Thursday, March 3, 2011

We can prevent a sixth mass extinction... but can we?

During earth’s long history, 5 mass extinction events have taken place. The sixth may be underway according to Anthony Barnosky, one of the co-authors of a study published in the journal Nature. The study suggests that we are indeed living in dire times and that if nothing is done about our impact on habitats, climate and the earth’s recourses, earth could experience its sixth mass extinction as soon as 300 years from now.

not too late

On a more positive note the study also suggests that it is not too late to do something about it. If we change our ways and stop treating the planet as an infinite source of goodies, many of the disappearing species may recuperate from their declining numbers.

change our ways

So will we? Change our ways that is. Yesterday saw the launch of the iPad 2. A product that no doubt will follow the same path to success its predecessor did. In other words it will sell millions. Every one of those iPad 2’s uses valuable resources the earth can’t provide without feeling the impact. No matter how many green stickers Steve Jobs sticks on the box, the iPad 2, sold in large numbers, contributes to the major impact we humans have on our living planet. And the iPad 2 is just one of the many gadgets we run mad for.


The problem is that Steve Jobs and his products attract a lot of attention and more importantly, that attention is followed up by action: the buying of a new product. News about the environment or human impact on life on earth is not popular and almost never followed up by action. Or rather inaction, i.e. the not buying of the newest gadget. There may be a fundamental animal instinct at the bottom of this behaviour. In other words we may not be able to help ourselves. The buying of a product gratifies our hunting and gathering instinct. We do not need to actively hunt or gather our food, we do no longer need to cut wood to keep warm, we do no longer need to build our own shelters; but the instinct that drives us towards all that still lingers inside us. At the same time, we are lazy, as most animals are. We always try to walk the path of least resistance. So instead of satisfying the instinct that tells us to provide for our needs by doing the things our long lost ancestors did, we buy stuff. It doesn’t matter what stuff, as long as it is stuff. We are like magpies, lining our nests with useless trinkets but we can't help it.


So unless we can find a different way to gratify our animal instincts, a way that affects the planet's habitats to a lesser extent, I fear we may be unable to control ourselves. The next mass extinction may well be caused by the species that has claimed superiority over animals based on its intelligence and yet we may still be too much of an animal to be able to prevent it.

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