The Truth about Near-Term Human Extinction

by Emma Fenton, long-time reader in this space

As near-term human extinction is debated back and forth, argued for and against (with a degree of condemnation), the signs are already painfully obvious that this is the path we are heading down. Climate change, environmental damage and nuclear meltdowns are the signposts towards the demise of the human race and, as 2014 fades away, the issue of near-term human extinction demands serious attention.

The Sixth Mass Extinction

The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published an article on the sixth mass extinction some years ago, explaining that human pressure was having a major adverse effect on natural environments, with a third of all amphibians facing the threat of extinction. More are likely to follow as their habitats change or are destroyed. Salamanders and frogs are particularly at risk of fungal disease, exacerbated by global warming. Human population growth, habitat changes being enforced and global warming are having a devastating impact on nature, leading to the sixth mass extinction.

The oldest mass extinction is thought to have been the Ordovician-Silurian boundary with 60% of marine life being lost. Following this, the second significant event was in the late Devonian period, with 57% of marine genera disappearing (due to global cooling from bolide impacts). The third phase was the Permian-Triassic extinction, destroying 95% of species, on land and in sea. This was caused by severe climate change from flood volcanism. Then came the End Triassic extinction with the sea floor spreading due to lava floods, followed by the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, which led to the disappearance of nonavian dinosaurs.

The sixth mass extinction is underway. Global climate change, habitat destruction and its modification are major factors leading to this current phase. In other words, the human race is destroying its environment and itself.

Current Risks

The World Economic Forum established a panel to catalog the global risks that could lead to human extinction, such as natural disasters and influenza pandemics as well as terrorist threats. Jason Matheny at Harvard University published a paper entitled Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction in which he observes that many believe extinction is impossible but this simply means it is beyond our control, or that we do not view it as consequential, compared to social issues. This is because the problem is highly intimidating. The probability of extinction events needs investing in. Matheney argues that extinction could occur this century if we succumb to near-term extinction risks such as nuclear threat, asteroid impacts, volcano eruptions, gamma ray bursts, greenhouse gas emissions or a genetically engineered microbe to cause a global plague.

Near-term extinction is being seriously considered by Harvard scientists. Nuclear threat or meltdown could be a real probability. Kennedy estimated an outcome of a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis as being between one in three and even. Whilst NASA invests millions each year to research asteroids and comets, over a billion dollars is spent researching climate change and how to reduce emissions. Yet technologically advanced nations such as ours continue to damage the environment.

NASA conducted an experiment on solar radiation and the climate, trying to understand the variations in the sun’s power on our planet and found that their study was complicated by the fact that radiation from the sun is not constant. The lack of radiation is thought to have contributed to the European ice age between 1650 to 1700. Another factor to consider is that the sun is like any other star and will live and die in the same cycle, so that eventually the heat radiating from it will melt the ice caps and warm our planet until it becomes a hothouse, much like Venus. However it is not likely, given our current pathway to our own extinction that we will need to worry about this event, in a few billion years’ time.

Closer to home, the pharmaceuticals industry is having a negative environmental impact, through consumer disposal and waste each year. Human activity causes this pollution, with residues from agribusiness, manufacturing and community use finding their way as toxic waste into natural streams and drinking water. There is a risk to marine organisms too and this is becoming a major concern. Incineration is one way of combating this problem, but how do we educate the masses that are responsible for this poisonous waste? The health of humans and wildlife is at stake and the impact is significant, because much of this waste is contaminated. Worldwide, industry and governments alike are becoming concerned about the level of waste being disposed of within the environment and the effect it is having on the natural world around us, as well as on our own health.

Extinction is irreversible. We tend to consider it in terms of making sure we have clean water and food in order to survive, to be sustainable. When the population of a species develops beyond the environmental capacity to sustain it, there will be a population crash.

