The Sixth Mass Extinction

Flying over the Indian Ocean, Daniel gazed down at the cluster of small islands surrounded by frilly coral reefs. As the aircraft approached the narrow landing strip, it seemed as if it was about to plunge into the boundless blue sea. The turquoise water stroking the blindingly white sand made him and his companion, Dr. Albert Tyorkin, forget about the cramped, hot, and noisy seaplane in which they were flying. While gliding toward Island Male, Daniel sensed a pang of sadness as he visualized the probable destiny of the resplendent country. No wonder the organizers had chosen the vanishing paradise for the convention.
“It’s such an exquisite archipelago,” Dr. Tyorkin remarked. “Can’t imagine they will all be swallowed by the ocean, one by one, within a matter of few years.”
Daniel and Dr. Tyorkin were college pals, though when Dr. Tyorkin was doing his PhD in nuclear engineering, Daniel had just joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to get his Master’s degree in industrial engineering. A chance collision of interests during a college debate forged a special friendship that grew stronger each day.
“Isn’t it possible to raise the surface?” Daniel asked, his entrepreneurial mind always looking for solutions at hand.
“How many islands you think could be raised?” Dr. Tyorkin asked. “Kirabati, Fiji, and many other such islands are under similar threat. Earth is currently undergoing a climate change of historic proportions, with sea levels rising from the melting of glaciers and icebergs.”
“Hmm . . . But I think if we all join hands, we can fix all these environmental issues we have created.”
“Yes, absolutely. But the problem is that we all will never join hands. Each one has their own agenda and vested interest that they make a priority. And the long-term goals are put completely out of sight, until they start creating havoc in our lives.” Dr. Tyorkin sighed. “And by then it’s too late.”
After landing, they embarked on the private ferry arranged by the International Sixth Mass Extinction convention. Soon, the sun-kissed skyline of the city of Male appeared. The capital of Island Male was crowded with colorful buildings, both tall and short. Daniel was impressed. The island had an infectious vigor and energy. It was his first visit there, and he was already missing it.

“A very good afternoon!” Paul Simpson, Chairman of the Institute of the Future of Humanity (IFH), said as he greeted the delegates at the convention. “I welcome all our distinguished visitors, members of the press, eminent scientists, business leaders, politicians, environmentalists, and NGOs present in this hall. All who are gathered here today harbor a common interest in preventing a threat that none can deny. We all love our dear planet, our home, and want it to thrive for billions of years. But, according to some researchers and scientists, we are entering the sixth mass extinction on Earth, and that is bad news for homo sapiens.
“Each extinction that took place on Earth in the past wiped out the older species and gave way to new ones. Dinosaurs appeared after the Permian-Triassic extinction some two hundred and fifty million years ago. After ruling this planet for one hundred and eighty-five million years, they had to say goodbye, some sixty-five million years ago, making room for mammals to evolve and diversify.
“Humans emerged on this planet as the upcoming rulers of the habitat just six million years ago. Compared to the dinosaurs, you could say we’re just a bunch of kids. And now the looming threat of yet another mass extinction makes us wonder whether we might be amongst the next batch to disappear, along with many others we now consider insignificant.”
He paused and looked around. “One can always argue that we are too young to go extinct. However, thanks to our speedy advancement in all aspects of life, without any consideration to our surroundings, we are accelerating this phenomenon. Researchers from all over the world have found numerous lines of evidence that tell us that we have already stepped out of our safety zone. But is it already too late, or can we still do something to reverse course? To discuss this at length, we have gathered here with a firm belief that if we all join hands and work together, we will be able to prevent this potential disaster.”
A square green-and-white IFH logo covered the left corner of the stage, and a presentation screen stood at the center. On the right, five chairs had been placed side by side on a green carpet. The pamphlet on each chair listed the lecture topics that covered all the probable threats to human existence. The audience applauded as the name of the first speaker was announced. A panel of science journalists and Chairman Simpson presided over the presentations for cross0examination and clarity.
