Sometime last year, when I was still a subeditor at a Sunday paper, I was asked to check up on the grammar of a story on page six of that paper that wasn’t even the main article on that week’s page six.
It was hidden away in a corner somewhere, the kind of spot normally reserved for brief pieces about some drunken duke driving his Land Rover through a gate at Buckingham Palace because he can’t be bothered to wait for someone to open for him. Or something like that.
But this story was different and its headline was somewhat more alarming. It declared that “The sixth great extinction has begun”.
In a succinct 300 words or so, the article touched on something many scientists agree appears to be a present-day conundrum: that not only are humans wiping out other natural species and their habitats, we’re destroying the conditions of life that make human existence possible and sustainable.
Apparently we started doing this about 12 000 years ago when the world entered what’s known as the Anthropocene (in regular speak, that means the geological “age of humans”). But we have really been outdoing (and undoing) ourselves in the past 100 years or so.
The article referenced a pile of peer-reviewed work that concluded that important threats to our civilisation, such as (yes) climate change, would affect the biosphere of vertebrate creatures to such an extent that most vertebrate creatures would go extinct.
It pointed out that humans happen to be vertebrate creatures and that they’re also near the top of the list of species that will go extinct first.
I’m sure the dodo, quagga and a long procession of now-extinct beasts, right back to the sabre-toothed tiger and even the Neanderthal, would be of the opinion that all of this is simply karma.
The sixth great extinction? It’s already happened on a mass scale five times in the history of our planet, so we’re probably due another one. But previously, these catastrophes were caused by unavoidable cosmic-scaled events such as primordial super-volcanoes erupting, or giant asteroids striking this hapless orb … not sneaky Volkswagens programmed to know how to trick emissions testers about the nitrogen oxide they’re pumping into the atmosphere.
Were we humans even marginally sane, the headline on the front of that edition should have read: “Extinction of humans upon us”. Instead, it fretted about the latest moves of Zuma and the Hawks, or whatever it was. In epochal terms, Zuma and his doings will matter not one whit (as well as the doings of many of the other so-called national leaders running their self-important little countries) to any visiting future alien species wondering what may have happened to us a few thousand years from now if they happen to come across any of our ruins. I wonder if they would conclude that we were as “intelligent” a species as we seem to think we are, not to mention a sane species.
As I once heard someone say on a documentary that touched on the disappearance of the Amazon jungle in South America and how this is leading to unprecedented drought: “Too few people know too little about the things that really matter. And too few of us know everything about what really matters.”
My imagined newspaper headline that would have tried to scream the truth about our dire predicament would probably have been easily wished or explained away by some or other self-appointed expert with not a single proven fact at his disposal. People who deny “inconvenient truths” like climate change do so in the face of overwhelming evidence – perhaps because they’re in the pocket of lobbyists for the oil industry or some such, but it’s probably for a far less sinister reason. The sad reality is that most people cannot deal with very much reality, and so like to be reassured that all is well and our problems are never as bad as they seem. So when anyone steps up to offer some form of false reassurance, they become heroes, even messiahs. Someone like Donald Trump in America, for instance, tells the hordes of people who love him only what they want to hear, never what they need to. They may very well end up putting him in charge of the most powerful nation in the world on that very basis.
That will certainly not be good news for the continued survival of vertebrates like you and me, and particularly any young vertebrates expected to exist in this world after us.
It’s doubtful that any headline like the one we should have put on the front of our national paper would have sold a single copy. The decisions President Zuma makes today affect the rand tomorrow, which affects how much we pay for our next new sneaky Volkswagen. That’s what we care about most.
But I have a suspicion that, as a species, if we started to care more about the bigger picture – about whether there will actually be a world worth inhabiting for our great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren – then concerns about what our greedy leaders get up to will start to take care of themselves. We’ll actually pick the right leaders for a change.
In the meantime, though, let’s just keep on squabbling while yet another ancient glacier crashes into an ever-warming sea.