It all started with “Titans of the Ice Age.” This past winter my son and I watched this Imax film at the St. Louis Science Center. It depicts life on earth approximately 14,000 years ago, when giant mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and other ferocious creatures roamed frozen North America. Though the reasons are still speculative, these and other megafauna were extinguished when this most recent ice age ended and the glaciers retreated. Toward the end of the film, the narrator ponders whether the megafauna of our present times (elephants, bison and tigers) will go the way of their ancient cousins due to human-induced climate change and habitat destruction.
This film set me to wondering about extinction and its causes, and since I lean toward worry about the state of our planet and whether it can sustain all of our human habits, I started rooting around for information. I discovered that extinctions have occurred many times over the course of the last four billion years, including five massive events. It brought me odd comfort to know that the causes of these massive die-offs couldn’t have been prevented and were caused by external forces (e.g., a meteorite hitting earth and intensive and prolonged volcanic activity). Amazingly, each time life was virtually wiped from the face of the earth, new and different forms were born and proliferated.
Now we are presented with the possibility of another mass extinction event. This time though, the cataclysmic force is not external but brought on by humankind’s extreme alteration of the planet. In her book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s research tracks the disappearance of species millions of years ago. And she documents what is currently taking place – the loss of specific life forms, at alarming rates – by visiting research stations around the world and querying scientists who are carefully monitoring these vanishing animals.
In “The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It,” Fred Guterl addresses a number of circumstances that could lead to human demise, including superviruses and climate change. He explains how our success with technology brought us to this precipice, and how using technology will be our best chance of saving ourselves.
If you need a visual aid to demonstrate the profound human-induced planet change that has occurred, watch “Manufactured Landscapes,” a documentary on the art of Edward Burtynsky. His photographs are exquisitely beautiful compositions of devastation done to Mother Earth in the name of economic progress. His range covers oil fields and refineries, quarries, dam building, mounds of trash and so on. Although he makes a point not to politicize his work, leaving it up to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions, to me the message is clear: humankind has and continues to drastically alter the earth in harmful and unsustainable ways.
If you’re less inclined to read about the earth’s mass extinctions you could learn about them by watching the television series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the second episode (“Some of the Things That Molecules Do”), he takes the viewer on a visit to the Halls of Extinction and explains the cause of the “Great Dying” (or “Permian Holocaust”) that occurred 251 million years ago. This was the whopper of the five mass extinctions with nine out of 10 animals being erased from the planet and was likely the result of massive and sustained (over thousands of years) volcanic activity in Siberia. This activity generated heat and toxic fumes so intense that the seas dried up and most land animals suffocated. Tyson covers a lot of material in this episode, and I was hoping for information on the other mass extinctions, but he alludes to these being covered in future episodes. I’ll have to check out the rest of the series over the course of the summer–the computer-generated graphics and animation are amazing! And I can peruse DBRL’s collection for other DVDs on extinction, and you can, too.