“Climate change, asteroid impacts, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, they seem to have covered most of the genuine concerns,” Fumiko whispered to nobody in particular, adjusting her glasses. Though she always kept herself involved in one other environmental issue or another, it was the first time she had traveled so far from her hometown. She felt blessed and excited to be part of such a grand convention. She was in her thirties, working at Green Globe as a research scientist, and she had received the prestigious invitation for her outstanding contribution in the field of hydroponic farming.
“A very good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the next speaker began. “I’m Dr. Francis, from the Bio Life organization, and I am here to highlight the hazards of climate change and how it is jeopardizing humankind’s existence. We are all aware that the part of the land where we are discussing the fate of humankind is itself living evidence of our criminal negligence. The Maldives, the planet’s lowest country, might vanish under water within a matter of seven years, marking the beginning of the catastrophe that we ourselves have summoned.”
For the few moments the speaker paused, it felt like the ground was slipping under their feet. Gloom and despair engulfed the audience, as if they were sitting on a grave.
“Nothing could be more depressing if we lose this paradise on Earth. However, before we mourn this impending loss or try to find a solution, let me throw some light on the root of the evil. We all know that carbon emissions are the prime culprit of climate change. They are slowly pushing us toward a destiny that our neighboring planet, Venus, the hottest planet in our solar system, is already suffering, owing to the greenhouse effect. But we also know that climate change is exposing us to yet another danger that is simmering deep inside the womb of the Arctic Ocean.”
Dr. Tyorkin flinched in his seat. He knew it all, and he also had one of the solutions in his hands. But he needed people to believe in his idea and support him. He knew the methane in the Arctic Ocean was gradually getting exposed, due to the melting of ice because of climate change. He also knew that though asteroid impacts and super volcano eruptions were chance occurrences, a nuclear war, global pandemic, or the rise of artificial intelligence would soon result in unwanted consequences. Throughout the event, he kept reading the books he was carrying, while Daniel gave eager ears to what the experts had to say.
Dr. Tyorkin closed his book and looked up at the stage, as the panel started questioning the expert on artificial intelligence.
“But how can a computer or robot programmed by humans outsmart humans?” Asked Derek, one of the eminent panelists and news director of the National News Hour (NNH).
“You mean a child can never outsmart his parents?” replied Elon Marcus, a PhD holder from MIT, in brain and cognitive sciences. “Apart from that, the threat is not from simple AI but from self-improving AI. The aspirations of scientists and researchers working on AI are high, and they intend to make machines that will have emotions and decision-making intelligence and to utilize them to the optimum. We will have to give them control, and that should be a big concern for us.”
“But the progress in actual AI is much slower than people think. This topic is too hyped.”
“I agree that, to date, AI has not become the psychotic Hal 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the way we are progressing, neglecting this matter, one day it will startle us, and by then it could be too late. We already have Siri, and now the latest, Cubic, that not only takes verbal commands to ease your life but can also crack jokes, suggest your favorite restaurants, and converse with you at length when you’re lonely. Do you think we’re far from a scenario where robots encroach on our personal world in lieu of comfort and technological advancements? I think we should take note before it’s too late.”
Being a holder of many patents for innovative spacecraft and rocket parts, Dr. Tyorkin was passionate about machines, and he saw artificial intelligence as a necessary factor to can help humans in many ways. He had used forms of AI in his inventions and was certain that instead of focusing on the harm the machines could do if humankind used them for development, they should focus on the benefits to humanity.
“Do you really think the third world war could erase all traces of humankind?” Fumiko asked Daniel after they were introduced to each other at the coffee break.
“Yes, it could, as it would be a nuclear war. There are fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. While the US has the B-83 nuclear bomb, which is 75 times bigger than the “Little Boy “that was dropped on Hiroshima, Russia has the ‘Tsar Bomba,’ which is five times more powerful than the B-83.”
“But the US, the UK, Russia, France, and China have agreed to stop making nuclear weapons and destroy their current stockpile over time,” Fumiko replied. “These five, along with India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, have also promised not to resort to nuclear bombs unless attacked by one.”
