The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock or working at the White House, you know the rapid decline we are witnessing in the earth’s species, due primarily to global warming. The ultimate culprit in the changes and destruction of our ecosystems is us. Climate change is due mostly to human activity. If anyone continues to deny that, they are simply ignoring reality. The levels of CO2 in our atmosphere are the highest they’ve been for 15 million years, and the rate of rise is phenomenal. Species of plants and animals cannot adapt quickly enough, leading us toward what many believe will be an apocalyptic extinction “event”: the sixth mass extinction on this planet.
This is not an uplifting subject. It’s horrifying to realize how many creatures are disappearing right before our eyes because of our clumsy interventions. But it’s an important subject, and one worth learning about if only to grasp onto some hope of saving what we can.
In this fascinating, eye-opening book, The Sixth Extinction, (now in paperback), Elizabeth Kolbert explores the history of our concept of extinction, since that came long after the reality of it. Like children playing with matches, humans have blundered along the last few hundred years, wiping out creatures left and right, with no clear understanding of the consequences of our actions. Kolbert steps right into the muck, literally at times, alongside field scientists, and writes warmly about the people on the front lines of our troubled environment and the flora and fauna they are chronicling and defending and desperately trying to save. She notes the wondrous aspects of our species as well: how many people there are working diligently to undo the damage we have all caused. Most of us do not want to see our planet’s destruction, and we do try, either through monetary gifts or lifestyle changes, to reduce our personal impacts. Whether or not that will work is a large and uncomfortable question.
There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the earth. We humans were not responsible for those catastrophes, so no guilt there. In the broadening of our recognition of ecosystems and their demise, we see the rapidity of the current extinction in progress. It is wiping out species at such an alarming and disheartening rate, that there are some we’ll never know before they are gone. Forever.
We know that trophy hunting, habitation destruction, and poaching are leading to the imminent loss of lions, elephants, and other African wildlife, possibly in the next few decades. We also know that acidification of the oceans and warming temperatures are destroying coral reefs, and thus a whole plethora of dependent creatures, whose demise will then affect those who depend on them for food, including us. In human terms, all of this isn’t news. Geologically speaking, however, it’s happening at lightning speed. Kolbert writes:
“Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly. . . . How many species overall will be capable of moving fast enough remains an open question, though . . . in the coming decades we are probably going to learn the answer, whether we want to or not.”
In order to migrate to more conducive climates, species need a pathway. But we’ve disrupted those paths with our development or fragmentation, adding yet another hurdle.
Among the many ways humans have mucked up the ecosystem of the planet is through invasive species. We’ve recreated the supercontinent of 175 million years ago, by essentially going backward, jumbling everything up again in what scientists refer to as “the new Pangaea.” Thus, we have honey bees here in North America—maybe not a bad thing—but we also have the Japanese beetle and purple loosestrife. And we have lost millions of bats thanks to a fungus that has invaded their colonies. Not to mention the stink bug that has invaded the eastern coast (and my house). Modern humans are perhaps the most invasive of invaders, having pushed out the Neanderthals some 30,000 years ago, possibly through killing, or through competition, but not before actually procreating with them. (So yes, we all have some Neanderthal in our DNA, although it may not show up in your 23 & Me report.) In that way, I suppose we actually saved our early cousin from total extinction, but I doubt that was much comfort to the last one left.
Is this all just bad news that you’d rather not read about? Maybe, and I understand the desire to turn off the bad news. It’s permeating our lives these days. But we are the creators of this destruction and have been the benefactors as well, so we need to understand what’s happening in order to find a way to bring some light to the growing shadow. Human ingenuity has changed our ecosystem; perhaps it can help reverse destruction as well. Some are hopeful that just by concentrating on local changes we can make—using renewable energy, eating sustainably grown and harvested food—we can alleviate the problems. Possibly, but what we know for sure is that hiding from it will not make it go away. Denying it will not make it less a reality. And blaming the messengers will simply backfire. What we must face up to now is that the Sixth Extinction will include humans in its grip. If that doesn’t stir the Neanderthal within, then nothing will.