Will humans become extinct?

Humans are unusually gifted at causing the extinction of species. Fossil record studies show that the rate of extinctions in the human era is 100 to 1000 times higher than that in any fossil record before us. Humans have even caused diseases to become extinct, with the eradication of smallpox in 1979 and of the ruthless bovine disease Rinderpest in 2010. But could humans be next?

Many scientists think so.

Professor Frank Fenner of the Australian National University predicts that humans will be extinct in 100 years. Dr. Fenner, professor emeritus of microbiology, helped eliminate smallpox. The 95-year-old has vast experience in the study of extinction and its causes. He believes humans are creating the perfect circumstance for disaster through unsustainable deforestation, consumption, and most importantly, procreation.

“It’s an irreversible situation,” says Fenner. “I think it’s too late. I try not to express that, because people are trying to do something—but they keep putting it off.” Global problems already cause worry. Humans have destroyed over one fifth of the Earth’s forests since 1960. Over 80% of global land biodiversity lies in Earth’s forests. The number of forests, which help absorb carbon dioxide emissions, continues to fall. Meanwhile, forest burning and clearing, which contribute to carbon dioxide emissions, continue to rise.

Another source of worry is water supply. Earth has plenty of saltwater, but little freshwater to support the population. Many scientists predict that future wars will not be over issues like weapons of mass destruction. They will be over freshwater. Canada holds 20% of the Earth’s freshwater, and has the highest freshwater count for any country in the world. As a result, Canada already feels pressure to export its water to other countries in need, such as the United States.

The greatest worry for Fenner is our population’s uncontrolled growth rates. The globe is running out of room for what will be 7 billion people by the end of 2011. The world population is forecasted to reach 8 billion by 2025.

Some argue that the world can fit more people, and it can. However, the question is not whether or not Earth can fit more people on the planet, but whether we can provide adequate resources and shelter to each of those people.

Our current situation reminds Fenner of the cautionary story of the Easter Islanders. The Easter Islanders were an isolated Polynesian people who, through unsustainable resource use, overtaxed their supply and nearly decimated their entire population of 15,000. This small human population serves as a symbol of the importance of environmental conservation.

“Climate change is just at the very beginning,” says Dr. Fenner. “But we’re seeing remarkable changes in the weather already.”

Dr. Fenner does not say why he predicts exactly 100 years. Perhaps his extensive knowledge of other extinction rates has led him to calculate our supposed fate using current statistics. Or maybe it’s just a guess. Either way, the human population continues to skyrocket, forests continue to be unsustainably cut down, and freshwater demand is already peaking in many countries.

Yet some scientists remain optimistic.

Professor Stephen Boyden, a colleague of Dr. Fenner, says, “Frank may well be right, but some of us still harbour the hope that there will come about an awareness of the situation and, as a result, the revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability.”

For some, it’s the fate of the Earth that’s concerning. But scientists note that over the billions of years of Earth’s existence, the planet has encountered warming more extreme than our own, it has encountered global freezing that left much of the planet under sheets of ice, and it has seen meteors, solar flares, and violent global weather shifts. The Earth will be fine. It’s our fate that remains to be seen.

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