It’s not unusual for species to go extinct; it happens all the time. In fact, scientists estimate that at least 99.9% of all species of plants and animals that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct. That’s pretty amazing, considering how many species still exist—up to 8.7 million, according to some experts.
Mass extinction events, however, are not so common. A mass extinction event is when more than half of all species living at a given time go extinct over a relatively short period. The American Museum of Natural History found five significant mass extinction events in the Earth’s history that it thought were worth highlighting on the museum’s website. The largest of these happened about 250 million years ago, when up to 95% of existing species died out. Another that people may find particularly noteworthy occurred 65 million years ago. That one took out the dinosaurs, marking a major turning point in history.
What hasn’t happened in the past is a mass extinction event caused by humans. However, Richard Heinberg, author of the soon-to-be-released book titled Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival, thinks that may be coming, and some of the reasons are detailed in his 416-page book.
“The book is a ‘big picture’ book, and I address three huge questions in it. One is: How did we—just one species—come to overpower the rest of nature to the point where we’re changing the climate and triggering what looks like it may be a mass extinction event? The second question is: How have we come to oppress one another in so many and so brutal ways? And the third is: Is there any way we can come to terms with power in such a way as to turn things around?” Heinberg said as a guest on The POWER Podcast.
Heinberg said people around the world must switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources to limit climate change, but he was pessimistic about the prospects for doing so quickly enough to make a difference in the long term. “It’s going to be very, very difficult to do that in fact, and for a number of reasons,” said Heinberg. “One, of course, is just the fact that solar and wind, which are our main candidates for replacing fossil fuels, they produce electricity, but electricity is only about 20% of global energy usage. So, the other 80%, we use solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels for agriculture and transportation, and industrial processes like smelting metals, and making cement for concrete, and on, and on, and on—a lot of high-heat industrial processes. Those things are going to be hard to electrify.”
The only way to “get to the other side,” according to Heinberg, is for people in industrial countries such as the U.S. to reduce their overall energy usage pretty substantially. “That sounds really daunting, but it certainly is possible to do,” he said. “Europeans use half the energy that Americans do, and yet their quality of life is quite acceptable by anybody’s standards. So, we’re going to have to find ways of providing basic human needs in ways that use the least amount of energy, and then supply renewable energy for those purposes.”
“I speak frequently to experts, not just in climate science, but in other environmental fields and social fields and so on. And everyone that I talk to is really, really concerned about where all of this is headed. So, if you’re worried, you’re not alone, the experts are worried too. But, we really have to start talking honestly with each other about all of this and getting our heads out of the sand because it’s just too easy to live in denial,” Heinberg said. “We’re going to have to step up to the plate and really show that we’re a species that deserves to survive.”