The Extinction Distinction by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

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by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
crossposted on TPJmagazine
Oct. 18, 2009

There have been five Great Extinctions in the history of Earth.  And yes, all you creationists out there, according to a great deal of scientific evidence, that is evidence that is based on observation, experimentation and reproducibility, the history of Earth does extend back just a bit more than 4-6000 years.

There have also been about 20 others, big but not so big.  The first of the Big Ones occurred at the end of what is called the Ordovician Period, about 450 million years ago.  The last Big One, the one that knocked off the dinosaurs and put the mammals on the road to dominance, occurred about 65 million years ago.  Now, it seems, we are all of a sudden facing the Sixth Big One.  What is the evidence for this?

For one thing, there is global warming and the massive climate change that will result from it.  This is a fairly recent event, although the pace of global warming, as is well known, is accelerating.  Some societal elements, like the carbon-extract-it-and-burn-it-now-and-forever industries like to tell us that global warming/climate change is all a myth.  They have much in common with the folks at the creation Museum outside of Hebron (great name for its location, no?) Kentucky, who tell us that wearing saddles our forebears rode on dinosaurs and that Noah loaded dinosaurs on the Ark (baby ones to be sure, to keep the weight down).  They don’t tell us what happened to them after the Flood, but that’s another story.

Mythology can be such fun, but Creationist mythology is highly damaging on a variety of levels, beginning with its undermining of science, such as the science we will need if we somehow to survive global warming.  And then too the carbon-extractive-industries mythology is highly damaging because it seems to be leading us down the primrose path to non-reversibility.  Of course these industries also ignore that fact that the way they are burning the stuff up ensures that it will eventually run out.  For no matter how much more is discovered, if we continue to burn it up it has to get used up eventually if for no other reason than that, those pesky Creationists to the contrary notwithstanding, all those dinosaurs which made it haven’t been around since their own extinction, about 65,000,000 years ago.  And we do like to use fossil carbon for so many other purposes besides burning it.  For example, no oil no plastic wrap, and that’s just for starters.  But that’s another story.

It happens that as virtually all of the readers of TPJmagazine know, the evidence is overwhelming that if nothing very serious is done about carbon pollution of both the atmosphere and the oceans, very soon it will overwhelm us along with a whole bunch of other species.  According to The Millennium Project, which happened to be sponsored by such radical agencies as the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation and UNESCO, “an effort on the scale of the Apollo Mission that sent men to the Moon is needed if humanity is to stand a fighting chance of surviving the ravages of climate change.”  (In my view, it will take something much greater than the Apollo Project.  If we do get one, let’s just hope that Tom Hanks is still around to star in the movie.)  I cannot recall seeing any mention of their report, “2009 State of the Future,” published on August 1, 2009, in the US media.  But maybe I just wasn’t looking.  I knew about it from a pre-release article in London’s “The Independent” by Jonathan Owen that appeared on July 13, 2009.  I happened to be on a private circulation list which carried it.

Among the individual scientists concerned, James Hansen, Ph.D., Director of NASA’s Godard Institute for Space Studies who the Georgites tried everso hard to muzzle, has said that “partly on the basis of his latest modeling efforts and partly on the basis of observations made by other scientists, the threat of global warming is far greater than even he had suspected.  Carbon dioxide isn’t just approaching dangerous levels; it is already there.  Unless immediate action is taken — including shutdown of all the world’s coal-fired plants within the next two decades —- the planet will be committed to change on a scale society won’t be able to cope with.”

So our species could go very quickly, it seems.  And, as noted, we could take bunches of others with us.  In fact, we began doing that about 50,000 years ago, in Australia.  The disappearance of a whole group of fantastic animals, like a land tortoise about the size of a VW beetle, coincided with the arrival of humans from Southeast Asia.  Similar things happened more recently in North America and New Zealand.  It is also likely that the humanoid species we call “Neanderthals” (actually the name comes from the German valley, the Neander thal, in which the first fossil remains of it were discovered), which happened to have larger brains than ours, was wiped out by us, Homo Sapiens.  Currently frogs, toads, and coral among others are succumbing to malign human influence even without climate change.  And of course the latter could kill bunches of others, indeed possibly leading to that Sixth Great Extinction.

Add to climate change other human threats to the biosphere, such as over-population, nuclear war (of course Nuclear Winter would be one way to combat global warming — I could see some NeoCon like Bill Kristol proposing that one if they haven’t done so already with the by-product of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons themselves), the rapidly declining supply of pure water, to say nothing of the availability of sanitary sewage disposal, as well as massive pollution of the oceans both directly (detritus, as in that Texas-plus sized “plastic island” in the middle of the Pacific) and indirectly (acidification from excess carbon in the atmosphere), and there we have it.  The Extinction Distinction: the first one to be caused by one particular species, in this case Homo Sapiens, rather than one or more external (asteroid) or other physical factors (massive volcanic explosions).