As Aldo Leopold once wrote: “wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization … no living man will see again the virgin pineries of the Lake states, or the flatwoods of the coastal plan …”


References and Further Reading:

McKee, J.K., Sciulli P.W, Fooce, C.D., Waite, T.A 2004 Forecasting Biodiversity Threats Due to Human Population Growth Biological Conservation 115(1): 161-164 accessed August 2014 accessed August 2014 accessed August 2014 accessed August 2014

Comments 34

  • “…no living man will see again the virgin pineries of the Lake states, or the flatwoods of the coastal plan …”

    What a gorgeous sight that that must have been… man is bad but Nature would have destroyed it in time just to rebuild it all over again and again. Mother Nature has her own easel and her own time. The A. Indians had it right all the time. Not too hard to figure out, is it? Who needs philosophy?

    At least we get to see the upper class go down too.

    Best essay yet!

  • It ain’t over till it’s over, but when it’s over there will be no one to know. However, the choir of Fat Ladies / Feedback Loops has already begun to sing.

  • Nuts. One more try:

  • Every time I think that I have somehow worked my way through the maze of NTHE I get slapped in the face by the dead fish of reality. Yesterday, 9-21-’14 more than 100K people marched for Climate justice without a clue as to what to do about the problem. Dancing in the street is not going to be any kind of savior. The participants will go home and feel like they have done something special that will lead to a real change. I don’t mean to be uncharitable, nor do I disapprove of demonstrations but it’s delusional to believe that our march to extinction has been altered by their effort. Worse yet, few even realize the plight we face.

    Unlike many people, who haunt these pages and others like it, I still believe that we might still have the smallest of chances to avoid absolute calamity. Unfortunately that would require a concerted global effort necessitating a degree of cooperation rarely, if ever, seen in history. The magnitude of human stupidity is so profound as to make me state that my species has become an embarrassment to this incredibly marvelous planet.

  • Thank you Emma. Only a woman can stay reasonable it seems while facing the ultimate horrors of NTHE and that is something to consider seriously.

  • Nice job Emma – clearly laying it out for any reasonable person to consider. The deniers fight the facts by ignoring them while we here do what we can while we can until we can’t.


    100 days until São Paulo runs out of water – Worst drought in state’s history triggers water rationing for 3.6 million people in 29 cities

    The ongoing drought crisis in São Paulo has reached a critical level that continues towards rock bottom. Brazil’s largest city, home to more than 9 million people, could run dry in the next 100 days according to Brazil’s Public Ministry.

    The Cantareira reservoir which supplies 45% of the city’s metropolitan population has reached a record low of 10.7% capacity. Despite ongoing recommendations to implement water rationing to the city, the São Paulo state have failed to do so.

    Instead, they have turned to financial incentives to promote reduced water consumption amongst its citizens and tapping supplies from other reservoirs. Customers who reduce their water use by 20% are offered a 30% reduction in their annual water bill. Sabesp, São Paulo’s water utility company, claims the measure has been as effective as water rationing would have been at reducing water use.

    However, as water levels have continued to decrease Sabesp have resorted to pumping what is known as dead water from three out of five of the Cantareira reservoirs. Dead water refers to the water below the minimum water level that is not normally used.

    Political motivations have been cited as the cause of the denial of the severity of the drought crisis as the looming October elections are just around the corner.

    while at the top of that page:

    More drought forecast next year across U.S. West – ‘Even if December was wet, the drought wouldn’t be over yet’

    Forecasters say severe drought or worse will continue into next year across much of the West, including parts of western Utah, most of Nevada, and practically all of California.

    Below-normal precipitation and normal or above-normal temperatures are forecast in the week ahead, according to the National Weather Service, and experts say the three-year drought isn’t likely to be relieved in October, November, and December.

    In Reno, the Truckee River already is a trickle, flowing at its lowest level in two decades for this time of year. Officials say Lake Tahoe is close to dropping to its natural rim for the first time since October 2009.

    As of Thursday, 81 percent of Nevada had severe drought conditions or worse. That was a slight improvement from the 87 percent in that category three months ago, but it was up from 78 percent the beginning of the year.

    The U.S. Drought Monitor said that about half of Nevada reported extreme or exceptional drought last week — 36 percent extreme and 12 percent exceptional. Last January, extreme drought covered 23 percent of the state, with only 5 percent considered to be in the most extreme category of exceptional drought.

    Half of Utah was reporting moderate drought and 16 percent severe drought. The most severe conditions were in the southwest and southeast corners of the state as well as a swath of western Utah stretching from near the Nevada line north of U.S. Interstate 80 southeast through Tooele and Juab counties to near U.S. Interstate 15.

