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Don't Panic: Earth's Nine Threats to Humanity

By Eric Roston - 2011-12-13T01:58:47Z

Photograph by Frans Lanting/Corbis

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Mass Extinction

Nature has always been a dependable business partner, but we rarely account for it. It's a phenomenon investment banker-turned-environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev calls "the economic invisibility of nature." "Bee pollination is worth $190 billion," says Sukhdev, who led the 2010 report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. "But when did a bee ever give you an invoice?"

Five major extinctions in planetary history have wiped out vast families of life. In the Great Dying 250 million years ago, 96 percent of species disappeared from the fossil record. A meteor did in the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Humanity has initiated a sixth wave of destruction, slower than a meteor but with extinction rates 100 to 1,000 times the norm. That's at least 100 extinctions per million species a year. Abrupt ecological change, such as clear-cutting Borneo rainforest for palm oil, may lead to global risks just beginning to be understood.

Read more energy & sustainability news.