Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Kolbert’s premise, that we are likely in the midst of the Sixth Period of great extinction in the world’s history, is “a most awful yet interesting” idea, to quote Darwin out of context. Kolbert shares recent (in the past forty years) scientific discoveries, theories, and test results which many of us may not have had a chance to follow with the diligence of a scientist. She is not a scientist but a journalist who has interviewed scientists, and her wonderful easy style makes the science simple for us to understand.

What Kolbert has done here is to overlay a timeline transparency of extinctions over the more commonly known history of the earth’s geologic record and mankind’s progress. Kolbert is merely reporting in this book, not advocating, though the reader comes away with an awakened sense of attention and sense of the irony that man himself may be the instrument of his own destruction.

Kolbert is what could be called a “neocatastrophist.” She believes that the scientific record shows that conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t---“long periods of boredom interrupted by occasionally by panic. Though rare, these moments of panic are disproportionately important.” Her reportage brings her to the conclusion that we are in the midst of a great extinction and that in the future--far into the future--the geologic record will clearly show something extraordinary happened in the hundreds of thousands of years of human habitation. But it may be visible only to giant rats, the one species she concludes may be likely to survive and thrive.

While at first Kolbert shares current examples of species extinction happening right now, gradually she comes to zero in on probable cause: habitat modification caused by humans. She takes us through a riveting series of investigations scientists around the world are conducting to test how species adapt to changes in environment like carbon dioxide levels, for instance. Since continents are so well-travelled now, there are fewer areas uncontaminated by introduced species which may be invasive or destructive to native species. Kolbert argues that man’s unparalleled and insatiable need to discover, innovate, and change his environment was like “bringing a gun to a knife fight.”
”To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”
That is not to say that we couldn’t slow the event down a little, at least for humans, if we began to pay attention at this point. “As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world.” We are just witnessing and documenting the outcomes now.

Kolbert writes “Though it may be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.” Perhaps American Indians with their roaming, nomadic habits, no fixed abode, and principles including commune with nature and not taking more than they needed to survive, may have been the last great environmentalists. They had a light footprint, didn’t they? Or am I completely wrong about that?

In the last couple of paragraphs, Kolbert points out that some scientists are seriously considering reengineering the atmosphere by scattering sulfates in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back to space, or alternatively, to decamp to other planets. That, so far, is their best work. Perhaps if we just cut back on consumption, and left fossil fuels in the ground, we’d live long enough to figure out a better option.

Kolbert’s thesis ought to spark discussion, if nothing else. But we may be also witnessing the real-time devolution of our own species…no talk, no compromise. Get my gun.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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