    There’s not much relief on the way, officials said.

    Even in wet years, October and November don’t typically contribute much in terms of rain and snow in the region. December, however, is the start of the primary snow season in the Sierra, and the long-term forecast suggests a slight likelihood that month could trend dry as well.

    “Even if December was wet, the drought wouldn’t be over yet,” said Zach Tolby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

    There’s a 65 percent chance of an El Niño developing this winter with warmer-than normal ocean temperatures that sometimes produces more precipitation than usual, Tolby said.

    At Farad, California, just west of the Nevada line, Truckee River flows measured 104 cubic feet on Thursday, compared with a normal 500 cubic feet per second for this time of year.

    Most of the water now in the river consists of drought reserves coming from Donner Lake and owned by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, said Chad Blanchard, federal water master.

    Flows from the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Tahoe, are expected to halt altogether in late September when Tahoe drops below its natural rim 6,223 feet above sea level.

    “We’re almost to the rim. We’ve only got a quarter-foot left,” Blanchard said. “We’re to the point that resource is going to be out for a while.”

  • Dear Shep,

    While some truth may exist in that quote( which struck a chord in my bones) I would not be too quick to say never. I recently journeyed to the Trees of Mystery in Crescent City CA and when we got to the brotherhood tree ( which was named so in the hopes mankind would someday unite), I wrapped my arms around the behemoth and putting my heart close and there I was. These amazing trees carry the memory of such times and they will share if one is open to receive. Such things as that which the trees encompass lay dormant in us all.

    If we are open to receive, and that is the crux of it all. We are closed compliments the patriarchal arrangement of things and we look outward to find what can only be found within.

  • .
    Eventually, there will be no memory of any of this. The truth is this: The only “solutions” are not much different than what will eventually happen anyway – we all die, the Earth dies, the sun explodes, every star in the milky way explodes, and our subatomic particles will be widely scattered across the cold, dark, and silent expanse of limitless space.
    If you want a taste of REALITY, sit in a walk-in cooler with all the lights out and stay there.
    @ Grant
    Nice video. Funny how population overshoot is glossed over. And, they don’t really make the point that those of us who have had it so good have done so at the expense of so many others… Doesn’t anyone get it that we are responsible for the unimaginable suffering of other living things? Oh, that hurts, I guess I’ll just watch more Taylor Swift videos on YouTube.
    I never had any children. Glad I didn’t.

  • The concern about pharmaceutical waste is mentioned, but not the enormous amount of antibiotics used by the meat industry which is enabling super-bugs to proliferate.

    The combined effects of population growth, environmental destruction, nuclear pollution, and unrestrained capitalism are accelerating the extinction of species. Humans will not be among the last ones remaining, but our departure will increase the likelihood of some other species’ survival.

    I hate to put it this way, but the sooner we humans kick off, the better chance there will be for life to continue here on this small blue dot.

  • Atmospheric CO2 hit a new record-high seasonal minimum a few days ago and has almost certainly commenced its inexorable rise to a new record high seasonal maximum (northern spring 2015). Most recent reading 395.60ppm.

    ‘What the world needs to watch’, and few are bothering.

  • Bull In A China Shop
    Dr. Anthony Barnosky says not only is extinction irreversible, it is also unstoppable, once the cascading collapse passes the breaking point. The idea of the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a cybernetic fantasy based on schematic circuit diagrams. A better analogy is the infinitely complex neural network of our brains. The marchers are mostly like ill informed children who believe wind and solar will save civilization. They don’t understand that all their green hi-tech fantasies are comprised of deadly toxins. We have introduced nature to 80,000 new chemicals since World War 2. When our brains developed to the point of understanding our mortality, we evolved a cognitive dissonance that allowed us to survive as a highly functional, yet insane species. This show it how this can lead to the use and abuse of vegetational concepts.

  • It Takes a Village

    Tribes, which we can’t recreate,
    Are where we once learned to relate;
    Our psychology and
    Stuff we can’t understand
    Evolved for that natural state.

