Surviving the Sixth Extinction

“Humankind is facing a crisis of existence. Our future is dependent on the natural world that provides our basic life needs. We are entirely dependent on the continuing capacity of the natural world to provide us uncontaminated air, water and food.”

“There is an overwhelming realisation that the existing socio-economic and political systems are not conducive to the survival of many species, including that of our own. We are faced with rising poverty, social inequalities and environmental degradation. In the last 100 years we have wiped out half the world’s wetlands, 20% of the world’s freshwater fish and half the world’s forests, and we are overexploiting the world’s marine fish. More than two-thirds of the world’s agricultural lands have been damaged by erosion and we have increased the world’s carbon dioxide content of the air by 25% since the industrial revolution.”

Simply put, the world is at the threshold of the sixth extinction. The need is real and urgent to articulate and support strategic coordinated interventions to stem this pending catastrophe.

Five major global extinctions have occurred in the past 500 million years since life first appeared in the oceans in the form of complex, multi-cellular invertebrates. They strike, on average, every 100 million years and are moments in geological time when about half or more of all marine genera are eradicated at a stroke, worldwide. (The definition of the concept ‘sixth extinction’ is based on marine life, as it has been more comprehensively preserved in the fossil record, and more thoroughly sampled and described, than has terrestrial life.)

Did you know that world leaders as dynamic and diverse as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Anan, Sir David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey and the Dalai Lama support the Gondwana Alive Society?

The planet’s five preceding extinctions were cataclysmic events wrought by nature that fundamentally altered the planet by wiping out most life forms on it. The causes are uncertain and apparently various, and life forms were the innocent victims.

The dinosaurs, and half the marine genera, disappeared in a geological heartbeat, apparently when a city-sized asteroid slammed into the earth 65 million years ago. The most apocalyptic of previous extinctions may have been due to massive CO² poisoning. Continental drift resulting in dramatic climatic shifts is a further likely cause.

Today, for the first time, life on earth is threatened with extinction solely as a result of its own actions. If mankind is the cause, then it can also be the effect that stems this looming threat.

“In the sense of restraining or stopping the flow of blood from a severed artery, we are committed not just to restraining, but to stopping the extinction, the crippling, serial rape of the living earth,” says Anderson.

Why the world has reached this critical stage, why it is being allowed to continue and what can be done to arrest the process are questions confronted in Anderson’s work Towards Gondwana Alive. In it he proposes 100 strategies to be rolled out over the next decade for stemming the sixth extinction.

For a number of good reasons Africa, more particularly South Africa, is the ideal rallying point from which to stem the sixth extinction.

“Around 200 million years ago,” records Anderson, “when the dinosaurs made their earliest appearance in Gondwana, indeed all of Pangaea, was still intact; one supercontinent. It literally was one world. Then the continents, as we know them today, starting rifting and drifting apart. Africa was at the core of Gondwana. She has stayed more or less in place, whilst the other pieces of the former southern landmass – South America, Madagascar, India, Australia and Antarctica – have drifted thousands of kilometres to their present positions.

“This has great symbolic significance. If we are going to reunite Gondwana, the peoples of Gondwana, what better place to start than Africa?”

Anderson proposes other arguments for Africa as centre stage, not least of which is the fact that it is the world’s only intact megafauna.

“It is one of the supremely unfortunate consequence of our human sojourn on earth that we have – literally – decimated the diversity and numbers of the larger mammals and birds. As the pioneering members of our sapient sub-species colonised each continent and island cluster in turn, the fauna fell before them. This amounts to overkill for sustenance. In Africa we evolved gradually over the centuries and millennia in harmony with the diversity of nature that sustained us. That nature of Africa, the nursery that nurtures us, lives still – at least till now (but it teeters precariously).”

In Anderson’s view, South Africa is the world’s geodiversity hotspot:

“No place on earth, the size of South Africa, compares in geological richness,” he maintains. “From remnants of ancient crust, to impact craters, to fossil deposits tracing the origin of mammals and of ourselves, to topographic variety, this distant end of Africa can boast in the most superlative terms.

“If biodiversity is measured strictly by number of species per square kilometre, then the equatorial belt in South America can claim top hotspot status. But if the fuller spectrum of criteria – adding the range of biomes, habitats and communities, reflecting the geological substrate and climatic zones – is accounted for, then South Africa probably emerges as front runner.”


It is relevant then that South Africa was chosen to host the second Earth Summit, which Anderson describes as ‘history’s hourglass’.

“This event, potentially the waist of the hourglass, with all of human history leads boisterously, too brashly, up through the basal cone; and all of subsequent human history, more benign, treading with gentle ecological footprint, expanding outwards to a new global civilisation.

“Gauteng, August 2002, is Africa’s opportunity. It is a unique opportunity. It is humankind’s last decent chance to make amends. The time and place could not have been better orchestrated. In the context of deep human evolutionary time, in the context of the rampant sixth extinction, the turn of the second millennium is at the cusp.”

Ten selected strategies for Gauteng, 2002

With its multimedia partner, AfricaPositive, Gondwana Alive identified and developed 10 strategies for the World Summit on sustainable development. These were to be implemented over 10 years by various strategic allies involved in sustainable development programmes. They range widely from education to eco-tourism, from the internet to publications. All focus on sustainable development within the context of stemming the sixth extinction, and are inevitably linked.

1. Eco-tourism South Africa

The objective is to unite southern African leaders from business, the professions and government at a network of 12 Peace Parks and World Heritage sites.

2. 100 sustainable strategies

This is a commemorative WSSD publication mobilising the earth’s population of all ages behind sustainable development.

3. Sustainable development creators

Researching, marketing and fundraising for earth-friendly and energy-saving products and campaigns.

4. The One-Earth anthem

This is an international joint venture and talent competition with the world’s top artists, musicians and recording companies.

5. Youth-driven eco-literacy campaign

Adult literacy training aimed at rural and urban Africa; led by 1000 selected students.

6. Gauteng biosphere reserve

This reserve demonstrates sustainability in action, following UNESCO criteria in the world’s first city-centred biosphere reserve.

7. The wealth of nature

Employing the World Wide Web to record, link and network the world’s bio-diversity, habitats and ecosystems.

8. Eco villages and communities

The above serve to promote a self-sustaining Eco village network that will spread through Africa, embracing organic farming, village banking, education and alternative technology.

9. Adopt-a-school

This programme brings wildlife and wilderness into the classroom to reunite humanity with nature.

10. Environmental education and training

The objective is to create awareness of biodiversity and the sixth extinction through strategic alliances with relevant government ministers.

Dr John Anderson, founder of Godwana Alive and head of the National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.

Anderson, John M. completed his BSc (geology), then his BScHons and PhD (palaeontology) at the Witwatersrand University in the 1960s and early 1970s. He recently retired from the South African National Botanical Institute (SANBI), Pretoria, where his research focus ranged from indigenous trees to palaeobotany. He has published seven volumes on the fossil floras of the Karoo Basin of South Africa–principally on the Late Triassic Molteno Formation. The latter appears, based on 100 sampled localities, to be the richest fossil flora on Earth. Since the early 1960s, he has been increasingly concerned about the Sixth Extinction of biodiversity being caused by our own species. All his research has been devoted to understanding and helping to stem this event. Towards this end he has helped initiate the ‘Africa Alive’, ‘Gondwana Alive’ and ‘Earth Alive’ projects; and, in parallel, is driving a holistic study of the sciences, arts and governance of Western Civilisation over the past Millennium. Current affiliation: AEON, Universities of Cape Town & Port Elizabeth; Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology, Witwatersrand University.