Last week's Ted Radio Hour is about the anthropocene. The third segment of the program features an interview with paleontologist Peter Ward, who talked about the big five mass extinctions and the human-caused sixth extinction, which we're in the middle of, or near the end of, depending on the time interval one uses to date the extinction.
Ward talks about one "huge problem facing us" — toxic hydrogen sulfide outgassing from low-oxygen, stratified oceans within a couple millennia as our degraded oceans warm. But then he does an about-face and says this at the 8:45 mark—
Guy Raz — So, how are humans different from all these other species that went extinct in the past?
Peter Ward — Ah, humans, c'mon, we have the golden ticket. We're able to put a coat on if it's too cold. We're able to build air conditioners if it's too hot. I think we are essentially extinction-proof.
And I fight this concept that we are in danger. I think we are the least endangered species on the planet in many respects, simply because we have not just the experience but the intelligence to deal with so many of these challenges. And I just think we're going to be the long-term [survivors]. Happiness might be something else...
Guy Raz — Yeah, I mean what kind of planet are we going to survive on, right?
Peter Ward — Well, there's that. I mean you see all the post-apocalyptic thrillers and the depressing sort of looks into the future, but it really doesn't need to be that way, I think we're going to see an increasingly manicured planet, an increasingly ordered planet where the wild becomes not wild at all. It's managed wild.
Human civilization— there's no reason why we just can't continue for millions of years into the [future] with just a modicum of civilization and technology. You can get around this stuff through intelligence.
Is this just the usual optimistic Flatland gibberish? Or does Ward have a point? After all, Ward of all people should know better, the operative word here being should.
As you discuss this, bear in mind that Homo sapiens going "extinct" means that every single human on the planet would be gone. Also bear in mind that a future collapse of the global civilization and mass human die-off do not in themselves imply that our species will go extinct thereafter.
In fact, such a collapse might considerably hinder our ability to destroy the biosphere. On the other hand, in that event, where would we find that "modicum" of intelligence and technology Ward talks about? In fact, where is that modicum of intelligence and technology right now when we need it? As you know, I've looked for it everywhere, and I can't find it.