“WTF is 'The Sixth Extinction' and why should I care?”
It is unclear who coined the phrase, “the sixth extinction.” Elizabeth Kolbert published her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History last year, 2014. In 1998, the American Museum of Natural History hammered a permanent plaque onto its floor memorializing the phrase. And the most prominent paleoanthropologist in the world, Richard Leakey, published a book entitled The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind in 1995. So, while the phrase is sort of recent – no older than 20 years – it refers to what is called a “major extinction event” that began as long ago as 12,000 years (the advent of agriculture) or as recently as 300 years (the start of heavy industrialization) (experts argue over these things!). And it refers to species extinctions at the hand of human beings, either intentionally or as a by-product of human activities. To put it in perspective, the Fifth Extinction took place some 65,000,000 (65 million!) years ago, at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs (the Mesozoic Era – containing the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods – from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago), and the beginning of the Age of Mammals (the Cenozoic Era, from 65 million years ago to the present) which led to US. To put even more perspective on it, the Sixth Extinction is happening at a faster rate (more species vanishing per year) than any of the other five major extinction events.