  • @ Kevin Moore

    Ha! You beat me to the punch, Kevin. I was just going to post the CO2 level. Yeah, looks like it’s bottomed out at almost 396 ppm and will soon be inching up again. We crossed 400ppm at the end of March. I’ll bet we reach 400ppm again sometime in January. We’re all living in a petree dish. And I don’t think our experiment is going to end well for any of us.

  • @Kevin Moore

    Found it… 4.4 million year old hominid

    Video: The Analysis of Ardipithecus ramidus–One of the Earliest Known Hominids

    In this video summary they seemed have backed off a little about Apes descending from hominids by drawing an upright ‘Y’, but in one of the articles from that issue of Science, they drew the linage line in a downward ‘Y’ from Ardipithecus.

  • @ R. Callaghan

    The idea of the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a cybernetic fantasy based on schematic circuit diagrams.

    I don’t think that reference is reliable or reputable. I investigated, a long time ago, and did have a most excellent series of comments from a biologist which critiqued what is said in that documentary re ecology.
    Unfortunately, it was removed from the internet, so all I can say at the moment is that I myself do not regard it as at all authoritative.

  • Humans are the broken spoke of the incredibly complex 3D wheel known as Earth.


    How Capitalists Control Mass Movements

    NGOs Are Cages

    We really need to understand the methods used by NGOs* to undermine radical political organizing efforts and divert us into political dead ends. The People’s Climate March is a good case study because it’s so blatant.

    In South Florida, we saw the exact same process after the BP oil spill. Once the NGOs came in to the organizing meetings and were given the floor, all potential resistance was blocked, strangled, and left for dead. NGOs will descend on any organizing effort and try to take it over, dilute it, and bring it eventually to the Democratic Party. We can also see an identical set-up with the established labor unions and many other organizations.

    If organizers are being paid, usually they are trapped in this dynamic, whether or not they want to be. While combining a job with organizing to challenge the system sounds very tempting and full of potential, it’s overwhelmingly not possible. They are two fundamentally incompatible aims, and those funding the job definitely do not have the aim of allowing its employees to undermine the system — the very system that allows the funders to exist, that they feed off of. Capitalists aren’t stupid, and they know how to keep their employees chained to a post, even if the leash feels long. With NGOs, capitalism has set up a great mechanism for itself both to generate revenue, and to pacify people who might otherwise be fighting to break the framework. “The unity of the chicken and the roach happens in the belly of the chicken.”
    [read the rest if interested]

    More of John McCain [take a look]

  • Is this the “rapture” we’ve heard about?

    Will ET Be Here Soon? NASA Brings Scientists, Theologians Together To Prepare


    A few days ago, NASA tried closing the gap between life on Earth and the possibilities of life elsewhere. The space agency and the Library of Congress (image below left) brought together scientists, historians, philosophers and theologians from around the world for a two-day symposium, “Preparing For Discovery.” Their agenda: To explore how we prepare for the inevitable discovery of extraterrestrial life, be it simple microbial organisms or intelligent beings.

    [may have something to do with phenomena like this]

    UFO captured on video outside International Space Station?

    A video of an “interesting object” caught on a NASA camera aboard the International Space Station. The object, a glowing orb, is seen keeping pace with the space station. UFO? Space trash? Satellite? Or something else?

    There has been another reported sighting of a UFO outside the International Space Station. In a video posted to YouTube, a glowing orb was spotted hovering as the space station makes its orbit around the Earth. But is it of alien or extraterrestrial origin — or is it a product of something less exotic and far more mundane?

    Credit UFO Sightings Daily with reporting Sept. 21 of the existence of the latest YouTube video of an unidentified flying object caught by a live NASA space station camera. The video, which was posted by user Streetcap1, displays a glowing orb keeping pace with the International Space Station, which is in decaying orbit about 261 miles (420 kilometers) above the Earth.

    In the posting by Scott Waring, he explains that not only does the glowing orb “moving upward” in the video, it is also seen “fluctuating.” Waring notes that the UFO is a “fantastic example” of the white ball type. “Most UFOs recorded around the world (about 20%) are white glowing balls,” he attests.

    But is that what is actually there? Could the white glowing spheroid be some glowing piece of space junk illuminated by the sun?

