lang="la"> Quidquid praecipies, esto brevis, ut cito dicta percipiant animi dociles teneantque fideles: omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 13 BCE

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

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.”

  • climate
  • politics
© 2003-2020 Stephen Taylor
script began 21:13:51 array ( 'pg' => 'home', ) ASIN 0141182873 src not in XML looking for 0141182873 in amazon found cached image images/amazon/0141182873.jpg don't update XML ASIN 0099527669 src not in XML looking for 0099527669 in amazon found cached image images/amazon/0099527669.jpg don't update XML ASIN 0007448031 src not in XML looking for 0007448031 in amazon found cached image images/amazon/0007448031.jpg don't update XML films.xml loaded IMDB ref tt4560008 looking for tt4560008 in imdb found cached image images/imdb/tt4560008.jpg don't update XML IMDB ref tt8079248 looking for tt8079248 in imdb found cached image images/imdb/tt8079248.jpg don't update XML IMDB ref tt0316356 looking for tt0316356 in imdb found cached image images/imdb/tt0316356.jpg don't update XML ASIN B06Y3K1XX6 src looking for B06Y3K1XX6 in amazon found cached image images/amazon/B06Y3K1XX6.jpg don't update XML ASIN B079J8RPVB src looking for B079J8RPVB in amazon found cached image images/amazon/B079J8RPVB.jpg don't update XML ASIN B00QWBMMFM src looking for B00QWBMMFM in amazon found cached image images/amazon/B00QWBMMFM.jpg don't update XML completed in 0.0134 secs