Monday, September 29, 2014

Thoughts After Reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Tomorrow I'll begin taking a free adult education class called Extinction: Life On Earth and Human Impact (offered through the Wagner Free Institute for Science.) Because I'm the sort of person who likes to spend my precious-little free time learning nerdy nature/science stuff, regardless of how depressing it might be. 

A few days ago I finished one of the recommended readings, The Sixth Extinction by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, published earlier this year. Though it covers a sobering topic, it is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to all lovers or nature and all those with even a passing curiosity about the nitty gritty details of how humans are transforming the global ecosystem. 

The best thing about this book is the way it is organized. Each chapter zooms in on either the plight of a species either already extinct, or on the brink of doom. For example, the Great Auk, hunted to extinction before the turn of the 20th century, or the Panamanian Golden Frog, one of many frog species which were plentiful only a decade ago, but are now critically endangered. 

Kolbert did her footwork. She traveled around the world to witness the places where extinctions happened and are happening, and to interview the scientists trying to piece together what occurred, and conservationists desperately trying to preserve or restore what remains. Kolbert takes us readers into a cave where the floor is piled with frozen bat carcasses. She wades us into waters populated by scores of exotic and sometimes terrifying sea creatures: jagged coral, struggling sea turtles, stinging stone fish, and an octopus who can kill with one bite. If, like me, you have not the time nor funds to go to the Amazonian rain forest or Great Coral Reef yourself, reading this book can help take you there in your imagination. 

By connecting both ancient and recent extinction with currently endangered species, Kolbert builds the case for what scientists have been calling the Holocene Extinction (a mass extinction event caused by humans). As Kolbert emphasizes, it might soon be re-named the Anthropocene Extinction, in acknowledgement the enormity of our impact on the biosphere. 

In the final chapter, Kolbert writes about the black-faced honeycreeper, which is thought to have gone extinct in the fall of 2004. As I read this, I couldn't help but think about what I was doing in 2004. As it so happens, I got married that year in the late spring. So just as I was beginning my life-partnership with my husband, the black-faced honeycreeper was ending its existence as a living species. Though I lived to witness this animal go extinct during my lifetime, our daughters were born after it was already gone. This sort of sad event is happening constantly, and the evidence that it is due to human activity has become as overwhelming as the reminder of our species' own limited lifespan. 

Kolbert's tone manages to be rather upbeat. Though deeply concerned, she never comes off as alarmist, nor does she shake her finger at only certain perpetrators. Instead, she draws the reader into specific situations, lays out all the facts, connects the up-close experience to the bigger picture, and finally wraps it up with a few poignant phrases. (I've highlighted three of my favorite lines from the book in this blog post in green.) She makes it clear that we humans are all in this together. Indeed, radically transforming our environment at a rapid pace (geologically speaking) might be written into our genetic code. 

By the end, it is clear that Kolbert's heart is most with the animals going extinct. It was here that I felt my concerns diverge a bit from the author's. As much as my heart bleeds for the rhinos and corals, throughout my reading of the book, I found myself wondering, what does this mean for us? As beautiful and evocative as I find the natural world, and as sad as is the thought of losing so many species (especially the most charismatic ones), I must admit that my main concern regarding these mass extinctions is that in causing such profound disruptions to the global ecosystem, we humans are making the planet inhospitable to us. 

Last week the UN just had its annual Summit On Climate Change. Some, such as Gustavo Fonseca are hopeful about the world's nations finally taking strong action to combat the forces changing our planet. Others, such as Nick Cunningham, were little impressed.

Right now I'm rather pessimistic that the world's leaders and citizenry have the will to take actions most necessary and based in both hard science and human compassion. It certainly didn't help that during the Summit, I drove across my home state of Pennsylvania, encountering a steady clip of pro-fracking, anti-environmentalist billboards paid for by the Coal industry. 

I would like to think that if anything could bring humanity, so deeply divided by ethnicity, race, religion, and class, together, it might be the cause of climate change. But those problems are simply too large, slow-moving (in human terms), and complex for most of us to grasp, much less feel emotionally engaged enough to act. While the UN Summit happened, ISIS had been committing horrific atrocities in an attempt to establish a new Islamic State, the US and allies geared up to bomb Syria, and Vladimir Putin was busy turning Russia into a war state. That's only naming a few, big and current clusterfucks in the affairs of humankind. It is as if most people are too busy feuding with their neighbors over inches of property line, meanwhile rising sea levels might soon claim their entire homes. 

With headlines about beheadings of journalists by Islamic radicals, and invading Russian military forces in the Ukraine thinly disguised as humanitarian aid, I can understand why many people are more concerned about other animals going extinct than the possibility of humans destroying ourselves. 

That said, the only reason we feel angst over the animals going extinct is because of our uniquely human capacity to find meaning and assign values to those lives. Bats don't write symphonies, and frogs don't even care for their young, much less experience years of wonder and hope, tinged with anxiety, as they watch their offspring develop into adults. I want to save the bat, frog, rhino, coral, and all the rest, because I want the world, this world, for my children, and for all children, and their children, and their children.... 

1 comment:

  1. I will put this on my reading list. I often feel even humanists can be too human-centric. I get the "I want these animals to be there for my children" bit alas we should want these amazing and diverse to be present for their own sake. Seven billion humans and counting is warning enough to take a step back and prevent a monoculture of H Sapiens.