We've Entered the Age of Mass Extinction: Goodbye Fish and a Whole Lot More
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PW: What we're mostly looking at are fisheries, because they have the best scientific sampling. People want to sample fish populations, so we know where they are and how to catch them, and we have a good idea what the stocks are. And it almost looks like everything is OK, except for the fact that all the damn fish we eat are going extinct. And of course they're going extinct, because we're taking them out. That should not be a big surprise. Neither should the other aspect, which is that the human population just keeps rising faster and faster. And habitat destruction has always been the No. 1 cause of plant and small animal extinction.
ST: These issues are being reported as news, but like you say, they're not surprises to those who have been paying attention.
PW: The same goes for our economic problems right now. They're so obvious. People were writing books a decade ago about the decline of American empire and market crashes. But the economy didn't crash immediately, because we were selling our houses at inflated rates, so they were ignored. And yet, here we are. Everything they were saying turned out to be correct. We're never going to see less than 10 percent unemployment in this country ever again. You can't be a country or economy that pushes paper around and doesn't make anything in this environment. And expect everyone to make $60,000 to $70,000 a year? It's not going to happen.
ST: So how do you see climate change unfolding in the next 50 years?
PW: Unless we do something about human population, I doubt we will be able to do anything. The thing is, we're good enough at fixing diseases and feeding ourselves that we're not going to lose 20 to 40 percent of the human population. But if we could drop human population back down to four billion, we'd have a fighting chance. But we can't. I truly believe that we're heading to 10 or 11 billion by the end of this century, at the latest. We're increasing longevity with wonderful medical advances. But people don't realize that by increasing lifespans a decade or more around the world, we're decreasing the death rate as the birth rate keeps rising. So we're in a runaway human population situation and have been since the '80s and '90s. The scary thing is that we've got an intersection of declining freshwater and too many people.
And the freshwater decline is due to global warming, which is raising the snow levels in the mountains. California is a prime example. When it gets to the point that it rains all winter in the Sierra Nevada, what do you have when the hot summer arrives and you need that water for irrigation? When there's nothing to melt anymore by March or April, you've got a desert. So the agriculture of the San Joaquin Valley is in deep trouble from decreased freshwater and soil that is turning salty because of sea-level rise. This is the case all over the planet. The lowest lying lands have the richest soil, and these are the lands that rising sea level is going to salinize.
ST: There have been other mass extinction reports in the news. The clathrate gun hypothesis has received attention lately, although it's been benevolently referred to as a methane burp rather than an apocalyptic release of methane that hammered in the nails of past mass extinctions.
PW: Methane is four times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The good news is that, once released, it only lasts about 15 years. The bad news is that it breaks down into CO2! Great. A very lethal poison that turns into a less lethal poison. The thing is that it's a slow, creeping death, and that is what is so horrible about the situation. Talking about methane is boring, so some have been thinking, "Well, maybe we'd have a big methane catastrophe. That's a good hook!"