This is the Extinction Symbol: the circle represents the
planet; the X-figure inside is a stylised hourglass, a reminder that time is
running out for many of Earth's species – our own included, maybe.
The symbol, which I predict will become a modern classic, was created a couple of years ago in London by a humble anonymous entity called "Xylo", who prefers to keep it that way because, s/he says, "people might be inclined to see it as belonging to me
and thus less likely to use it freely themselves."
Free, unrestricted use is the whole point. The idea is that
anyone anywhere can replicate the symbol in order to raise awareness that we
are currently undergoing a mass extinction event.
It's a great design, simple and elegant, that feels
faintly ominous even before you know what it means. The "X" evokes
not only the X in eXtinction, but something that is crossed out, obliterated.
It is also, like the peace symbol, easy to recall and reproduce. As these
images show, it’s starting to crop up all over the place.
Slideshow: Extinction Symbol here to stay
I was heartened to learn of the Symbol’s proliferation,
at a time when, according to a recent analysis of Google search trends, the
public seems to be growing bored with things environmental. Interest in most greenl issues (except for climate change, so at least there’s still concern
there) is sharply declining relative to other topics. As the study authors
point out, changes in search behaviour by the public are closely linked to
their interests, which are critical to driving public policy.
Why would people NOT care about large-scale loss of the
planet’s living riches? Is it because they don’t quite believe it’s happening?
If so, let me address that misconception at once.
There’s little uncertainty among the majority of biologists
that extinctions are happening at an unprecedented rate. I use “uncertainty”
here in the scientific sense: the statistical degree to which something is
unlikely to be true. In common usage, “uncertainty” means “not knowing”. But
if scientists state something to be true with a 90% degree of certainty, it
doesn’t mean they don’t know it’s true – it means they think it’s extremely
likely and we’d be foolish not to pay attention.
Plant and animal species have
been disappearing, and new ones evolving, since life on earth began. In fact, 99% of
species that ever existed have gone extinct. There’ve been huge die-offs
before; the world has had five mass extinction events, or extinction "peaks" (and probably several lesser
ones) prior to this, the Sixth.
What's different now is how fast it's
happening, and that, for the first time, the primary cause isn’t an ice age or
a meterorite: it’s Us. Where scientists have greater uncertainty is the rate
of species loss. But there’s pretty strong consensus that the rate has taken a
sickening upturn along with human population growth and natural resource exploitation,
and that we're losing species at least 100 times faster than ever
The hourglass is a symbol whose time has come.
But do awareness campaigns like the Extinction Symbol help in practical terms to address such crises? To take another current
example, will WWF-South Africa's bid for a “Twitterstorm” of 1 million tweets of the phrase
#Iam4rhinos make the slightest dent in poaching numbers?
Well, people have to know and think about a problem in the first place if they’re going to take action on it. Clever symbols and virtual storms do keep issues in the public mind – and, hopefully, also attract the attention of politicians and corporates who care what voters/customers want.
The most effective way for an ordinary person to make a direct difference, though, and actually tell that they're doing so, is, as I've argued before, by moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Unfortunately humans are notoriously bad at turning knowledge –
whether it’s “Vegetables are good for me” or “Driving fuels climate change and
species losses” – into positive behavioural changes, especially when these involve giving up stuff we like.
Make your extinction symbol or tweet
by all means, but be quite clear as you do so that knowing and caring deeply, commendable
though that may be, does not in itself constitute change. Change requires a fundamental shift in habits, that's nearly always challenging, usually interesting and sometimes even fun. So how the hell do we do it?
Here’s a start.
McCallum, M.L. and G.W. Bury. 2013. Google search patterns
suggest declining interest in the environment. Biodiversity and Conservation
Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.