For many, climate change is still and unsettled issue. Yet it is indisputable that throughout its long history, our planet Earth has undergone major species-destroying transformations. We know this through a reading of the paleontological record that documents dramatic transformations over billions of years. In this edition of The Moral Is, Professor Madhusudan Katti of Fresno State’s Biology Department explores whether, as a result of industrialization, we are yet again at another planet-altering brink.
Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the earth near modern day Yucatan, setting off a chain of geological and climatic reactions that wiped out the dinosaurs. Three out of four species present on that day disappeared forever.
This was the fifth and last known mass extinction event in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history.
The story of these extinctions is quite literally written in stone, in the fossils trapped in layers of rock. Like the pages of an ancient, incomplete book, these layers are inscribed with tales of the plants and animals and bacteria that have lived and died here.
The tools of paleontology help us decipher these tales. We can read of the long age of our single-celled ancestors; of the first time that living organisms changed the global climate by releasing oxygen, likely triggering the first mass extinction of species that could not breathe the air that sustains us now.
Later came the carbon age, when dense forests covered the land, before they too were buried deep under it to be transformed into coal and oil.
Now we burn the solar energy captured in carbon by those ancient forests to enrich our short lives. In doing so, we have transformed the earth’s climate yet again.
Five times in the last half billion years, some terrifying series of unfortunate events conspired to wipe out most species. Each time, the survivors got a fresh start. The Great Dying at the end of the Permian era 250 million years ago was the worst one, driving more than 90% of species extinct. But it cleared the way for reptiles and mammals.
The asteroid that took out the dinosaurs was a mere lump of rock drifting through the solar system until it fell to Earth. Driven by sheer gravity, that asteroid had no conscience or remorse about the horrors it would unleash. Or that humanity would eventually evolve in the absence of dinosaurs.
We discover pieces of our own story every day.
Now we stand at yet another brink. Industrial civilization threatens a Sixth Great Dying. We have increased the pace of extinction, willfully or unwittingly, to a level not seen since that devastating asteroid more than 60 million years ago. We have come so far, building diverse cultures, inventing clever technologies. We have achieved so much worth celebrating given our humble origins. Yet our biggest legacy may end up as the epitaph for the next mass extinction.
We like to think of ourselves as creatures of conscience, infused with a morality and an intellect that helps us understand and appreciate our kinship with other creatures. But as drivers of this sixth extinction, how different are we from that asteroid? Will our conscience give us pause and pull us back from the horrors we have unleashed? Or will we let our own chapter end abruptly, wiping the slate clean again, just like that remorseless asteroid? The answer to these questions will determine our fate.
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.