What We Need to Dodge Extinction

by Anthony Barnosky, author of Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth

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This guest post is published as part of a series in relation to the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this week.

In trying to avoid the so-called Sixth Mass Extinction, we tend to focus on proximate solutions, such as preserving critical habitats or preventing poaching. While such efforts are absolutely essential, they won’t do the job without us taking a step back and addressing the global drivers of extinction: climate change, food production, and monetizing nature.

Human-caused climate change is faster than and creating climatic conditions outside the evolutionary experience of species on Earth today; they can’t adapt or move fast enough. The food problem is that already we have co-opted almost 40% of Earth’s ice-free land for agriculture. How do we produce enough to feed an additional three billion people by 2050 without cutting into the last refuges for the vast majority of Earth’s species? And as for money, we now treat nature as a bottomless checking account—but the natural capital is fast running out.

Can we fix these global problems? It’s a tall order, but certainly within humanity’s grasp. As I write this, the COP21 climate meetings are in their final hours in Paris: for the first time in history, almost 200 countries, including the nations that are the largest contributors of greenhouse gases, are working hard to forge an agreement to prevent global temperature from rising more 2oC. Food security experts have mapped out ways to feed a few billion more people while still not taking over more wild landscapes and seascapes. And economists and business leaders are laying out pathways to manage nature as an investment bank, so that we can live off the interest, rather than deplete the principle.

These are encouraging signs, but just the beginning. Averting the Sixth Mass Extinction is still possible through broad communication about what humanity would lose, individual actions, and adopting appropriate governmental and business policies. But, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Because of lag times inherent in global-scale phenomena, action today is required to avoid extinction tomorrow.

Anthony D. Barnosky is a professor in the Department of Integative Biology, a curator at the Museum of Paleontology, and a research paleoecologist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. His book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth (University of California Press, 2014) explains how we can get global extinction drivers under control to avoid the sixth mass extinction. He also talks about these issues in the film Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink, available on the Smithsonian Channel and on-line.