Monday, September 30, 2013

The Sixth Mass Extinction Is Upon Us: Can Humans Survive?

Annalee Newitz writes at the :

Over the past four years, bee colonies have undergone a disturbing transformation. As helpless beekeepers looked on, the machinelike 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. Colony collapse disorder, as it is known, has claimed roughly 30 percent of bee colonies every winter since 2007.

If bees go extinct, their loss will trigger an extinction domino effect, because crops from apples to broccoli rely on these insects for pollination. At the same time, over a third of the world's amphibian species are threatened with extinction, and Harvard evolutionary biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson estimates that 27,000 species of all kinds go extinct per year.

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? Proponents of the "sixth extinction" theory believe the answer is yes.

Our planet has been through five mass extinctions before. The dinosaur extinction was the most recent, but hardly the most deadly: dinosaurs were among the 76 percent of all species on earth that were extinguished, 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.

The climate change that occurred during the Great Dying--most likely involving megavolcanoes that erupted for centuries in Siberia--was similar to the one our planet is undergoing right now. Regardless of whether humans are responsible, the sixth mass extinction on earth is going to happen. We have ample evidence that earth is headed for disaster, from elevated rates of extinction among birds and amphibians to superstorms and the recent Midwestern drought, corroborating the idea that we might be living through the early days of a new mass extinction.

Assigning blame is less important than figuring out how to prepare for the inevitable and survive it--not just as humans alone on a world gone to hell, but along with the planet's myriad ecosystems as well. The long-term goal for Homo sapiens as a species right now should be to survive for at least another million years. It's not much to ask. As we know, a few species have survived for billions of years, and many have survived for tens of millions. Our ancient ancestors started exploring the world beyond Africa over a million years ago and lived through harsh conditions while another human group, the Neanderthals, did not. This isn't just because we are lucky. It's because as a species we are extremely cunning when it comes to survival. And so it seems fitting to pick the next million years as the first distant horizon where we'll set our sights.

There are, of course, things we can do in the short term to help us along: modeling natural disasters and pandemics; building cities that are safer and more sustainable; bringing food sources closer to home. Key, too, is controlling our carbon output. But beyond that we're going to have to use all our technological know-how to make dramatic changes to the planet we live on--and then to find ways of escaping it to build cities on the moon and on other planets. Ultimately, our future is among the stars.

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