So why is this happening, one might ask.  Not too many people do.  Why is our species on its way to creating the Sixth Extinction.  It goes back to that element of our nature and what we need to do to survive, both as individuals and as a species, which distinguishes us from all of the other species currently on Earth.  (Presumably we did share this characteristic with other humanoid species, like the Neanderthals, but they are all long gone.)  That is that in order to survive we need to take resources that we find in our environment and convert them to something else, like cooked food and woven clothing for openers.  Every other species just uses what it does use from its environment directly, without modification, except in very simple ways, like nest building for birds and dam building for beavers.  But in those cases either individuals or small teams do the conversion for themselves.

For humans, as we became more sophisticated, means of production became common and more sophisticated themselves, like flour mills and cloth factories.  With means of production came private ownership of them.  With private ownership came employment of others to do the work, by the owners.  And with employment of others to do the work came profit resulting from their labor.  The same thing happened of course with the ownership of the natural resources used to both run and supply the raw materials for the conversion processes of the means of production.  Profits were made from those activities too.  Private profit, that is.  And where, you might ask, does the resistance to doing anything significant about global warming, climate change, and species elimination come from?  Well, just look at what is going on in the United States Congress over doing something really very minimal about climate change.  The answer is obvious.

As one liberal-sounding observer said recently:

“The consumer societies and the wastage of material resources are incompatible with the idea of economic growth and a clean planet. The unlimited waste of non-renewable natural resources — especially oil and gas accumulated throughout hundreds of millions of years and depleted in barely two centuries at the current rate of consumption — has been the major cause of climate change. Even if the unfriendly emissions of the industrialized nations were reduced, which would be commendable, it is a reality that 5.2 billion people on planet Earth, that is, three-fourth of the population, live in countries that are still in various stages of development and will therefore demand an enormous input of coal, oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources that, according to the consumption patterns created by the capitalist economies, are incompatible with the objective of saving the human species.”

Liberal sounding, but it did happen to be Fidel Castro, commenting on President Obama’s Sept., 2009 UN address.  But it surely could have been a liberal.  Trouble is, socialist or liberal, or even concerned capitalist, as at the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, the profit-makers are going to simply ignore them, use every opportunity to obfuscate what they say, and continue on their merry way.  After all, most of them will be dead anyway before the worst happens, or they think they will be.  So why bother, when right now, for them life with lots of money is so much fun.

This is a theme to which I will be returning periodically in this space.


(A partial list of resources for this column includes the abovementioned “2009 State of the Future;” the Owen article on it mentioned above; “The Sixth Extinction?” by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, May 25, 2009; “The Catastrophist,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 29, 2009;  “Getting Serious About Global Warming,” The Progress Report, Sept. 23, 2209; EC-CCDS @   Sept. 26, 2009 for the Castro quote; “New Analysis Brings Dire Forecast of 6.3-Degree (F.) Temperature Increase,” Juliet Eilperin, Wash. Post, Sept. 25, 2009; “Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America,” a book by Susan J. Marks; and “Idiot America,” a book by Charles P. Pierce (yes, that aptly-named book is where I found the dinosaurs-into-the-ark story.)

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Columnist for The Greanville POST,; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter,; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century (POAC);


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2 thoughts on “The Extinction Distinction by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

  1. Futile and feudal are two words that cross my thought after a long period of actively listening to Journalists like you, like Hedges, Nader, Kucinich, Bill Moyers, and others. The vibration of “beseeching” comes through, as in “Wake Up! Wake Up!” And, “Do something! Do something!” Who is beseeching whom?!?

    The last years as an educator, I felt as if I had my finger in the proverbial dike. Before I left that scene, I realized I was holding my finger to the waters already a tidal wave. And just recently, my entire neighborhood experienced an electrical outage that vividly announced to me how little it takes to wipe out my living habits! I looked myself right in the eye, so to speak, and so do continue…

    “People don’t change until it hurts enough,” one of my first college psychology professors said matter-of-factly. Pounding words at people, as passionate writers and speakers do, only reaches the ones who are listening already. And that, my friend, is an enormous contribution!

    One by one, we are the weavers of collective history. Surely you know that enough of us know the bulk of our elected government “employees” are living in their own bubble.


  2. Pingback: A Reality Check from the Brink of Extinction by Chris Hedges « Dandelion Salad

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