Sign of our times

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 before.

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 DOI: 10.1007/s10531-013-0476-6

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