Extinction is a concept I first encountered as a child playing with plastic dinosaur toys on the playroom floor. Pitting a T-Rex against a Triceratops in a furious fight, I understood that these monsters once roamed the Earth — but no longer. But it still felt like fantasy. Surely, nothing like that could happen in modern times?
While not inevitable, mass extinction is highly probably given our current trajectory. Indeed, there have been five mass extinction events on Earth, and we’re leading the sixth.
Mass extinction now looms over 1 million species of plants and animals thanks to humans, according to a new United Nations report on biodiversity. Although extinction is a part of the natural selection process, we’re accelerating it at an unnatural rate — tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past.
More than half a million species on land "have insufficient habitat for long-term survival" and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, the report says, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are doing just as poorly.
Here are some of the ways we’re making things worse:
You might say it stinks to be an animal. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But remember that you’re one of them, too.
Though we often disregard it in our everyday discourse, humanity’s deep-set fear of oblivion expresses itself in art, culture and religion. Some of the most popular films and television series in the past two decades have been predicated on the idea of humans facing an extinction-level threat: The Walking Dead (death by zombies); Game of Thrones (death by snow zombies); The Avengers (death by space magic); Rise of the Planet of the Apes (death by super virus and smart monkeys); Independence Day (death by aliens); Armageddon (death by asteroid); The Terminator (death by evil robots). The list goes on.
If science fiction is a reflection of our present fears and future hopes, it’s clear that we’re self-aware of our self-destructive habits — yet we don’t change. It’s as if we’re enamored by the idea of our own demise.
I’ve always been fascinated by the highly-debated genetic bottleneck theory associated with the Toba super eruption some 75,000 years ago. A supervolcano, the theory says, nearly wiped out humanity — reducing us to between 3,000 and 10,000 surviving individuals. If true, this theory means that you, me and everyone alive today are descended from a small band of survivors who looked extinction in the eye and said: “Not today” (to make a recent Game of Thrones reference).
It’s not too late to turn avert the worst of this mass extinction, according to the UN. But it almost is.
We can start by focusing on reversing climate change. Savings species and addressing climate change go hand-in-hand — both problems exacerbate each other because a warmer world means fewer species, and a less biodiverse world means fewer trees and plants to remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air.
In her seminal book on mass extinctions, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”
What matters is that people change the world. Well, what are you waiting for?