    Regardless, the UFO find is not the first time objects of the unidentified kind have been spotting flying around the International Space Station. The New York Daily News reported that white orbs had been detected outside the space station several times in August. The Houston Chronicle reported that the first of the glowing objects had been found by UFO enthusiasts closely monitoring NASA’s live webcam.
    [there’s more, but it’s the same story revisited]

  • back to reality:

    SWERUS C-3: Second Methane Release Saturates East Siberian Sea to 3188 ppb

    The SWERUS C-3 first leg found a second major methane seep on August 3, 2014 in the East Siberian Sea. Julia Steinbach, a member of the expedition, blogged this find on August 4th, 2014.

    She notes:

    “At one station, we really manage to catch signals from a flare with all sampling devices more or less at the same time. In general, we managed to characterize a small source region with high methane levels and quite some bubble flares – and in the 5 days prior to arriving at the source region, we have been seeing continuously rising methane levels in the surface and midwater – not so much in the bottom, so this seemed to be the signal transported from the source region.”

    What we learn from this is that a methane release area can increase methane saturation in the water over a considerable area, while most might break down in the ocean, as saturation gets higher, or as more gets trapped under sea ice, it is possible that more atmospheric release might occur.

    WEGAS – Continuous methane measurement in sea water.

    In addition to regular sampling, the Oden carried a new instrument which enabled real time methane measurement by pumping sea water into the instruments. Julia comments:

    “The other “methane” hero I want to mention today is Marc. You have read in earlier posts – both by me and also by some others – about the continuous methane measurements from the seawater intake, and Marc is the one running (and having developed) this system that is very useful to guide us to good spot for sampling and to enhance the spatial resolution of our measurement in between stations…”

    “For most people on the ship, Marc’s system (the “WEGAS”, standing for “Water Equilibration Gas Analyzer System”) looks like that: That is the view of the “methane webcam“ on the bridge showing the results of the online measurement – basically just a normal camera pointing at his screen, filming the part of it that shows the actual methane concentration in the seawater.”

    While sea floor CH4 source levels might be higher in saturation, this water column reading is well above what one finds in atmospheric concentrations.

    To convert from ppm to ppb, which is the regular atomspheric measure, add three more zeros and assume that the comma is the US decimal.

    The reading is 3,188 ppb.

    [sorry for the overage – thought this important]

  • Headed towards the abyss – but each of these is a view with blinders on:

    The Leonard Lopate Show

    If We Know Climate Change Is Real, Why Don’t More of Us Act to Stop It?

    Monday, September 22, 2014
    31 mins

    New York Times
    Science Times Podcast
    An Animal Gamble in the Arctic
    8mins 53secs

    New York Times
    Science Times Podcast
    The Collapse of Western Civilization
    11 mins

  • “If organizers are being paid, usually they are trapped in this dynamic, whether or not they want to be. While combining a job with organizing to challenge the system sounds very tempting and full of potential, it’s overwhelmingly not possible. They are two fundamentally incompatible aims, and those funding the job definitely do not have the aim of allowing its employees to undermine the system — the very system that allows the funders to exist, that they feed off of. Capitalists aren’t stupid, and they know how to keep their employees chained to a post, even if the leash feels long.”

    And I’ve seen where a polluter might fund an NGO because said NGO is more interested in ITS issue than the “pollution” in question. That’s where I see the danger. Not all funders have ulterior, capitalist-enhancing motives, IMO. Lack of clarity re goals–funders’ and NGOs’–strike me as an even bigger problem.

  • @Robin Datta

    Thank you for the alert on Naomi Oreskes’ new booK.

    Guy: Naomi would be good to have on your radio show – an excellent orator that is very familiar with the peer reviewed literature on the subject. She also fears that methane release is the major issue threatening NTE.

  • I have all figured out! This is a plot, a very complex plot, to make me look stupid. The “evidence” is too clear. No one with an ounce of intellect could possibly deny the inevitable truth.
    That is my hopium moment for the day: It is just too simple. The joke’s on me.
    Good job, Guy. Going through all the trouble to make this website, do “interviews”, make speeches and now, to host a radio podcast.
    Damn, I was thinking I wasn’t important-THANKS everyone.

