Smart like a rock? Kind like a rock?

Being a biologist requires me to think differently than most people.  Most people are driven by questions such as:

“How long will it take me to get downtown in this traffic?”

“What do I not pay so I can make my rent this month?”

“How’d we do versus our competition last quarter?”

“What do I say to our stockholders in our annual report?”

“How many more 2-year election campaigns can I endure?”

and the like.

Figure 1. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere  is rising (as measured by the National Oceanic and  Atmospheric Administration on Mauna Loa HI since 1958)
Figure 1. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
is rising (as measured by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration on Mauna Loa HI since 1958)

I have the pleasure and obligation of thinking things like “If atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing (Figure 1) at a rate of 3.4% per year or 2.1% per year, but we have very little understanding about when we’ll pass the tipping point that sets off reorganization of the Biosphere into a new state, how can we best raise and deploy the resources needed to maintain the world’s marine biota?”

It’s a coupled question: It couples natural science (How far can you push the biota until you hit the tipping point?) and social science (What 5, 10 or 20 key institutions’ failures are most likely to trigger collapse?).

I’m talking collapse here.  Did anyone in power read Jared Diamond’s brilliant Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Diamond 2005)?  Many people love nature because whatever process got us here is worthy of our love and respect.  But for most people, conservation is not about idealism or kindness or respecting the gentler teachings of their religions.  It’s about surviving.

Living things created the conditions in which people evolved.  People should love fishes not just because we eat them but because fish keep us alive without our having to pay them (the ecosystem services wild fishes provide are not taxable, and, hence, quite illogically, do not get counted when researchers calculate the wealth of nations with measures such as GDP).  Humankind’s continued existence utterly depends on those kinds of crucial subsidies to humans from the world’s biota.  That’s why I’m stunned by the power in the arguments of my friend Rashid Sumaila (e.g., Sumaila et al. 2008).  Rashid explains how we’re destroying the world’s fish and fisheries.  Didn’t other mothers tell their kids the Aesop fable The goose that laid the golden eggs? as Rashid’s and my mother did?

Killing the living things that keep us alive is not a good strategy for anyone.  We and our generations won’t look kindly on anything or anyone that dramatically changes functioning of the Biosphere.  But being good to our biota means they’ll be good to us.  We like that.  Good planets are hard to find (unbeknownst to me, there’s a neat song with that name; you can hear it by clicking after the end of the second paragraph in this post by the NY Times’ Andrew Revkin.

As a biologist, I tend to think over much longer periods than the daily head count, the weekly till, the annual report, etc., fast rhythms the world increasingly lives by.  How many kids start saving for their retirement in their 20s?  It’s just my nature to focus on longer horizons in space and time.  Seeing the middle of the ocean as well as the tide pool, the Cambrian Explosion as well as the Sixth Extinction.

I learn new stuff every day.  But as a scientist, one thing I’m pretty certain of is that the fate of life in the oceans has been shaped by visitors from space: big pieces of unconsolidated or wreaked planets called asteroids.

Figure 2.  The meteor that exploded over Tunguska, Russia  in 1908 flattened a large area of forest.   Photo from
Figure 2. The meteor that exploded over Tunguska, Russia
in 1908 flattened a large area of forest.
Photo from

On 15 February, while the world was expecting a very close drive-by from a very fast-moving rock in space, a somewhat smaller rock caught everyone by surprise, streaking through the thin blue layer of atmosphere that surrounds the Earth.  Moving at about 40,000 miles per hour, it exploded in the atmosphere not too far from Chelyabinsk, Russia.  And it was a rare event.  The rock, estimated at about 55 feet in diameter, weighing about 10,000 tons, as much as a World War II heavy cruiser, was the largest object known to have hit the Earth since 1908, when one about the same size exploded 1,200 miles further east in Russia.  The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor exploded in the atmosphere with a force estimated at nearly 500 kilotons, about 30 times greater than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  For reasons I don’t fully understand but astronomers probably do, the 1908 Tunguska meteor (Figure 2) made a bigger explosion.

In both cases we humans were lucky.  Things would have been different if they had hit the atmosphere at a different angle and smashed into a city.  We were lucky these times.

The Earth was less lucky 66 million years ago when another but much bigger 6-mile in diameter mass of rock hit what is today the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.  Since the publication of an amazing paper by Alvarez et al in 1980, it’s been increasingly clear that the Chicxulub impact was colossal, great enough to kill off the dinosaurs on land, mosasaurs and other big marine reptiles, ancient relatives of squid called ammonites and many, many other kinds of life.  Big enough to kill off perhaps 75% of the species on Earth.

The speeding asteroid that did this didn’t have a mind to think about what it was doing.  It didn’t care that it had a devastating impact for life on Earth.  It was a mindless and heartless piece of rock.

Now, as many scientists have pointed out, the Earth is experiencing another mass extinction event.  But this time it is not a mindless, heartless rock whose impact is threatening the millions of species.

It is our own species, humankind.

Science doesn’t know everything.  Scientists don’t have all the answers yet.  There are still lots of important things we don’t know.  But we can say with very high certainty that it wouldn’t have been pleasant to be living on Earth when the last mass extinction was underway 66 million years ago.  And we can say that the mass extinction that’s now accelerating isn’t going to be very nice for us and our loved ones either.

There’s a good chance that we humans won’t survive it.

So the two crucial questions are:

1)       Are we smart enough to see what will happen should we choose not to change our trajectory? and

2)      Do we care enough for this beautiful blue Earth and its corals and dolphins and millions of other species, including ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, to decide that we must prevent this from happening?

Let’s get personal because this isn’t a decision we can leave to some vague “others” in the future.  The question is, will I and will you, our friends and the leaders we vote for choose to ignore the overwhelmingly compelling scientific evidence and fail to act in time?  Or will we choose save us from our species’ impacts?

We’re not going to have a lot of time to decide our answer.

Elliott Norse, Founder and Chief Scientist, Marine Conservation Institute


Diamond, J (2005).  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Books, New York

Sumaila, UR  L Teh, R Watson, P Tyedmers and D Pauly (2008).  ICES Journal of Marine Science 65 (6): 832-840.  doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsn070



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