Who will be here in a hundred years?
Why does it take the old men, men like Frank Fenner, James Lovelock, King Hubbert and yours truly, to be prepared to use the E word – EXTINCTION?
Its a serious question, and is all to do with tipping points – check them out
Look at this graphic of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon
It shows that once a certain point is reached extinction is likely. Remember the interesting observation that apparently all (original) Western DNA can be traced back to 7 females. This is known as the Near Extinction Bottleneck.
We have been there once as a species, and can again
Having said that I refer you to Frank Fenner. The answer offered is “revolutionary changes” and who in this cosmopolitan consumerist society surfeited on coal profits is interested in revolution?
The end of the human race
Debora MacKenzie, consultant
To say Frank Fenner is no fool is without doubt an understatement. He is an accomplished scientist, and that rarity in modern science, a polymath. As a virologist he helped lead the eradication of smallpox, while as a human ecologist he set up the respected Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University.
So how worried should we be that Fenner told an Australian newspaper that humanity will be extinct within a century because of our failure to deal with global warming?
All is not necessarily lost, at least according to Stephen Boyden, Fenner’s colleague at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU, who told the same paper there is still time to prevent our extinction. The problem, he says, is to do it we will need to pull off “revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability”. Still hardly an optimistic view.
And it’s not just Fenner and Boyden who are gloomy about the future of our species.
More and more people who study the prospects for human well-being in coming decades agree that food will be the key limiting factor Demand will skyrocket, fuelled, as Fenner says, by both population growth and “unbridled consumption” . Meanwhile climate change will make it harder to produce more food.
As New Scientist readers know, scientists agree the drivers of climate change are already in place They disagree only over the extent of the impacts. Fenner used the word “extinction”, perhaps knowing that doing so would attract attention. Indeed it did. Others say social and economic collapse with some human die-off.
However, the complexity of our civilisation means nobody can predict with certainty what the consequences of its collapse will be. Extinction of a species numbering nearly 7 billion may seem unlikely. But if biology teaches us anything it is that complexity contains tipping points that can be terrifyingly quick. In the 1800s, anyone watching a single flock of 2 billion passenger pigeons go by would have laughed if you said the bird would be extinct in a century
Boyden is right: there are still things we can do But so is Fenner: if we don’t do some of them, we’re in trouble. How much trouble? Well, how lucky do you feel?