“Exactly,” Dr. Tyorkin said, breaking out of his reverie. Daniel and Fumiko looked startled, as they were unaware that Dr. Tyorkin had been listening to their conversation. “It would all be in the hands of one insane leader,” he continued. “One trigger, and the entire world would kick-start their show of nuclear power without a single thought. And in the name of patriotism, countries will bleed helplessly. Do you have any idea about the after-effects of such nuclear explosions? For months, the entire atmosphere would be covered with deadly smoke and ash, blocking sunlight. Temperatures would drop, and the ozone layer would be damaged, ensuring that the few survivors would meet their death soon.”
“How horrific!” Fumiko replied woefully. She loved her planet and all the flora and fauna dearly, and the idea of anything happening to it disturbed her.
“Yes, but I don’t think we need to wait for a nuclear bomb for our mass extinction,” Dr. Tyorkin said. “A population bomb is more dangerous than that, and it has already started ticking.”
Fumiko nodded. “Oh yes, I agree, and I’m eager to listen to what you have to say about it. I saw you on the list. I think you’re the next speaker.”
“Yes, I am, and I hope I don’t let you down.” Dr. Tyorkin bowed his head slightly.
“Oh, not at all! You seem to have a gift of gab, Dr. Tyorkin. Let me get back to my seat. I don’t want to miss a word.” Fumiko shook hands with Dr. Tyorkin with an appreciative smile and then walked toward the hall with him and Daniel.
“Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for inviting me to this conference, and especially to the Maldives,” Dr. Tyorkin began. “Incidentally, nearly two decades ago, when I decided to graduate, as a husband, this island topped the honeymoon list, rightfully prepared by my better half. Unfortunately, we decided to go somewhere else, but the alluring pictures of this paradise that met my eyes kindled a persistent desire to visit this part of the world someday.
“The topic on which I’m supposed to speak is also very relevant to this place. Today, Male is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. There are many such densely crowded cities and countries in the world, stuffed with humans and the things they need for urban life.
“In fact, given the rate at which our population is growing, no nuclear war, no asteroid, and no epidemic can actually destroy all of us. At least a handful of us, in some nook and cranny, will escape the disaster. So, that’s good news, right? Wrong. Because what is at stake is not Stone Age homo sapiens but an entire civilization that we have toiled to create, brick by brick, for tens of thousands of years. Hence, I don’t think the threat that looms over us is complete extinction but a situation that might force us to live in a much-deteriorated condition.
“In the words of American biologist Paul Eherlich, we have a finite planet with finite resources, and in such a system, you can’t have infinite population growth. At present, the population is seven point three billion, and it is estimated that by the year twenty-one hundred, it will be somewhere near eleven billion . . ..”

“Well, Dr. Tyorkin,” said Derek, once Dr. Tyorkin’s talk was finished, “the question that arises now is how many people Earth can sustain and remain green and healthy.”
“According to Harvard University socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson, if each soul in this world becomes vegetarian, the present one point four billion hectares of arable land (three point five billion acres) can support about ten billion people, so we can say that about ten billion people can fit safely. Because it’s extremely unlikely that everyone will stop eating meat, Wilson thinks Earth’s maximum carrying capacity, based on food resources, will most likely fall short of ten billion,” Dr. Tyorkin replied calmly, amused to see how Derek, his old college roommate and now one of his key rivals, always tried to take him down.
“Well, if the problem is food shortage alone, I’m sure it can be taken care of,” Derek replied. “We have many advanced technologies to ensure better yields if planned properly.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I agree. We can handle the food shortage to some extent, but other factors, such as fresh water, clean air, coal, oil, and phosphorous will also limit Earth’s carrying capacity. We have oil that will last for another forty to fifty years. Phosphorus, an essential element for plant growth, will survive for, say, one hundred years max. Similarly, many other important minerals are depleting quickly. On average, each day, every person uses sixteen kilos of resources extracted from the ground—metal, fossil fuel, and minerals.”
