The Sixth Extinction
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Humanity is causing a mass extinction of life on Earth, a tragedy for animals, comparable to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Few people seem to know or care about it.
We are living in a period of mass extinction of life on Earth. This is the greatest extinction since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. In the 3.5 billion year evolution of life on our planet there have been five mass extinctions - when close to all species were nearly wiped out. The most massive of these extinctions was the Permian Extinction some 250 million years ago: seventy percent of land species and ninety percent of marine species went extinct in less than a million years, close to an instant in Earth's 4.5 billion year evolution.
The common name for the present mass extinction is the Sixth Extinction
, popularised in the 1995 book of the same name by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin. (1) The unique characteristic of the Sixth Extinction is that it is caused by a single species - us: Homo sapiens
. Scientists calculate that within a hundred years half of Earth's fauna and flora could be treading down the road to extinction. Earth, home to millions of species, may be losing some 30,000 species a year and the rate is increasing as humanity accelerates its devastation of the biosphere. The problem is especially grim for rain forests because they harbour the vast majority of land-living species and humanity is clear-felling forests fast. As the forests shrink away the animals have nowhere to go and die out.
The Mega Devastators
Humanity has fashioned three mega-devastators that are causing the Sixth Extinction and their combined influence is reaching a climax:
- Global warming - by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
- Consumption of resources - which includes habitat change.
- Human overpopulation - by which every one of us increases the first two devastators.
The magnitude of what humanity is doing became apparent in the 1970's. But still the mass extinction crisis is invisible to most people, unaware about it or indifferent. Many scientists are so worried by this lack of concern that in 1992 over 1,500 prominent specialists, among them several Nobel Prize Laureates, endorsed the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity
. (2) But they have made little progress waking people to the looming cataclysm. Likewise, the Doomsday Clock has similarly fallen short. It was originally started in 1947 during the Cold War by a group of scientists concerned about humanity's potential impending self-destruction and is meant to wake us up to fight for our preservation. Currently the minute hand is set at about five minutes to midnight - just a few minutes before annihilation.
Biocide, the massive destruction of life on a worldwide scale, is the ultimate of all human practical and moral violations. Sceptics argue that there is not enough data to support the notion of a Sixth Extinction or that this mass extinction is not of human origin so we need do nothing about it. Other people accept the impending catastrophe and argue that humanity can slow the rate of extinction through proper management of human activity and ecosystems. Still other people maintain that time has expired and there is nothing we can do. But one thing is certain. The disaster of mass extinction is so great do we dare not act? We could not have evolved without animals and they gave our species food, clothing, shelter and tools. It is payback time. As Woody Allen says, "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." (3)
Learn more: The Sixth Extinction
by Niles Eldredge.
"Homo sapiens is in the throes of causing a major biological crisis, a mass extinction, the sixth such event, to have occurred in the past half billion years. And we, Homo sapiens, may also be among the living dead." Richard Leakey & Roger Lewin (1)
(1) Leakey, Richard & Lewin, Roger. The Sixth Extinction: biodiversity and its survival
. Weidenfield and Nicolson: London. 1996.
(2) World Scientists' Warning to Humanity
. Union of Concerned Scientists. www.ucsusa.org (accessed January 2007).
(3) Allen, Woody. My Speech to the Graduates
. In Complete Prose
. Picador: London. 1997.
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