Home Science The Sixth Mass Extinction: Disequilibrium and the Second Law

The Sixth Mass Extinction: Disequilibrium and the Second Law


“We are in uncharted territory now… making up history as we go along.”

Working in the land conservation world, where we endeavor to protect places and communities and species in perpetuity, I constantly wonder if it is all worth it in the face of a planet headed for extraordinary environmental crisis. Looking at the problem from a resource-based view of the world, and in just one dimension, one sees that wild animal biomass has declined to a tenth of what it was at the dawn of agriculture, while human and domesticated animal biomass has increased by a factor of 5,000. Half the wild animals on this planet have been destroyed in the past 45 years.

Let me put it another way. We’ve destroyed half the animals on this planet since 1970, even while our own numbers have doubled. What makes us so good at destroying vast quantities of other creatures is the vast quantity of us. We did it with our eyes closed and our fingers crossed and our minds elsewhere. The reality is that social systems like ours always grow if they can, stopping only when an unsolvable external limit is encountered. The Big Question is, can we short-circuit this process and induce de-growth in our global complex adaptive system before we hit an unsolvable limit? Limits are imposed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, specifically in the behavior of adaptive systems operating far from thermodynamic equilibrium. So the answer to the Big Question – can we stop this growth process – seems to be no.

So why continue to work in the conservation field? Well, we don’t know the future. We have to keep going, we have no choice. There may be a critical path out of this dilemma that is not yet apparent. And if not for the future, then let us work for those creatures that share the planet with us right now.

Oddly, and because I am a fan of science fiction, thinking about the future in this manner brings two quotes from the Terminator movies to mind. They just seem so relevant to where we are today:

Sarah Connor, in narration, T2: “The future, always so clear to me, has become like a black highway at night. We are in uncharted territory now… making up history as we go along.”

John Connor, to the T800 in T3: “The future has not been written. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

5 November 2017

Photo Credit: Buffalo Field Campaign. Please help: http://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/


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