Scientific Journalist Peter Brannen Discusses Mass Extinctions


Scientific journalist Peter Brannen joined Colgate students and faculty in a conversation about mass extinctions last Friday, Oct. 30. Brannen, a natural science writer, employed his new book, The Ends of the World, to make the compelling argument that humans have the power to decide whether we are entering the Sixth Extinction. 

Sponsored by the NASC Colloquium, Brannen began his presentation by explaining “the Big Five” mass extinctions that have happened on Earth. From his own research, Brannen believes that a combination of climate change, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts are responsible for killing over 75% of Earth’s animal population at each event. However, Brannen clearly stated that humans were not involved in past mass extinctions which makes our current climate predicament an enticing area of research. 

After comparing and contrasting these mass extinction events, Brannen brought the conversation to the modern-day actions of humans and our impact on the world. Focusing on global warming and ocean acidification, Brannen described how humans have utterly destroyed crucial ecosystems and centers for biodiversity.

“If we keep burning fossil fuels like we are doing coral reefs will end up looking like dead clumps of calcium carbonate covered in slime,” Brannen remarked. “One ecologist says that we are on a slippery slope to slime.” 

Along with negatively impacting ocean biodiversity, Brannen highlighted fracking and agriculture as other practices antagonizing Earth’s ecosystems. Current legislation has done little to mitigate carbon emissions, which Brannen believes has the power to bring Earth out of this ice-age and transform the planet into a hotspot for wildfires, creating a toxic, uninhabitable atmosphere.

“We are building highways in the Amazon, breaking up continents into monocultures of soy and corn,” Brannen said. “It’s crazy that it is within human capacity to burn enough carbon to bring us out of this ice-age environment to where we could have crocodiles back in the arctic.”

Although Brannen explained in great depth how human actions are wreaking havoc on Earth’s natural resources, he still believes that we have the ability to change our practices and start creating a healthier, more sustainable world. 

“If the necessary action are taken, humankind could reverse destructive forces and avoid a Sixth Extinction,” he stated.

Brannen’s closing message was filled with hope for a more sustainable future. Speaking about human’s geological legacy, Brannen encouraged his audience members to think about sustainable practices they can implement in their own lives. Brannen called this the “most important time to be living in history,” as we have the power to elicit positive change that will inspire greener living and promote biodiversity. 

“We have this huge challenge in front of us, and if we do not face it, we will go down as one of the most notorious periods in history,” Brannen warned. 

Feeling the weight of human actions, Brannen longs for the end of unsustainable “business as usual” practices. For the future prosperity of humans and animals, Brannen encouraged his listeners to promote green practices in their own lives. Otherwise, Brannen implied, Earth is headed straight toward another mass extinction.