photo & text by nacrowe
you think you know how bad things are with nature, and then you read THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY (PICADOR, 2014) by ELIZABETH KOLBERT, WILLIAMS COLLEGE fellow and staff writer on environment for THE NEW YORKER. and now you are officially overwhelmed and depressed.
where KOLBERT excels is in her ability to provide context to the geological time scale involved in any discussions surrounding the evolution of life and extinctions. the problem is not that change hasn't happened in the past that has resulted in mass extinction, it has. the problem currently is the rate of change. life in this context does not have the time to evolve or adjust to new parameters and the implications are disastrous. it is as if the rules of nature have been one way for millions of years and then humans post-INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION have shifted the climate and environment to the point that old rules dont apply. this emerging geological age we live in now is called the ANTHROPOCENE and it is marked by GLOBAL WARMING, OCEAN ACIDIFICATION, HABITAT FRAGMENTATION, the flattening of global biodiversity through the creation of a NEW PANGEA where foreign predators are introduced via international trade and commerce among other mechanism. in the end they all result in human initiated incursions that are projected to result in an historic sixth mass extinction that will be visible for millions of years via the geological record.
that is not to say that the world wont continue. it will. new speciation and relations between organisms will emerge and continue to run unabated in a future post-human era. it is just that our presence and the collective choices of mankind have resulted, from our inception, in the death of countless species. it is really quite remarkable and it is a testament to her ability as a writer to paint these problems with such crushing force. these mechanism of extinction are all introduced with her describing a visit to a relevant locale (PERU, ICELAND, WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS, BRASIL etc.) and elaborating for us about what is special about the plant and animal residents of this era and the unique parameters that brought on their evolution and specialized rituals and adaptations to the area. and then we learn how humans, usually unintentionally, have affected their ability to live. each time in a uniquely destructive manner.
arguably the most depressing thing about this book is that it isnt empowering. it is not about our individual choices that have gotten us here. this destruction is all seemingly hardwired and inevitable. it is essentially part of our nature as humans. as long as we prosper we will continue to impact the planet and these irreversible mechanism will continue to run unabated, destroying life and leaving our world that much less diverse and rich to leave to future generations. it is our creativity and ability to pass on knowledge via communication systems that have led us to live apart from nature, apart from evolution. it is our ability to innovate that led us here. in 500 million years since complex organisms rose up, this is the first mass extinction of geological scale predicated on the influence of a single species.
and that is our true legacy as humans. not art. not technology. just death.
this is an incredible book that i could not recommend any more passionately. it presents deeply disturbing and affecting ideas that linger and claw at you long after finishing the book.