Anthony D. Barnosky is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, a curator at the Museum of Paleontology, and a research paleoecologist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has spent three decades conducting research related to past planetary changes, and what they mean for forecasting the changes Planet Earth faces in the next few decades.
The author of books, numerous scientific publications, op-eds, and blog posts, Barnosky speaks regularly about climate change, extinction, and environmental tipping points in a variety of public and academic venues.
For a scientist who’s considered an expert in the dynamics of mass extinctions, Anthony Barnosky is a surprisingly upbeat guy. He brings that same attitude to his newest book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth, which eschews doom-and-gloom soapboxing for can-do approaches to pulling us back from the brink of a Sixth Mass Extinction.
Given the scope of the book’s subtitle, it’s not surprising that UC Press calls Dodging Extinction “nothing less than a guidebook for saving the planet.” First, what IS a mass extinction?
Mass extinction means that at least three out of every four species you are familiar with die out. Forever. Extinction of that magnitude has happened only five times in the past 540 million years, most recently 66 million years ago, when the last big dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid strike.
Calibrating current extinction from previous epochs is vital, says Barnosky, especially as we confront the current state of biodiversity: in the last 40 years we have killed a staggering half of all wildlife on earth—and more than 20,000 species are “at risk.” The accelerated rates of extinctions, says Barnosky, far exceed those in the fossil record, “before people got into the act.” From climate change to food production, human behaviors are triggering vast, incalculable losses, but it’s a negative feedback loop that can be rejiggered to halt declines without great sacrifice to creature comforts, and it’s a story he wants everyone to know.
Lay readers will be happy to know that Barnosky writes in an engaging style, summarizing terms “you might have learned (and forgotten) in high-school biology” so that non-specialists understand what’s at stake. He takes readers into the trenches—both past and present—to share the story of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Through his book, invited lectures around the world, and most recently in the Smithsonian Channel documentary Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink (which also features UC Berkeley’s Walter Alvarez), Barnosky explains that the “tipping point” comes down to one question: “How do we provide for the needs of people while still providing for the needs of other species?”
As Barnosky lays out the sobering facts about past epochs, the recent (human-inflected) past, and our current conundrum, he says continuing on our trajectory, regardless of what we now know, is equivalent to “being a train operator and seeing a school bus stalled on the tracks way off in the distance, knowing you can stop in time if you pull the brake lever hard now, but deciding what the heck, let’s not bother.”
That might sound like a fatalistic analogy but Barnosky, a self-described realist and optimist, is confident about our ability to change things:
We know how to save species when we put our minds to it. That’s one thing that is very hopeful going into the future… We know the underlying drivers of what’s causing all these extinctions, and we know ways to fix that, too. We have to also think about that very big picture as well as the specific ways to save certain species and ecosystems …
Grandson of a coal miner, son of a butcher, and himself a coal geologist-turned paleontologist, Barnosky says wryly, “fossil fuels have been very good to me.” He doesn’t demonize industries, policy-makers, or our current un-checked proclivities, but he is clear-eyed about where we need to go: “We are at a crossroads.”
The good news, Barnosky declares, is that we have the technology to address our problems. Change is possible in such diverse but interrelated arenas as power (energy), food (agricultural land use, yield efficiency), and money (the economics of habitat destruction, and integrating the full valuation of all ecosystem services into the global economy).
One of Barnosky’s many strengths is offering cogent solutions to seemingly intractable issues such as, say, how to feed 10 billion people without further harming biodiversity. The short answer is:
1. Improve the efficiencies of the yields in places we already have under cultivation—in environmentally sustainable ways.
2. Convert all of the croplands that are now used to grow feed for cattle, pigs, etc. and put those into production for growing crops that people would eat directly. (“We would increase the number of calories available to the world by 50% to 70%. That’s enough to feed a couple more billion people.”)
3. Stop wasting food. (Barnosky calls this “incredibly obvious,” noting that in developed countries, “we waste about 30% of what we grow.”)
Wary of the hard science and statistics behind these accessible sound bites? No need. Barnosky’s deep erudition is tempered by both humor and a journalistic writing style that includes lively drive-by introductions to such diverse topics as the “Cretaceous Barbeque” the Goldilocks Principle, and “de-extincting” passenger pigeons. (Is re-creating the latter equivalent to what “Dr. Frankenstein attempted to do with the leftover parts of dead people?”)
After you’ve absorbed Barnosky’s data and arguments, what’s next?
Awareness is the first step. As Barnosky reminds students, when he was their age, 300 million across the world were connected via land-lines, now more than 3.5 billion humans (over half the human population) are connected via the internet, smart phones, and social media. Because the first step is communicating these issues, connected Millennials are especially well situated to tackle the first of Barnosky’s Top 10:
Top 10 Ways You Can Help Avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction
- Spread the word that the extinction crisis is real.
- Reduce your carbon footprint.
- Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.
- Eat fish only from healthy fisheries.
- Eat less meat.
- Never, ever buy anything made from ivory—or from any other product derived from threatened species.
- Enjoy nature.
- Become a citizen scientist.
- Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women’s rights to education and healthcare.
- Don’t give up.
As one of his chapter titles states: It’s Not Too Late (Yet).
Follow Anthony D. Barnosky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tonybarnosky