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The Sixth Extinction Essay, Research Paper

So, what is the Sixth Extinction? When is it coming and what is its cause? It is happening now, and we, the human race are its cause explains Richard Leakey. This phenomenon Leakey argues, is easily comparable with the big five biological crisis’ of geological history, except this one is not being caused by global temperature change, regression of sea level, or asteroid impact. It is being caused by one of Earth’s inhabitants. According to Leakey, humanity is poised to become the greatest catastrophic agent since the giant asteroid, which collided with Earth some sixty-five million years ago, wiping out half the worlds species in a geological instant. ‘The Sixth Extinction’, written by Richard Leakey, ultimately highlights humanity’s mishandling of the natural world.

Leakey’s aim for his book is simply to make people aware of the real situation this planet and its ecosystems are facing, as a direct result of man. The statistics that have been compiled for ‘The Sixth Extinction’ are alarming. This is evident considering: fifty percent of the Earth’s species will have vanished inside the next 100 years; mankind is using almost half of the energy available to sustain life on the planet, and this figure will grow as population jumps in the next 50 years from 6 billion to approximately 10 billion.

Now, with the use of satellite imagery of much of the world’s surface, doubts have been laid to rest about whether such alarming statistics are of real concern. The answer is beyond a reasonable doubt that at the current rate of destruction, tropical forests for example, will be reduced to 10 percent of their original cover in the next 50 years. The ultimate implication to all this, as Leakey attests is that the world is facing a sort of cataclysm, a crash with many consequences. Leakey successfully establishes that consideration must be made that if the further destruction of life and life’s support systems is continued, in the end, mankind may very well be one of the species to suffer.

Politically speaking, many implications and concerns can be addressed in context of the environmental issues raised by Leakey. These include, but are not limited to: weighing the views of ‘anti-alarmists’ with those who express legitimate concerns; addressing issues of over-population, seeing as this such issue is often regarded as a key factor leading to environmental problems, and; addressing the concept of redistribution of wealth, which like over population has been to some degree viewed as vital to formulating global-scale solutions. While ‘The Sixth Extinction’ serves an awesome purpose of educating its readers on man’s mishandling of the natural world, and the consequences of our actions and inactions, there is however, no prescription given for any of the dilemmas aforementioned. Unfortunately, most, if not all the issues presented by Leakey are left unresolved.

For the most part, ‘The Sixth Extinction’ revolves around biological, paleontological, and ecological concepts and theories, yet Leakey does hint towards the recognition of some political and economic implications. Richard Leakey maintains that in the next half century, the world population will double to over 10 billion. If all these people were to enjoy the current standard of living prevalent in the world today, global economic activity would have to rise at least tenfold. When one considers the consequences of this reality, one cannot help but ask at what cost would this economic reality be attained?

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of ‘the Sixth Extinction’ is itself the compilation of alarming statistics, specifically Leakey’s claim that between 17,000 and 100,000 species go extinct every year. Many skeptics have argued that due to there not being any certainty on such figures, such conservationist ’scare-tactics’ should not be taken too seriously. Cleverly, Leakey derives an analogy to highlight the real situation and the prevailing ignorance in the logic of many skeptics. Leakey describes a situation where an asteroid is spotted on a collision course with the Earth. Many people, he argues, would be justly concerned because such impacts are thought to have unleashed mass extinctions in the past. Skeptics on the other hand, would argue that there is no cause for alarm since such theories on mass extinctions as a result of asteroid impacts are pure speculation and guesswork, and either way, the asteroid might miss. The point is clear, if there were any means of deflecting that asteroid, the cost of not doing so would be catastrophic. In terms of the plausibility of a sixth extinction, what would the costs be if ignored? Leakey makes a case for the extinction of mankind.

Since population is a worldwide concern, the moral of the story is, evidently, concern for the future has to be played out in all countries of the world, not merely in the poorer, developing countries as many would think. If such warnings are ignored, over population will cause primary productivity to fall, as space for such productions become non-existent. Leakey makes this contentious point through: “The world’s biological diversity would plummet, including the productivity on which human survival depends. (Leakey, 239)

There are many who simply disregard what is essentially this ‘doomsday’ warning – the sixth extinction, arguing that, “We now have it in our hands the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.” (Leakey, 239) Ignorantly, the assumption is made that the same production patterns could extend indefinitely into the future, and that there is no limit to what humans can extract from the natural world.

As a political, economic and social concern, through the continued destruction of the biodiversity in the wake of economic development and prosperity, the world may very well be pushed over a threshold beyond which it might be able to sustain, first, itself, and in the end mankind. Perhaps the most troubling implication established through Leakey’s work is that if unrestrained, mankind might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction but also risks being one of its victims. (Leakey, 249)

As previously mentioned, ‘The Sixth Extinction’ fails to establish any recommendations that might alleviate any of the aforementioned environmental concerns. Yet perhaps, another more important objective is accomplished, namely the function to educate. Perhaps, education itself is the first step to the solution. This is in light of the fact that as science and technology advances increase our comfort (at least a select few in the world), such comforts end up blinding us to the reality of the global environment. In other words, many never get to see the relationship between inputs and outputs of our interactions with the natural world.

The greatest challenge facing humanity in the next century is recognizing the complexities of the natural world including our interdependence with in. In sum, Leakey made the point that while the daily cutting of tropical forests and encroachment on wild habitats is a less dramatic process than an asteroid impact, the end effect is the same. In pursuing our own objectives, we operate as though the natural world can withstand our actions without assuming any harm. As Leakey would argue, we do so at our peril.


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