All Species Go Extinct or, S**t Happens
It is a law of nature. Why would you think it any different for the only extant species of humans? We are headed for extinction, like it or not.
What is particularly ironic about our case is that we are the prime instrumental force pushing us to extinction. In the geological past external events, like comet collisions, were instrumental in causing mass extinction events. Cyanobacteria evolved from pre-existing anaerobic bacteria, generating oxygen (by photosynthesis) and thus killed off a huge number of then existing life forms (all bacteria). So there is precedence for life itself causing mass extinctions. But this is probably the first time that one species has triggered events that would lead to its own demise.
The environment of the Earth is forever changing. And that is the principal cause of species extinction. A species evolves to 'fit' a particular environment or niche. When that environment changes more than the adaptive capacity of the species then the species is no longer fit and extinction ensues. It is a very old story. More species have gone extinct over geological time than exist now. It is the rule, not the exception.
Of course the extinction of a species must be accompanied by the generation of new species that are better able to fill the niches created by the new environments. Sometimes this leads to explosive speciation (see: Cambrian explosion for an example).
The main contributor to the change of the environment in the near future is us. As Walt Kelly noted in his famous Pogo cartoon, "We have met the enemy and he is us".
Energy Decline, Climate Change, Environment Degradation; The List is Long
We have built an entire human-based ecosystem based on abundant, high-EROI energy in the form of fossil fuels. We are now dependent on our energy cocoon for existence. That is our econiche! And, unfortunately, it is based on energy flows from a finite resource that is now reaching its apex. From here on out it looks like declining net energy flows are the order of the day. That means we humans are going to have less so-called wealth in the future. Not more.
On top of that, in the process of pursuing increasing net energy in the past, when it was feasible, we burned uncounted tons of carbon, producing incredible amounts of CO2, a greenhouse gas, that is now coming back to haunt us. We are changing the very climate of the planet. And the change isn't looking to be very good for our species, and many others.
On top of that, in the process of chasing the goal of increasing our per-individual ownership of stuff in a throw-away society, we have belched out uncounted tons of garbage and pollutants. Our clever (but not sapient) command over chemistry has produced some toxins of which the effects on us and nature we are only beginning to understand. And the early evidence isn't particularly encouraging.
Overpopulation is probably our biggest 'sin'. Most of our activities, if done in small portions, would not have so grossly overwhelmed the Earth's capacity to deal. But there are so many of us, each clamoring for a piece of the action, that we have now succeeded in overcoming the planet's ability to detoxify what we produce. Congratulations humanity. You win. Earth loses.
But guess what? So do you.
We will be the first species on the planet to be the instrument of our own extinction.
Shall I Grieve For Thee?
This idea is undoubtedly repugnant to the majority of people, possibly the vast majority of readers of this blog! Very probably many have considered that Homo sapiens would 'one day' go extinct; in the very far distant future. But most of you probably haven't really, seriously, considered that the time of extinction was at hand, even possibly within your own lifetime.
But then, we don't really think much about our own personal demise, do we?
Imagine that you have just gotten a check-up with your doctor. You were experiencing some symptoms that were puzzling and your doctor ordered up some tests. Now you're in his office and he has the results. He says to you: "I'm sorry to have to tell you but you have an inoperable cancer in your brain and you have only two months to live".
How would you feel?
In all likelihood you would react with something like Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief. You would first go through a process of denial. This couldn't possibly be 'your' fate. As your doctor assures you that the test results are conclusive, you get angry. How could this happen to you? It isn't fair. Etc.
Now picture the collective reaction to species extinction. How could this happen to us?
The Earth doctors have been testing the situation for our planet and our species. And though it will be hard for most to accept, the results look pretty grim. We have sealed our own fate. We are going to die and in the not-too-distant future.
Since I have written extensively in these postings about the nature of the situation I will not go into details here. It is my considered opinion (and take that as it may be) that Homo sapiens has, so to speak, shot its wad. We gave it our best shot and came up wanting. But here is the thing. It was just part of the scheme of nature. It wasn't some cosmic comedy. We lived as we had evolved to live. We are what we are and that is all there is to it. No apologies needed. We did our best to live as we understood living. That this has led to our own demise, as a species, should not be lamented. We should not beat ourselves up for being too unwise to live in a way that would have ensured our eternal continuance. Such a thing isn't even possible.