“So what?”
Dr. Tyorkin looked into Derek’s eyes. “The implication of the above data is that to maintain our present demographics, we will have to exploit nature more and more until the entire ecological balance starts to topple. And if we don’t want it to happen, today, we need about one point six planets to provide the resources for our consumption and absorb our waste. And by the mid twenty thirties, we will need two planets.”
“But we only have one!” Deborah, a science journalist and an MIT graduate exclaimed.
“Exactly my point. We have only one, our very own dear Earth. Hence, we will have to get out of our comfort zone quickly and think of solutions, or else we will lose this one, too.”
“Well, Dr. Tyorkin, do you want to share with us, and the audience, what you think the possible solutions are?” Deborah asked.
To Dr. Tyorkin’s delight, her question gave him an opportunity to present his idea to the audience. “Definitely. We need to ascertain and address the concerns as soon as possible to avert the forthcoming debacle. Primarily, if the government of each nation focuses on family-planning laws and ensures that education reaches every citizen impartially, I think the problem can take a U-turn. But then, this is a time-consuming process, and to revert the number of global citizens to an ideal population, we would need at least fifty to a hundred years, and that would only be if we all worked together with complete cooperation and harmony, which is unlikely to happen. Do we really have that much of time? I don’t think so. Hence, we need to start working on plan B.”
“Plan B? What’s that?” Chairman Simpson asked in surprise.
“Space exploration. We need a new planet to save us from the upcoming crisis”
Derek chuckled. “Why do we need to move to a new planet? To dump our waste?”
“No, of course not. If we repeat our mistakes, we’re doomed earlier than we can speculate. We need a new planet, because there isn’t much space left on Earth to accommodate more humans. Whatever is left to be populated, like rainforests, wetlands, and Arctic regions, needs to be left alone, or else we will be forcing our ecology to walk on a tightrope. Already we have exhausted most of the essential raw materials and other resources to bask in guiltless luxury. Exploring and colonizing a new planet is the only way to solve the problem of space and viable resources.”
“But that would be too costly. Why don’t we use the money and human intelligence required to solve our problems here instead?”
“Well, wars are costlier, and we spend billions of taxpayer dollars every year preparing for them, something in which a major part of the world doesn’t even want to participate. Why haven’t we used the money and intelligence to solve the problems so far? First, because we are not yet considering this issue with the required seriousness. Second, because we have created a huge, vicious mess that is getting increasingly entangled. Why not spend some money restarting a new parallel world, a new domain full of new struggles, new strategies, new hopes, new lessons, and new growth?”
The hall reverberated with appreciative applause.
“But while we wait for our housewarming across space, we should start a campaign this very moment to make our home planet much more breathable and beautiful for our kids to cherish. We consider ourselves the most advanced species on Earth, and we definitely are. Through the efforts of several lifetimes, we have created this beautiful civilized world we call home. This is the place where fables of each nation have been carved, cultures and customs preserved, memories woven, achievements framed, and an amazing network of love, friendship, and relationships have sheltered us from every calamity that has endangered us so far. Now it is our duty to uphold our treasured civilization with utmost care and selflessness so that it grows with glory, generation after generation. Thank you.”
Amidst the cheerful applause for his hopeful words, Dr. Tyorkin stepped down from the stage and took his seat beside Daniel. He was feeling light and heavy at the same time. His vision of becoming a multi-planet species was not merely something in which he believed; it was something for which he lived.
Daniel, Fumiko, and some others in the audience, who knew him, gave him an appreciative look. Dr. Tyorkin felt relaxed but wondered how much of what he said made sense to the audience. Faith in the concept was the much-needed motivation the project required. However, he had decided to move ahead with his ideas, as he was certain that finding new lands outside humanity’s humble sphere was a must for the human race’s survival. It was an inevitable future that one day, everyone would have to wake up and start relocating.

( An Excerpt from my first Novel “The Leap”)

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