An all too black comedy of unintended consequences

Elizabeth KohlbertYou probably know that you and I — actually, all of us collectively, homo sapiens the species — are responsible for a truly alarming reduction in the number of other species on Planet Earth. But apart from occasional stories in the media about endangered polar bears and black rhinos and the like, you may feel, as I do, that it’s tough to get terribly excited.

As it turns out, only a handful of these disappearing species are “charismatic” large animals. In fact, nearly all of them are small, many of them vanishingly so; they’re plants as well as animals, few of them even with names, and they’re hidden away in tropical forests. From a scientific perspective, that’s no less serious. But the PR angle is tough to find.

A brilliant new book

In an outstanding new book, The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert tackles this challenge with considerable success. Kolbert, a science journalist on the staff of The New Yorker, spoke about the mass extinction now underway in an illuminating presentation last Wednesday to a large and attentive audience at the Hillside Club, under the auspices of Berkeley Arts & Letters. Her talk, like the book, was a sobering wake-up call.

Kolbert conducted extensive research for the book, including many thousands of miles of travel to visit scientists in research centers and in the field all across the globe. In The Sixth Extinction, and in a sketchier way during her presentation, she let us tag along, shaping each chapter around one of these trips, from Antarctica to the Amazon. The scientists she interviewed for the book include ecologists, biologists, geologists, paleontologists, geneticists, and authoritative figures in many other fields. She reports what she learned in straightforward, easily accessible language, resorting to a bare minimum of jargon. Though deeply disturbing, the book is a pleasure to read. (I wouldn’t expect anything less from a New Yorker staff writer.)

It transpires that we humans have been at this project of eliminating other species for a very long time — and we hold the dubious honor of being the only species to play an instrumental role in engineering such a large-scale killing spree. The five previous mass extinctions recorded by science over the past 630 million years were all the result of climate change.


As Kolbert emphasized in her remarks, there’s evidence going back more than 40,000 years to the arrival of  homo sapiens in Australia, when we began systematically eliminating the enormous megafauna (gargantuan sloths, Brobdingnagian kangaroos, and so forth) that were common there in that era. Not that the animals they found were threatening them physically. Apparently, the new, human predators simply found the big beasts good to eat. Similar things happened in North America some 25,000 years later, when the original human settlers of what we now call the Western Hemisphere crossed the land bridge from Siberia and began hungrily devouring the mastodons and other huge animals they encountered. There don’t seem to have been any vegetarians among the forebears of today’s Native Americans.

Welcome to the Anthropocene Age

Fast-forward another few thousand years to the end of the last Ice Age roughly 12,000 years ago, shortly after which humans began farming and animal husbandry, and the extinction gained momentum. Then, about 500 years ago, the Columbian Exchange that came on the heels of early European exploration of the New World made matters worse by transferring innumerable plants and animals, diseases, and more aggressive farming techniques from one side of the Atlantic to the other. But it wasn’t until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that the pace began picking up steam (as it were). Then, the ingenuity that gave rise to large cities, railroads, and fast-growing human population ushered in what Kolbert refers to (following a number of eminent scientists) the Anthropocene Age. In that transition, we humans passed the point at which we were simply co-existing with other species and became the arbiters of their survival.

Today, in the full expression of the Anthropocene, we are advancing the extinction of the planet’s gloriously varied plant and animal kingdoms at a furious pace.

Continue reading on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.

Read other recommendations and reviews by Mal Warwick published on Berkeleyside.


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