Humans and the Next Mass Extinction

October 25th 2015

Thor Benson

Like a giant asteroid made of flesh and bone, humans are crashing into the Earth's ecosystem and pushing it into what is known as the sixth known mass extinction in the history of the planet. A mass extinction happened when an asteroid struck the Earth when dinosaurs roamed the land, and now this sixth is largely caused by human control of land, the killing of species, human use of fossil fuels and other human-driven pollution. Can we fix it?

Because of industrial practices, our transportation, some of our hunting habits, and the places we occupy, the planet faces ocean acidification, rising sea levels and a general degradation of natural animal populations and environments. We know we need to curb or end fossil fuel use and take better care of the environment but how we can achieve this is disputed. A video from Stanford explains their paper about the extinction:


A new paper published in the Anthropocene Review explains the massive scale of this extinction and how humans relate to it. It explains the spread of plant and animal species around the world, by human action, how humans have controlled the evolution of animals and plants, the amount of land and production humans control, and what they call the "technosphere" make this extinction unlike any other, as the Guardian explained.

What is a technosphere?

Most of these concepts are easy to grasp, but what the hell is a technosphere? ATTN: spoke with Peter Haff, a professor of geology and civil and environmental engineering at Duke University and a co-author of the paper. He invented the term technosphere. "It's a global system that has identifying characteristics and consumes a lot of energy and ... is playing a significant role in the behavior of the planet," he said. Essentially, he said there are known systems on the planet that occur naturally, like the atmosphere (air) and the hydrosphere (water on Earth), and the technosphere is another one.

The technosphere is an entity that emerged because of human beings but is not truly controlled by them. While human beings created networks like cell phone connections and the Internet to communicate and change how the world operates, no single person or single groups dictates how that network operates or interacts. Haff believes the technosphere largely controls how humans act and what happens to them.

"If you looked at the sand grains in a desert, when the wind blows for a while ... the sand grains will begin to pile up and make sand dunes, for example," he said. "The sand dune is some kind of collective system that involves many, many individual sand grains. The sand dune is not just one sand grain ... it's [however many] sand grains that have a certain shape, a certain form that responds to the nature of the wind, it moves in a certain way, has certain dimensions, has certain internal organizations like sedimentary layers ... and all of those things transcend the sand grain."

He said you could also compare people to water molecules, which make up a wave but do not individually dictate the features of the wave or how it operates.

Haff believes the technosphere responds to the sum of the actions of many humans and changes the lives of those humans in response. He's not saying we're exactly like grains of sand, because we obviously each have goals and can make choices, but we do respond to our environments. "We have intentionality, we have purpose. We can consciously try to organize and work collectively against [something]," he said, but we won't always be on the same page or operating with the same intentions in a very large group. Each part of the group and each individual in the group is affected by the technosphere in different ways.

This could be important, because it might give us a better understanding of how we can respond to possible disasters and how they are formed. We can obviously do everything we can as a person or as a piece of society to fight for a better environment and make the best changes we can, but there are many factors at play, and one of the major factors might be the technological infrastructure we've set up that dictates much of our lives. We may not be independent of this force.

The communications and movements of many, within the technosphere, alters a person or group's ability to carry out major changes.

That being said, not everyone agrees this entity is out of human control. "It makes it appear that technology is the defining element of human alteration of the Earth system,” Erle Ellis, a co-author from the University of Maryland, told the Guardian. He believes “humans and societies create and sustain technologies, not the other way around—though of course there is a tight coupling of societies with technologies.”

Haff said that while we would like to believe that a huge group of people can become enlightened to the intricate details involved in a global problem and agree on a precise way to fix it, that may not be the case. Humans don't always choose the most rational response to a serious problem, and we also have personal biases to contend with. If a large enough group takes a certain course of action and influences the technosphere enough to hopefully produce a positive feedback, then perhaps there can be a desirable outcome, but Haff doesn't believe actions of individuals are the only factor involved. He's not saying we should give up and realize there's no way to fix our problems, but we should be aware of all of the factors involved when we're making our plans.