Book review: ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,’ by Elizabeth Kolbert
January 28, 2017
Many people, when they see a weed poking up from their otherwise perfect lawn, employ one of several tried-and-true methods to eliminate the offending plant from their sight, thereby gaining another incremental step in man's seemingly endless quest to dominate nature. The notion, one supposes, is that by removing the uninvited interloper, our position in the order of things is more secure.
But what if humans are the real weeds? What is the fate of the other countless species sharing this planet with us if we are the ones who have been behaving as "invasive" for countless centuries?
Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert ponders this very question in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History." Scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have long considered the idea that humans have been impacting the very balance of life on earth, though Darwin believed that extinction followed the same slow march of evolution — except during mass extinction events, when even he accepted that "the changes that had caused extinctions must therefore have been of a much greater magnitude, so great that animals had been unable to cope with them."
Based on cumulative studies of Earth's geological record, it is understood that there have been five times in the planet's history when environmental changes were so extreme that "the diversity of life" collapsed. Kolbert details the prevailing belief, based on modern and ongoing analysis, that humans are actively impacting the biodiversity of the planet, and to such an extent that we are now living in what has been dubbed the Anthropocene, a period of geological time that reflects the expectation that mankind will leave behind its own "global stratigraphic signature."
Throughout her book, Kolbert recounts observations and interviews from numerous travels that she undertook as part of her research, from disappearing amphibians in Panama to devastated coral along the Great Barrier Reef to plummeting bat populations near her home in New England. Amphibians, once believed to be "among the planet's great survivors," now "enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world's most endangered class of animals," Kolbert says. She points out, though, that the involuntary race for obliteration is growing increasingly and alarmingly competitive.
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Kolbert not only looks at species that are disappearing from today's world to support the theory of an ongoing sixth extinction episode. She also provides a perspective that originates from the analyzed remains of mastodons and other such megafauna that once dominated the earth alongside humans.
Alongside this data, she clarifies the difference between the "background extinction rate," which is the ongoing, low-level rate that is always happening, and the occurrence of a mass extinction event that is unique in speed, extent and severity, all of which are critical for the stability of any given species to survive.
As more mastodon remains have been unearthed over the decades, is has become apparent, Kolbert says, that something significant took place to initiate their relatively quick collapse. The mastodon's "demise was part of a wave of disappearances that has come to be known as megafauna extinction."
As humans migrated around the globe, they hunted, playing the role of over-killers, and Kolbert says, the pulses of megafauna extinction that show up in the fossil records align eerily well with corresponding pockets of human inhabitation. Given that the large mammals that were once prevalent on Earth had both long gestation and low reproductive rates, their collapse occurred rather quickly, in a devastating sort of perfect storm.
Kolbert goes on to detail how that perfect storm is still occurring, with humans at the helm of the ship that is increasingly out of control on some seriously troubled waters. "In an extinction event of our own making, what happens to us?" If we destroy the very systems of diversity and ecology that keep us alive, do we write ourselves out of the story?
Yet, in spite of the frightening overarching message of the book, she is not without hope. "Certainly humans can be destructive and short-sighted; they can also be forward-thinking and altruistic." The question is, which one will this generation be?
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