“Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘The Sixth Extinction:’ A Consideration

Elizabeth Kolbert is a science and environmental affairs writer for The New Yorker.  She is also a master story teller.  A book like “The Sixth Extinction” could be both dry and depressing.  Depending upon your point of view, it certainly can be considered to be in the latter category, but dry, certainly not.  Ms. Kolbert has a lot to tell us about science, our environment, and what our species, Homo sapiens, is doing to it.  It could read like a doctoral dissertation, but it does not.  She tells her story in a lively, engaging way, and indeed, for some readers at least, the book will be a page-turner (it was for me).  She also has a great sense of humor, which makes its way onto her pages with regularity.  Most importantly, she is not telling her story simply from the scientific literature.  For most of her descriptions of the current extinctions, she made field trips with the scientists who are uncovering and analyzing them.  A certain number of those trips were fraught with some danger.  Indeed she ventured from the dying Great Barrier Reef off Australia to the rapidly changing and decaying deep Amazon jungle. 

 The book begins with a history of the development of the concept of “extinction” itself, in the 18th century.  She then follows the various approaches to the understanding of “what happened,” over time.  She shows how, while in the early days (18th-19th centuries) it was thought that extinctions happened gradually, through sciences ranging from geology to paleontology, the modern understanding has developed.  In the history of the Earth, there have been five major extinctions.  While extinctions are going all the time, they usually proceed at a slow pace, in geological terms.  The Big Five all occurred rapidly in terms of the total expanse of geological time.  Only the most recent one, that of the Late Cretaceous which wiped out the dinosaurs and a bunch of other species, occurred almost instantaneously (in geological terms).  That one was the result of the now well-known asteroid strike in the Yucatan (elucidated only beginning in the 1970s).  It hit at about 45,000 miles per hour.  The dust cloud was pretty big, and pretty fast-moving too.  And so, many species went down almost immediately (literally immediately).

 The Sixth Extinction, in which numerous plant and animal species are disappearing, at an increasingly rapid rate, is going on now.  Differentiating it from all of the others, the cause is not inanimate.  It is us.  A set of human activities is leading, at any increasingly rapid rate, to the disappearance of literally thousands of species, to the extent that in geological terms the period that we are living in has been given our name: The Anthropocene.  Ms. Kolbert writes in great detail about the major anthropogenic extinctions, and to some extent discusses the various means by which we are creating them: global warming, acidification of the oceans, over-population, deforestation, and so on and so forth.  (Other scientists have coined the term “defaunation”  to describe what we are doing to the animal world.)

Ms. Kolbert does not get into what underlies these principal causes in terms of the organization of the human social/political economy, but that is not the focus of her book.  Her book is about the what of the Sixth Extinction in the Anthropocene, and the human role in it, not on the why we behave in the way we do in modern times, an eye-blink in geological terms, from pouring carbon into the atmosphere and the seas to over-populating the Earth with no end in sight.  She also does not deal with the probable future of our species, Homo sapiens.  (And let me tell you, if our species is the ultimate result of an “Intelligent Designer” [ho, ho, ho], he/she/it or they was/were not very intelligent at all.)  It will almost certainly be downhill from here, folks, for our species, as well as many of the others. 

From 50,000 to about 10,000 years ago we destroyed all of the mega fauna, like the wooly mammoths and the sabre tooth tigers who fed upon them, and in more recent times have been destroying much smaller animals, from the dodo bird to a vast number of frog species (now), at an ever-increasing rate.  For example, this season billions of baby oysters off the coast of Washington state have been killed by carbon-caused acidification of the oceans.  The principal question for me that arose from reading the book is, what is going to happen to us?

Homo sapiens have no natural predators, in animal kingdom that is.  However, for quite some time (in human, not geological terms) we will be our own un-natural predator.  Global warming, combined with the currently uncontrolled over-population (e.g., the population of Africa is estimated to quadruple in this century {M. Pfeifer, et al, letter, Science, 25 July, 2014, p. 389}), will most likely vastly reduce our numbers over time.  There will be a steady reduction in the supply of fresh water (a problem that is soluble with desalinization, but under capitalism that is unlikely to occur on the scale necessary, because of the necessity of profit-making).  There will be increasingly massive flooding of the major low-lying cities and islands (and there are many of them).  Then there is desertification, the destruction of the food-chains because of, for example, the rapid disappearance of certain pollinating species like butterflies and bats due to human causes, and the decline in food supply resulting from that occurrence.  And so on and so forth.  And so, our population will gradually decline, starting probably no later than 50 years from now or so.

The question then becomes, how much will the decline be, and will Earth as a whole survive, as the Sixth Extinction of the other plant and animal species continues on apace.  I have been thinking on this question for quite some time.  After reading Ms. Kolbert’s book, I have come to be in agreement with the anthropologist Richard Leakey, who is quoted in it as saying (p. 268), “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.”  But how might that happen, if we have no natural predators in the animal kingdom (other than ourselves of course) and absent nuclear winter (always a possibility) it is unlikely that we would, or could, kill ourselves off completely? 

Well, it happens that we do have a set of natural predators that are neither flora nor fauna: the micro-organisms.  One has to wonder if Ebola and the mysterious viral infection spreading among children in the United States  are fore-runners of much more serious infections that could be beyond the ability of man to deal with (as in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and a variety of other fictional treatments).  It could happen.  And for Mother Earth, that might be a benefit.  Given the rapaciousness of Homo sapiens towards Earth and all of its other plant and animal species as well as towards ourselves, in my view our own extinction is the only way that the planet can survive as a place for living beings and avoid becoming like Mars (which may well once upon a time supported life).  More on this subject anon.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash@Truthout he is the Editorial Director of and a Contributing Author to The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy, and a Senior Editor, Politics, for The Greanville Post, (http://www.greanvillepost.com/).  Dr. Jonas’ latest book is The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022: A futuristic Novel, Brewster, NY, Trepper & Katz Impact Books, Punto Press Publishing, 2013, http://www.puntopress.com/jonas-the-15-solution-hits-main-distribution/, and available on Amazon.

This column was previously published on BuzzFlash@Truthout.