  • “New York Times
    Science Times Podcast
    An Animal Gamble in the Arctic
    8mins 53se”

    The issues of sound and non-restrained human profiteering on Arctic animals come alive here in a way that media blackout and our normalcy bias otherwise prevent. I found this podcast the most gut-wrenching of the three.

  • Having people be civil to each other works well for society (which is vertically controlled through hierarchy) and is what the hierarchy would prefer. It usurps the horizontal interactions needed for coherence of community and stymies its growth.

    Macmillan Dictionary:
    polite, especially in a formal way and without being friendly

    (From) Webster’s New World College Dictionary:
    polite or courteous, esp. in a merely formal way

  • Last night’s NBL radio show had a good guest but was troubled by sound issues [as if the speakers were too close to the mikes, it was garbled, cut-out twice (dead air), and hard to hear clearly].

    When three or more meteorological disturbances merge, the result is called a “perfect” storm to signify that it is more destructive than the sum of its parts. In the Pacific Ocean off our West Coast, a confluence of dire events is forgathering whose cumulative effect may destroy more life on earth than anything that has occurred in 300 million years. That is not hyperbole, it is the considered opinion of a number of oceanographers who have begun to look at the threats cumulatively, rather than in the confines of one specialty or another. What happened 200 million years ago is called the Great Death of the Permian Age, during which most living things on Earth died.

    What is happening today in the eastern Pacific Ocean is thought by some experts to be a runup to just such an event, beginning, as did the Great Death, with the extinction of most life in the ocean. The Global Ocean Commission, in a report issued this summer, assessed the threats to all the oceans this way:

    “Climate change and pollution are wreaking havoc on the natural wealth of ocean ecosystems and jeopardizing the services they provide to humanity … Today’s rate of acidification is unparalleled in the last 300 million years. The ‘deadly trio’ of accelerating acidification, warming and deoxygenation are already damaging highly valuable coral reefs and other vulnerable ecosystems. Scientists are observing changes that are progressive, relentless, and unprecedented. It has been projected that up to 60% of ocean species could be extinct by 2050 if climate change is not urgently addressed.”

    All these afflictions are now besetting our Pacific Coast. Consider the parts of the gathering storm:

    Warming: The ocean, like the land and air, does not warm uniformly or consistently. Despite normal sea-surface temperatures in the central Pacific, for example, an enormous gyre of exceptionally warm water has formed that extends from the Gulf of Alaska to offshore California. It is about a year old, and unlike such phenomena as El Nino has never been observed before. “Such conditions could be hard on next year’s juvenile fish migrations and older salmonids already at sea,” according to NOAA scientist Nate Mantua. And their interference with nutrient transport into subtropical waters is expected to dramatically reduce the productivity of the eastern subtropics over an area of ~6,500 square miles, as calculated by the North Pacific Marine Science Organization.

    Acidification: NOAA reported in April that the pH of Pacific waters off the West Coast had become so low (more acidic) that they were dissolving the shells of small snails that are a main food source for several valued species of fish. The shellfish industry and the fisheries all along the coast are in serious decline, at least partly because of “acidification.” (That is what it is called, although the water is not yet technically acidic, it is becoming less alkaline.)

    Hypoxia (deoxygenation): We are familiar with oxygen-deprived dead zones, for example in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, in which nothing can live. For reasons that seem related to climate change, areas of hypoxia are appearing all along the West Coast, posing an additional threat to sea life of all kinds.

    These three bad actors have taken the stage relatively recently, their depredations occurring in addition to the more traditional ones: brutal over-harvesting of popular fish and shellfish, and massive pollution of the waters with sewage, agricultural and storm runoff, and plastic.

    The upshot of all this is an increasingly dystopian coast, with pelicans falling dead from the skies, sea lions convulsing to death on beaches littered with dead fish, and, in the depths, an ominous absence of sardines and plankton, which is akin to going to the Great Plains and finding no grass.

    The gathering storm is becoming a perfect storm while we watch, assuming that it has nothing to do with us.


    9/11 Firefighter Blows WTC 7 Cover-Up Wide Open

  • The latest post includes NTHE questions and a link to last night’s podcast. It’s here.