One recent morning, as I was driving over the beautiful Maumee River, I heard a report on Michigan Radio about White Nose Syndrome. A fungal disease, the spread of White Nose has been devastating to bat populations across the United States and Canada; it is now making its way into Michigan. Last night at the local TEDx Way Public Library I heard it mentioned again as Cory Kasprzyk did a fascinating talk on “Sustainability and Found Composition.” These stood out to me because I had also just finished reading an incredible chapter on it in Elizabeth Kolbert’s, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
The Sixth Extinction explores the tragedy of past extinctions and the reality of currently endangered species by engaging science through the approachability of story and well-placed gravity. Kolbert—winner of the National Magazine Award and a science writer for The New Yorker—is articulate and engaging, which made this book difficult to put down.
The concept of extinction is a relatively recent one, owing its origin to Jean-Léopold-Nicolas-Frédéric Cuvier, a naturalist whose work in fossils (especially the mastodon) changed the way we look at the world’s history. From the now extinct American mastodon, Neanderthal, and ammonite, to the now struggling Golden Frog, North American bat, or the Great Barrier Reef, the cold reality is that extinction is not a thing of the distant past.
“The most recent—and famous—mass extinction [of the five] came at the close of the Cretaceous period; it wiped out, in addition to the dinosaurs, the plesiosaurs, the mosasaurs, the ammonites, and the pterosaurs,” writes Kolbert.
“In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all,” adds Kolbert, “the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early to say whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five, it becomes known as the Sixth Extinction.”
Human beings use our “subterranean reserves of energy” to “change the composition of the atmosphere.” We raze forests, we alter “the climate and the chemistry of the oceans.” “No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before,” writes Kolbert, “and yet other, comparable events have occurred.”
Take the Great Barrier Reef, for example. Scientists have seen a decline in coral coverage of fifty percent. Coral growth occurs at certain levels of aragonite saturation. The lower the saturation state, the slower the growth. This is ocean acidification; the more carbon released by emissions, the more it changes the pH of the water. According to current numbers, “if current emissions trends continue, within the next fifty years or so ‘all coral reefs will cease to grow and start to dissolve.'”
It is hard to dismiss Kolbert’s case for the role humans have in pressing other species (and eventually ourselves) into extinction. We are clearly capable of doing amazing things as a species, but real humility comes in admitting that not all our achievements are positive. As a species we are capable of surviving in every climate and on a broad diet of foods. Not every form of life is as industrious or flexible. As Kolbert recalls during her time in the Amazon:
Overnight, clouds had rolled in from the Amazon basin, and we watched them from above as they turned first pink and then flaming orange. In the chilly dawn, we packed up our gear and headed down the trail. “Pick out a leaf with an interesting shape,” Silman instructed me once we’d descended into the cloud forest. “You’ll see it for a few hundred meters, and then it will be gone. That’s it. That’s the tree’s entire range.”
This is a fantastic read that calls us to recognize not only the amazing diversity of life, but also its fragility. We cannot celebrate our accomplishments without also humbly recognizing that these same achievements might have devastating consequences—a sixth extinction.
NOTE: Periodically, we will be reintroducing relevant book reviews from our previous blog, The Discarded Image.