This is really gloom-and-doom stuff.
Hello Dodo—so long world! Leading paleobiologists are warning that unless we jolly-well do something about it next week, within 300 years—or 334 years depending on how you crunch the numbers—75% of all mammal species will vanish in what they call the Sixth Extinction. Barnosky, a paleobiologist from the University of California, Berkeley reports, “Our best guess is that the current extinction rate is between three to 80 times too high.” (Though that might appear to be a pretty broad speculative range, when your job title has a “paleo” prefix it’s really nothing at all.) And that means we need to get things down to an acceptable extinction rate (whatever that might be) as soon as possible.
Now some of you might be scratching your head and thinking the Sixth Extinction sounds an awful lot like the Holocene Extinction that got its start 10,000 years ago—or 13,000 depending on who you ask—with the mysterious demise of the Woolly Mammoth. The mammoth’s departure from the planet was long-believed to be the result of some catastrophic ecological event not unlike the one that whisked the dinosaurs away. A new theory, however, suggests that early cavemen with a taste for prehistoric beef—it’s what’s for dinner—hunted the gentle grass-eating behemoth to extinction. An even newer theory suggests that the cavemen were aided and abetted by none other than man’s best friend! So it turns out a guy and his dog kicked off the Holocene AKA Sixth Extinction. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory that the Holocene AKA Sixth Extinction isn’t actually an extinction in its own right but merely an extension of the Quaternary Extinction. It’s all quite confusing for those of us without the paleo prefix. The smart money says we’ll all be calling this the Sixth Extinction if for no other reason than it avoids the possibility of embarrassing mispronunciations when catastrophizing with your friends and colleagues over cocktails.
Make no mistake, the Sixth Extinction is serious business and its impact is already being felt in ways both great and small. News from Brazil is that the buffy-tufted-ear marmoset is being overtaken by some other kind of marmoset due to habitat loss and is in danger of blinking out altogether. Similarly, the oceanic white-tip shark which was once one of the most plentiful blue-water predators has become a rarity (which might actually be a good thing). Two-legged predators have taken note as well. Reports are that the popularity of adjustable rate mortgages has skyrocketed as risk savvy investors gamble that extinction will come before that first balloon payment. Car buyers are getting in on the action and taking out 8 year notes in the expectation that life as we know it will end before the warranty expires. Target Date 2348 mutual funds are selling briskly to the optimists among us.
Kidding aside, it seems every week we’re handed a new crisis—microbes outsmarting antibiotics, the NSA listening to you snore, three-eyed salmon in the grocery store. The crisis is never entirely clear, but it’s always a catastrophe and it has to be dealt with NOW! Ever since the end of the cold war it seems we’ve been looking for some all-encompassing global threat to take the place of the bomb. Let’s stop looking. Let’s stop promoting theory as fact. Let’s stop treating speculation as certainty. Let’s present our findings—on whatever subject—with humility and the recognition that we might be wrong. The world is filled with beauty, wisdom and grace. Let’s celebrate that. —Ebert