing much, so expect it to get ugly.

Further reading
“What killed the Neanderthals?’, Luke Mitchell, London Review of Books, 36, 9, 8 May 2014: review of The Sixth Extinction: An unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert
The Dark Mountain Project “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.”

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© 2003-2016 Stephen Taylor
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