The real issue is once we get through the grieving process, can we make appropriate provisions for our successors? Oh yes. There will be successors. Evolution isn't finished with humanity even if this particular species is finished. We will have successors. Just as we make provisions for our children after our own deaths, we must make provisions for our succeeding species. For such there will be.
What Comes Next?
Some of you may have read my review of William Catton's book, Bottleneck (HERE or on The Oil Drum or The Energy Bulletin). In case you didn't, a population bottleneck occurs when there is a major die-off of a species leaving just enough individuals to provide a breeding population. This is postulated to have occurred for humans (see this). A population bottleneck is of evolutionary significance because it tends to reduce the variability in the genome of the remaining population. On the other hand, the events that led to the causes may have radically changed the environment such that only members of the species with the traits that made them survivors would produce offspring under strong pressures for further selection. Past human evolution has been correlated with significant climate changes associated with the ice ages, the cooling and the thawing. It is entirely reasonable to assume that any human survivors from the catastrophic events that we are causing will also undergo evolutionary pressures and produce one or more new species better adapted to that future world.
I, like Catton, have become convinced that sometime within the next hundred years humankind will experience a bottleneck event of its own making. The event could take many decades as in a global collapse of civilization and slow die-off of the population dependent on high energy support from fossil fuels. It could come quickly if the increasing pressures from economic decline push someone to sending nukes skyward. I can imagine any number of scenarios that may seal our fate. I am quite convinced there is no technology that could be brought to bear within a workable time frame that would mitigate this event. I am as absolutely convinced as I think possible to be that we will fail to muster the political will and smarts to employ such a technology even if it could be shown to exist and work. The reason I am so pessimistic is because of the tipping points involved in all of dynamical processes at work. There are ecological tipping points that once passed ensure that massive species die-offs will occur through population collapses. There are climate changing tipping points that work through positive feedback loops such as the warming tundra and Arctic Ocean releasing previously frozen methane thus amplifying the greenhouse effect. There are population density tipping points in which the stresses of close-packed living increase the violence and aggressive tendencies in people. There are many sociological tipping points such as Joseph Tainter's civilization collapse due to declining marginal benefit from increasing complexity. The list goes on. Any and all of these are being reached by human actions and population numbers. One or more could break and cause the others to break as well. We have just pushed the limits of growth to the point of breaking down everything.
Once society starts down the slope of collapse, no matter how rapidly or slowly it transpires, the end result is pretty much the same. At some point in the future we will have just a few surviving pockets of humans, probably quite isolated from one another, living in extremely primitive conditions, probably just getting by. Then depending on what the climate does in the way of further changes some of these may fail to adapt and survive too. But those that do, in their isolated conditions, will begin the long slow process of allopatric speciation — the development of species characteristics in separated and reproductively isolated populations. What the world gets from that might not strike us as more advanced than our current incarnation. Indeed, in a more brutal world, it could be more like the Morlocks rather than the Eloi in H. G. Wells', The Time Machine. That is the pessimist in me.
The optimist in me sees another, though not-at-all certain, possibility. Operating on the premise that humans had been evolving higher levels of sapience (see my various writings on this from this index page) before we abrogated our mental development to cleverness in technology (esp. agriculture), we might still have an opportunity to nudge future evolution toward beings with much higher levels of that which is the basis of wisdom than we now possess on average. Hence my visions of a future society in which more sapient humans could live and thrive in tune with nature. It would be a Utopia made possible only because the human brain was evolving in the direction of greater sapience (vs. greater cleverness, which we may possess too much of now!)
Remember the part above where I mentioned how when we learn or understand that we are dying we usually finish the grief by doing something to foster our loved ones, particularly our children, after we are gone? Think of future humans as our special children. Wouldn't we want to make preparations that would help ease their futures, leave them our true wealth in our wills? If there is to be a brighter future for an even more advanced human species in some distant day, we should take steps now to help that happen. We actually do know what to do in that regard. There are no guarantees, of course. Climate change may go completely out of control and the Earth ends up looking like Venus. Or a meteor could strike the planet killing everything. But those kinds of disasters (Black Swans) notwithstanding, we should hope for the best and do what we can now. We won't be around to see the results. This is the one thing I would do on faith alone.