A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Mass Extinction and the Confederate Flag

earth_crosshairs-062515I’m as horrified as anyone else at the terrorist attack that left nine people dead at a historic South Carolina church. And I’m disgusted by the culture that so clearly influenced the murderer.

It’s not that this isn’t important. But right now we have a bigger problem. Much bigger. Bigger than anything we can even imagine. And every week the news media and the political establishment manage to grab our attention with the latest terrorist attack or mass murder, or sports scandal – anything to divert our attention from the catastrophe that’s gradually engulfing us.

This week, we learned that our fellow animals are going extinct at a rate that’s up to 114 times faster than if we humans were not impacting their lives and their homes.

“We can confidently conclude,” the authors of this new study write, “that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way.”

Rates of extinction currently compared to what you’d expect in the absence of human activity.

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, one of the authors, has been warning about this since the 1970s. “We are now moving into another one of these events that could easily ruin the lives of everybody on the planet,” he says in a video he produced to accompany the study.

We’re heading for “a complete collapse of civilization as we understand it.”And since the web of life on this small planet is so intricately woven, what’s happening is leading to what his colleagues call “a complete collapse of civilization as we understand it.”

Sure, this report got some airtime. On NPR’s The Takeaway, for example, Todd Zwillich talked about it for exactly five minutes with Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-winning author of The Sixth Extinction, before moving onto other interesting things. So it goes.

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On his Bad Astronomy blog, Phil Plait writes a “Cautionary Tale” that imagines an asteroid heading for Planet Earth. Astronomers first see it very faintly, far away. Outside of scientific circles, no one takes much notice.

As it comes closer, many people simply ridicule the astronomers. A senator from Oklahoma stands on the floor of the Capitol holding a rock in his hand, saying, “This is a rock from my garden. I use it for landscaping. How can it possibly do any damage to us?” And the Governor of Florida makes it an unwritten rule that no one in their administration can use the word “asteroid” when talking to the public.

“The Earth is in the crosshairs, and we were too busy arguing over whether the problem even exists to do anything about it.”Eventually, when the asteroid is in full view of everyone on Earth, it’s too late to send a spacecraft to shift it out of the way.

And so the mass panic begins.

“Decades of science denial, industry influence, and partisan bickering have led to paralyzing inaction,” the tale concludes. “The Earth is in the crosshairs, and we were too busy arguing over whether the problem even exists to do anything about it.”

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This week, the death toll from the current heat wave in Karachi topped 1,000 people. Bodies are piled up in morgues, cemeteries have run out of space. And, in yet another study for a British medical journal, a team of 40 scientists warned that in the coming decades there will be three billion more cases of people being exposed to dangerous heat waves each year than was the case 25 years ago.

Terrorist attacks can kill scores or hundreds of people. Wars can kill millions. But what’s happening right now is going to end up killing billions of us humans – along with trillions of other animals who will never have known what’s happening to them, or why.

A few decades from now, no one will care what the people of South Carolina did with the Confederate Flag in 2015. But they may well be asking their parents why the latest extinction report that came out that same week went largely unnoticed.