Last & Least
The extinction factor
Dr Binoy Barman
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
(Robert Frost, 'Fire and Ice')
RECENTLY Frank Fenner, a famous biological scientist, has commented that the human species will be extinct in one hundred years. Fenner, an Emeritus Professor of Microbiology at Australian National University, said in a report published in the Daily Mail of Britain in mid June 2010 that the human race would be unable to survive a population explosion and unbridled consumption amid environment disaster. Frank, 95 now, who has a glorious role in eradicating smallpox from the world and is the author of 22 books, prophesied, “Homo sapiens will become extinct….A lot of other animals will, too....It's an irreversible situation.”
Fenner's observation is important, albeit alarming. He has issued the last word, in a form of warning, to mankind. A serious warning! Sadhu Sabdhan! Be careful or face the doom! Humans will be destroyed and they themselves will be responsible for their destruction. Humans have intervened in the proceedings of nature, in a quite illegitimate way, making it corrupt and blighted. Human intervention has caused air and water pollution, waste of underground resources, depletion of forest and loss of bio-diversity. And now nature will retaliate.
Fenner is especially concerned with the fallout of industrialisation, which has played a devilish role in climate change. Fenner identified the period from eighteenth century till the present time as 'Anthropocene' (period of industrialisation). He said it has an ominous effect on the planet that rivals an ice age or comet impact. Industrial revolution has brought many comforts for humans -- high-rise buildings, radio, television, computer, mobile phone, aeroplane, ship, car, fabrics and so many consumer goods. But it has also brought many curses. Dangers have come from two fronts. On one side humans have developed deadly weapons like atom bombs and on the other they have inflicted torture on nature. A nuclear war on a massive scale may turn all humans and their achievements into dust. If somehow they escape self-destruction, they may not escape the wrath of nature. The defilement of nature will backfire one day with all-effacing devastation.
It is an obvious fact that humans are especially vulnerable to climate change, which has manifested through global warming, desertification and sea-level rise. According to Fenner, climate change would be the main factor in the demise of humanity. He said, “Climate change is just at the very beginning. But we're seeing remarkable changes in the weather already.” He added: “We'll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island….The Aborigines showed that without science and the production of carbon dioxide and global warming, they could survive for 40,000 or 50,000 years.” But we will not be able to prolong our existence. The climate change has shrunk the possibility of our survival to a great extent.
At present, climate change is spearheaded by carbon emission. Carbon emission has indeed posed an enormous threat to the existence of human beings. Carbon dioxide from the factories and motorised vehicles is polluting air. It is causing a green house effect, increasing the temperature of the earth atmosphere. The problem has been compounded with the process of deforestation. As a consequence, the ice of high mountains is melting (which is known as 'ice cap recession'), to raise the sea level. It is also depleting, via CFC, the ozone layer, exposing the Earth dwellers to harmful ultraviolet ray. The situation is aggravating day by day. If the problem is not addressed seriously by the international community, it will inevitably bring disaster for the human beings, as Fenner predicts.
The most dangerous is, as pinpointed by Fenner, the unprecedented growth in population, which is the mother of many other big threats. The world's population is growing at such a rapid pace that it has become a monumental problem. At present the world's population is 6.8 billion. It is predicted to exceed seven billion by the end of 2011. The earth cannot sustain such a pressure of population. Nature has its own mechanism of check and balance. Malthus, two centuries back, said that whenever there is any illogical population growth, nature cuts it down with famine, diseases and calamities, which we call 'Act of God'. It may happen now. In 2006, an esteemed academic, Professor James Lovelock, warned that the world's population might sink as low as 500 million over the next century due to human-induced natural disaster.
Religious scriptures talk of the doomsday for humans. But nobody knows when and how it will come. If Frank's forecast is right, then it will come in one hundred years. It seems too early, though. According to scientific calculations, the age of our universe is about fifteen billion years and that of our solar system is about five billion years. Life on Earth started about three billion years ago. Humanoid animals emerged about five million years ago and humans in present shape (Homo sapiens) came about two lakh years ago. Humans learnt agriculture in about ten thousand years ago and they brought about industrial revolution only three hundred years ago. Computer and satellite technologies are only recent inventions, not more than half a century old. And human race will perish when scientific advances are going on in breakneck speed. If it happens, we should call it a 'premature death'.
In fact, human extinction may be staged in multifarious ways. The extinction processes may be unpredictable, indeed. The danger may come from the sky, from under the soil. It may come from any direction. For example, there may be a pandemic disease more serious than plague, AIDS or cancer. Or, there may a natural calamity more devastating than usual earthquake, volcanic eruption, cyclone or flood. Or, meteorites from the sky may hit the Earth. Or, any other cosmic accident may take place in course of the heavenly flight of Earth; for example, our solar system may be devoured by any giant black hole.
The scientists inform us of some calculative disasters, too. The Sun, which supports life on Earth, will go off one day, say, in five billion years. Then the Sun will become a Red Giant, making Earth arid and lifeless. The universe is expanding constantly. If it goes on as it is, one day the universe will face a 'chill death'. If somehow the universe takes a reverse course and starts to contract it will suffer a 'hot death'. But this disaster will take place in very remote future, say, fifteen billion years now, provided the scientific calculations are all right. We need not worry with them now.
According to some scientists, extinction of species on earth is a regular event. It takes place at intervals during the course of evolution of the universe, earth and life. About 99 percent of all Earth's species living at one time or another have become extinct. Without extinctions, we the humans would not be here. Extinction is a continuous process and it is happening today. According to the World Resources Institute, 100 species become extinct every day due to tropical deforestation and there are many species that we never discovered have succumbed to extinction.
The most massive extinction occurred 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian Period when between 75% and 97% of Earth's species died out. Perhaps the most recognized mass extinction occurred 65 million years in the late Cretaceous Period when an asteroid slammed into Earth's surface, resulting in the ultimate loss of 70% of the world species, including the dinosaurs. The current period, called the Holocene, may see the greatest mass destruction of species ever due to anthropogenic or human causes. Mass extinctions are in fact a part of Earth evolution of life forms and are indicative of changes taking place within the planet. Scientists estimate that mass extinctions take place about every 26-28 million years. At the same time, existing and new species evolve and replace or add to the current surviving species.
Therefore, the extinction factor is not one but many. The day of extinction is near or far. The process of extinction is slow or sudden. The agent of extinction is man or nature. Whatever, the Homo sapiens will hear the whistle of the final day in some unfortunate moments. It is destined. We may just wonder what form of life will reign over the planet in the post-Homo sapiens era.
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)