The Next Mass Extinction: And Why We Shouldn’t Give Up

By Annalee Newitz

Mass extinctions have decimated our planet on a regular basis throughout its history. The worst known mass extinction, nicknamed The Great Dying, involved climate change similar to the one our planet is undergoing right now. Annalee Newitz takes us through the signs that we’re undergoing a new mass extinction - and tells why we shouldn’t just give up, but should shift gears into survival mode.

Over the past four years, bee colonies have undergone a disturbing transformation. As helpless beekeepers looked on, the machine-like efficiency of these communal insects devolved into inexplicable disorganization. Worker bees would fly away, never to return; adolescent bees wandered aimlessly in the hive; and the daily jobs in the colony were left undone until honey production stopped and eggs died of neglect. In reports to agriculture experts, beekeepers sometimes called the results ‘a dead hive without dead bodies.’ The problem became so widespread that scientists gave it a name – Colony Collapse Disorder – and according to the US Department of Agriculture, the syndrome has claimed roughly 30 percent of bee colonies every winter since 2007.

As biologists scramble to understand the causes, suggesting everything from fungal infections to parasites and pollution, farmers worry that the bee population will collapse into total extinction. If bees go extinct, their loss will trigger an extinction domino effect because crops from apples to broccoli rely on these insects for pollination.

'If bees go extinct, their loss will trigger an extinction domino effect.'

At the same time, over a third of the world’s amphibian species are threatened with extinction, too, leading many researchers to call this the era of amphibian crisis. But the crisis isn’t just decimating bees and frogs. The Harvard evolutionary biologist and conservationist E. O. Wilson estimates that 27,000 species of all kinds go extinct per year.

If bees go extinct, their loss will trigger an extinction domino effect.

Are we in the first act of a mass extinction that will end in the death of millions of plant and animal species across the planet, including us?

That’s what proponents of the ‘sixth extinction’ theory believe. As the term suggests, our planet has been through five mass extinctions before. The dinosaur extinction was the most recent but hardly the most deadly: 65 million years ago, dinosaurs were among the 76 percent of all species on Earth that were extinguished after a series of natural disasters. But 185 million years before that, there was a mass extinction so devastating that paleontologists have nicknamed it the Great Dying. At that time, 95 percent of all species on the planet were wiped out over a span of roughly 100,000 years – most likely from megavolcanoes that erupted for centuries in Siberia, slowly turning the atmosphere to poison. And three more mass extinctions, some dating back over 400 million years, were caused by ice ages, invasive species, and radiation bombardment from space.

The term ‘sixth extinction’ was coined in the 1990s by the paleontologist Richard Leakey. At that time, he wrote a book about how this new mass extinction began 15,000 years ago, when the Americas teemed with mammoths, as well as giant elk and sloths. These turbo-vegetarians were hunted by equally large carnivores, including the saber-toothed cat, whose eight-inch fangs emerged from between the big cat’s lips, curving to well beneath its chin. But shortly after humans’ arrival on these continents, the megafauna populations collapsed. Leakey believes human habitat destruction was to blame for the extinctions thousands of years ago, just as it can be blamed today for the amphibian crisis. Leakey’s rallying cry has resulted in sober scientific papers today, where respected biologists detail the evidence of a mass extinction in the making. The New Yorker’s environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has tirelessly reported on scientific evidence gathered over the past two decades corroborating the idea that we might be living through the early days of a new mass extinction.

Regardless of whether humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, it’s going to happen. Assigning blame is less important than figuring out how to prepare for the inevitable and survive it.

Though some mass extinctions happen quickly, most take hundreds of thousands of years. So how would we know whether one was happening right now? The simple answer is that we can’t be sure. What we do know, however, is that mass extinctions have decimated our planet on a regular basis throughout its history. The Great Dying involved climate change similar to the one our planet is undergoing right now. Other extinctions may have been caused by radiation bombardment or stray asteroids, but as we’ll see in the first section of this book, these disasters’ most devastating effects involved environmental changes, too.

My point is that regardless of whether humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, it’s going to happen. Assigning blame is less important than figuring out how to prepare for the inevitable and survive it. And when I say ‘survive it,’ I don’t mean as humans alone on a world gone to hell. Survival must include the entire planet, and its myriad ecosystems, because those are what keep us fed and healthy.

There are many ways we can respond to the end of the world as we know it, but our first instincts are usually paralysis and depression. After all, what can you do about a comet hurtling towards us through space, unless you’re Bruce Willis and his crack team of super-astronauts on a mission to blow that sucker up with a bunch of nukes? And what can you do to stop global environmental changes? This kind of ‘nothing can be done’ response is completely understandable, but it rarely leads to pragmatic ideas about how to save ourselves. Instead, we are left imagining what the world will be like without us. We try to persuade ourselves that maybe things really will be better if humans just don’t make it.

I’m not ready to give up like that, and I hope you aren’t either. Let’s assume that humans are just getting started on their long evolutionary trek through time.

How do we switch gears into survival mode?

Portrait of Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is the founding editor of the science website io9.com and a journalist with a decade’s experience in writing about science, culture and the future for such publications as Wired, Popular Science and the Washington Post.

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