The Sixth Extinction (2014)
The Sixth Extinction "I sought the future and past catastrophe of the social in geology, in that upturning of depth that can be seen in the striated spaces, the reliefs of salt and stone, the canyons where the fossil river flows down, the immemorial abyss of slowness that shows itself in the erosion and geology." - Jean Baudrillard The evolution of life on earth has been disrupted by five ‘mass extinction events’, the worst of which wiped out 95% of all life. These events arise either from global climatic fluctuations, meteorite impacts or massive volcanic activity, which all lead to lethal carbon dioxide levels. Current rates of species extinction and elevated carbon dioxide levels has led scientists to conclude that the planet is currently experiencing a sixth mass extinction. In 2011 the world’s leading authorities on mass extinction converged on an area close to my birthplace in the UK’s westcountry. The latest set of clues to these events were thought to lie in the rocks and fossil record of the cliffs and foreshores of North Somerset. More precisely, in an inch thick layer of buff-coloured limestone that is rarely exposed in the strata of the cliffs. A line below which life teemed, but above which most of the planet’s species simply vanished. The local news report seemed quaintly incongruous - paleogeologists hunting for clues to global, cataclysmic events on my local beach - armed only with rock hammers and some sandwich bags. Following the scientists as they pursued the two hundred million year old mystery led me to locations on the coastlines of North Somerset and South Wales and a meteorite crater in western France. As they sifted tiny clues from the strata of the geology, their forensic methods built a picture of an ancient global ecosystem. In the same locations I hunted for traces of more contemporary, but similarly failing, ecosystems – photographing the residue that remains in the alchemy of the rocks or the shadows of the undergrowth. The transience of each failing habitat echoes, albeit on a smaller scale, the mass extinctions. Ultimately each ecosystem dissipates to form new strata of dust - a new layer of evidence awaiting rediscovery by future paleogeologists. Clues to mass extinction events yet to come.