The Sixth Extinction

Review of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember by Annalee Newitz

Life on this earth has often been disturbed by terrible events. Countless living beings have been the victims of these catastrophes. Some inhabitants of dry land saw themselves swallowed up by floods. Others that lived in the bosom of the waters dried up when the bottom of the seas lifted suddenly. Their very races came to an end forever and leave in the world for the naturalist only a few barely recognizable remains.—Georges Cuvier (1)

Richard Leakey called it “the sixth extinction.” (2) At least five times before a substantial portion of life on Earth has gone extinct over a relatively short period of time. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out most of the dinosaurs—and more than 70% of all species—roughly 65 million years ago is only the most recent of these mass extinctions. The Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago, in which some 90% of marine species died out, was even more severe. Based on the rate species are disappearing, scientists believe we may now be on the leading edge of a new mass extinction event of our own making. (3) We could even become one of its victims.

Annalee Newitz believes we can survive a sixth extinction. In her new book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Newitz sees in this history of extinction not only the fragility of life, but also its resilience. After all, some creatures have survived each catastrophe. We ourselves may have rebounded from the brink of extinction once already in our short history. We are arguably the most adaptable species on the planet. We eat a wide variety of food and can live almost anywhere. Although we reproduce and evolve relatively slowly, our intelligence gives us the ability to adapt to changing circumstances in ways that other species cannot.

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Can the Human Race Survive?

The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.—Arnold Toynbee (1)

The human race probably faces a greater risk of extinction today than at any time in recorded history. The eminent cosmologist Martin Rees has put the human race’s chances of surviving this century at just 50%. (2) Nick Bostrom has found that academic risk experts generally give us an 80-90% chance of survival, which is better but hardly reassuring. (3) Before the development of modern technology, we faced a relatively low level of what Bostrom calls “existential risk.” But while our mastery of technology has increased our ability to protect ourselves against environmental dangers, it has also made us a much greater threat to our own survival. Now we have reached a critical phase in our development as a species: if we don’t learn to manage our growing technical power, we are in danger of destroying ourselves. (4)

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The Anthropocene Age

We live in the Anthropocene. The age of humanity. It is the period of Earth’s history largely shaped by human activity. Over roughly the last 10,000 years we humans have changed the composition of both the planet’s atmosphere and its oceans, radically transformed its ecosystems—driving many species to extinction in the process—and have even begun to alter our own biology.

The transformation of the world is the result our collective activity but is not in its totality the product of some deliberate, careful plan. Our tremendous power to reshape the world gives us both an opportunity to make it a better place or to do it great harm. Although the benefits of human civilization are obvious, human civilization has also had a host of serious unintended consequences. It is not beyond our abilities to destroy either ourselves or the planet that is our home.

As the pace of change increases we have to consider as a species where we are heading. We can’t continue to use our power carelessly much longer. This blog will focus on the way we are transforming both the planet and ourselves. If there is anything that you think I should cover here, please don’t hesitate to pass it along. In particular, I would love to hear your suggestions for articles to read or books to review. Likewise, if you have any original photos you would like featured on the site, please let me know.

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