OK, so you’ll note that this title doesn’t include “Book Review” as I have not read this book. What I did do was attend a free lecture by Peter Brennen on May 20th provided by the Geological Society of Minnesota at the U of MN and I found it to be quite interesting. Peter is a great storyteller and his explanation of the previous five mass extinction events in our planet’s history was enlightening. While he is a journalist, it was obvious that he understands this subject matter in great detail and he was able to put things into words that are digestable by laymen, though the room was full of many schooled geologists.


Five times in earth’s history the majority of animal life has been wiped out in geologically brief catastrophes. With the discovery in 1980 that an asteroid played a role in one of these doomsdays–the death of the dinosaurs–scientists became confident that they had found a killer that might explain each of the mass extinctions. But in the past three decades, as geologists, paleontologists and geochemists have scoured the earth investigating these other Armageddons, they have found little evidence for devastating asteroid impacts in the rocks. Instead they have found the signatures of extreme climate and ocean changes, and–in the worst mass extinction of all time–a global warming worst-case-scenario, driven by huge injections of carbon dioxide spewing from apocalyptic volcanoes. The Ends of the World explores these discoveries and surveys deep time through a combination of interviews with the world’s top paleontologists and geologists, as well as road trips to the most important crime scenes in the planet’s history. It also illustrates how these five major mass extinctions both gave rise to our modern world while providing a terrifying window into our possible future.

(from Peter’s website)

I imagine his book is full of detailed scientific analysis explaining these events and perhaps even looking at the topic of his lecture to us which questioned whether we are currently in the sixth mass extinction. I was disappointed to hear him say that he does not think so…

There were several good questions asked and I was not recognized by the moderator but I asked my question afterward – jumping to be the first one to groupie our speaker, as usual. 😀

I mentioned to Peter that Dan & I were currently listening to O.E. Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (we were about halfway through at the time). The book’s premise is that half the Earth should remain in wilderness, untouched by humans, to retain the needed biodiversity the planet requires to remain sustainable. I asked Peter if there was any evidence in the fossil record to indicate that a decrease in biodiversity led to these mass extinctions and he noted that there was! He also freely admitted that there are feedback loops that we are not likely anticipating. However, when I asked him, with a conspiratorial wink, how long he gives human life, he said, “Six thousand years.” I was shocked. Perhaps geology suggests such a timeframe. Or perhaps he became so immersed in the geology that he ignores the impacts coming on more clearly each day that humans are rapidly using the even more rapidly shrinking available carbon budget. I personally give us about 80 years at most, but more likely 40. Perhaps a few of us will survive longer but I’m not sure it will be an enjoyable existence.

Maybe this is a shock to you. Perhaps you violently disagree. I would love to see discussion on this topic. The more I see, the more it seems it will take a miracle, a giant cooperative effort to turn our ship, in order for humans to save ourselves from Near-Term Human Extinction (NTHE). I just don’t see it happening.

What I do see (and oft times DO myself) is a lot of humans continuing to live as they always have, reproducing without much thought to overpopulation, consuming without much thought to the consequences.

The work of Edward Burtynsky, along with Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, might be of interest along the lines of considering whether humans have already or are on the verge of creating the sixth mass extinction. The photos at this link are disturbing. You can also check out the work of the Anthropocene Working Group who recently released their report on this topic.

Their argument is that humans have become the single most defining force on the planet and that the evidence for this is overwhelming.

~ Burtynsky on the Anthropocene Working Group

There is a Harvard class on this topic this fall. The syllabus is full of interesting things to investigate further and links to docs and videos you might find interesting. [Thanks to Dan for this link!]

For those of you who need a happy ending (as I felt Peter did at his talk… frustrating me as I feel the sugar coating time is over), here are some humans I learned about recently who have been demonstrating good community life since 1982. The Working Centre operates by a few principles which I found really interesting in Joe Mancini’s presentation at the recent CAN SEE conference:

  • Work as Gift
  • Living Simply
  • Serving Others
  • Rejecting Status
  • Building Community
  • Creating Community Tools

They also have a book that explains their work. Or you can take a virtual tour.

The Working Centre’s main projects give people access to tools to create their own work combined with continuous ways of learning and co-operating. The Working Centre organizes its projects into six areas; the Job Search Resource Centre, St. John’s Kitchen, Community Tools, Access to Technology, Affordable Supportive Housing and the Waterloo School for Community Development.

From the About Us page at their website