Review of The Sixth Extinction

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This cliche that came to mind while reading that the Javan rhino, once widespread in Southeast Asia, is down to “less than fifty individuals left, all in a single Javanese reserve” (Kolbert 2014, p. 222). The colossal creatures remaining here are in trouble–bears, big cats, elephants, rhinos. I had the privilege of hearing forest elephants once while trekking in the rainforest, which the book also notes have lost an estimated 60% of their population. Pick a large species, and it is likely doing poorly.

engraving_of_java_rhinoceros_hermann_schlegel_1872

H. Slegel, engraving of Javan rhinoceros, 1872.

This is scary. Species are losing resiliency, hammered by threats on all sides. You can’t save a population that is in a single reserve; one or two random events and they could be wiped out. Or they could just fade away, with no new migrants from other areas coming in. This cascade of extinctions has been going on since humans began pulsing out of Eastern Africa. To put geologic terms in perspective, it’s like blinking and seeing that someone took half of the stuff in your house while also finding that the house is tilting and much of the remaining stuff is crashing down.

The unflinching The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert reminded me of a college lecture. The anthropology professor was delineating what made humans unique among animals:  Language–he said that other animals communicate and can learn new words; Tools–other animals (crows, chimps at least) use them; Fire–use of fire and the ability to cook food was the distinguishing feature.

There is another distinguishing feature of humans–willful destruction. We knowingly destroy habitats, which means that animals starve to death, die from disease, or are forced to perish while migrating across hostile terrain. We knowingly “salt, pluck, and deep fry [the great auks] into oblivion”(62), “cut into and cut off” wild places (172), and create conditions for a “steady degradation in diversity over time” (179).

There might even be enough of a lag that it will take a while to see the true extinction debt, which is difference between the number of species doomed by an environmental change and the number that have actually vanished. How likely are Kirtland’s warbler, the whooping crane, the Devil’s pupfish, the Florida panther, and even the little brown bat to make a self-sustaining comeback?

The truly terrifying extension of this argument is: If the last mass extinction was 65 million years ago, and there have been 5 major ones over the last 500 million years, we are ahead of the average by about 45 million years. What happens if we wipe out all of this intricate, marvelous, irreplaceable and then there’s another shock to the system? Can we really rule out making this planet uninhabitable?

Kolbert pulls no punches:  “Though it might 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” (p.235) and “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.” (266)

The next question is what to do about it, which the book doesn’t really address. On the other hand, I prefer that to anodyne statements about recycling and reducing waste. Those things are easy; my guess is that the real change will come with things that are difficult.

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