BOOKS Hu­mans mak­ing planet lethal to other life forms

Au­thor ex­plores extinction in new book

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - JEET HEER

To look into the eyes of a frog is to travel back in time. The ear­li­est am­phib­ians hoisted them­selves out of the wa­ter some 370 mil­lions years ago, long be­fore there were any birds in flight, mam­mals scur­ry­ing around or even di­nosaurs stomp­ing the Earth.

A full chron­i­cle of am­phib­ian his­tory would start prior to the ex­is­tence of the seven con­ti­nents, when the only land mass on our planet was a sprawl­ing ex­panse sci­en­tists have la­belled Pan­gaea, not yet splin­tered by tec­tonic plates.

Squishy and soft though they may be, am­phib­ians are in fact hardy sur­vivors. Since life ap­peared on Earth 3.5 bil­lion years ago, there have been five ma­jor extinction events, trau­matic changes in cli­mate and en­vi­ron­ment that have felled many, and some­times most, species ex­ist­ing at a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment.

With their mourn­ful, limpid eyes, am­phib­ians have wit­nessed four of these five extinction events, the most spec­tac­u­lar and no­to­ri­ous be­ing the as­ter­oid that wiped out the di­nosaurs and many other species 65 mil­lion years ago.

The un­set­tling news of El­iz­a­beth Kol­bert’s pow­er­ful book, The Sixth Extinction, is that we are wit­ness­ing a wide-scale dy­ing off of species com­pa­ra­ble to the ear­lier extinction events. An early and star­tling symp­tom of the sixth extinction is the sud­den and global col­lapse of count­less va­ri­eties of frogs, the very an­i­mal whose an­ces­tors were so adept at sur­viv­ing.

The cul­prit be­hind this extinction is no as­ter­oid but a sin­gle species: Hu­man­ity. In count­less ways, we are ren­der­ing the Earth un­in­hab­it­able to many of our fel­low Earth-dwellers.

Sum­ming up the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus, Kol­bert notes that “it is es­ti­mated that one-third of all reef-build­ing corals, a third of all fresh­wa­ter mol­lusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quar­ter of all mam­mals, a fifth of all rep­tiles and a sixth of all birds are headed to­ward obliv­ion.”

Why is our planet once again turn­ing into a spher­i­cal grave­yard? Cli­mate change, the full im­pact of which we only have a small glim­mer of, is a ma­jor cause. It’s darkly ironic that the very di­nosaurs wiped out by that fateful as­ter­oid are now the fos­sil fu­els ig­nit­ing an­other extinction event.

But be­yond cli­mate change, many of the traits that make hu­man­ity so suc­cess­ful as a species are also lethal to other life­forms. Our ver­sa­til­ity and clev­er­ness have al­lowed us to ex­pand into vir­tu­ally ev­ery cor­ner of the globe, bring­ing into frag­ile ecosys­tems in­va­sive new species that elim­i­nate all the lo­cal com­peti- tion.

Hu­man­ity has so thor­oughly trans­formed the planet that we may be the first life form that de­serves to have a ge­o­log­i­cal epoch named af­ter us, the An­thro­pocene (the term is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in sci­en­tific cir­cles al­though it hasn’t been for­mally ac­cepted yet by the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Stratig­ra­phy).

Be­fore the An­thro­pocene is over, much of what we now call zo­ol­ogy will be­come a branch of paleontolo­gy. Those an­i­mals that sur­vive won’t live in the wild but will be do­mes­ti­cated or be con­fined to pris­ons we call re­serves and zoos.

In or­der to in­sure the re­pro­duc­tion of the sur­vivors, the most in­ti­mate re­la­tions of these an­i­mals will be care­fully mon­i­tored by the species that brought them to the abyss of non-ex­is­tence.

Mass extinction is a grim topic, yet Kol­bert’s book is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing read. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Kol­bert has wisely mar­shalled her ar­gu­ments into the form of an in­tel­lec­tual ad­ven­ture. She notes in pass­ing that one of the sci­en­tists she meets “de­cided to be­come a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist when he was seven, af­ter read­ing a Tintin ad­ven­ture about a dig.”

Per­haps tak­ing a cue, Kol­bert has cast her­self as Tintin, a glo­be­trot­ting re­porter join­ing field re­searchers all over the world as they try to solve the ul­ti­mate mur­der mys­tery: Why are so many an­i­mals dy­ing and how can we stop it?

The Sixth Extinction is a book that can­not be rec­om­mended highly enough. It deals with the most im­por­tant pos­si­ble topic, the fate of life on Earth, in a re­spon­si­ble, en­ter­tain­ing and min­d­ex­pand­ing way. It is pro­found with­out be­ing pon­der­ous, ed­i­fy­ing with­out be­ing hec­tor­ing.

An im­por­tant book is by ne­ces­sity one that pro­vokes se­ri­ous dis­agree­ment as well as thought. It’s a trib­ute to Kol­bert’s achieve­ment that I also ended up hav- El­iz­a­beth Kol­bert Henry Holt and Co. ing some se­ri­ous philo­soph­i­cal reser­va­tions about her ul­ti­mate ar­gu­ment.

Kol­bert wants to avoid blam­ing the sixth extinction merely on in­dus­trial moder­nity and in­stead asks us to think of it as an out­growth of hu­man­ity’s sup­pos­edly in­her­ent alien­ation from na­ture.

“Though it might be nice to imag­ine there once was a time when man lived in har­mony with na­ture,” she ar­gues, “it’s not clear that he ever re­ally did.”

As sober as she is, Kol­bert ends up adopt­ing a po­si­tion of mis­an­thropy (or as she says, “sound­ing an­ti­hu­man”).

Kol­bert’s mis­an­thropy is be­mused rather than scorn­ful. But still the bur­den of her ar­gu­ment is that right from the start hu­man­ity was al­ways bad news, a po­si­tion she finds sup­port for in hu­mankind’s pos­si­ble role in ex­tin­guish­ing sib­ling species such as the Ne­an­derthal and the Deniso­van.

One prob­lem with this line of ar­gu­ment is that it is too spec­u­la­tive (any­thing we sur­mise about the Ne­an­derthals is shaky and pro­vi­sional). Sec­ond, this is also a de­politi­cized ar­gu­ment that blames hu­man na­ture rather than so­cial sys­tems cre­ated by hu­mans.

Rather than pon­der­ing the un­cer­tain demise of the Ne­an­derthal, she would have been bet­ter off read­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal his­to­ri­ans such as Al­fred Crosby’s Eco­log­i­cal Im­pe­ri­al­ism: The Bi­o­log­i­cal Ex­pan­sion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986), whose ac­counts of extinction give room for hu­man agency.

More deeply, to say hu­man­ity is the en­emy of na­ture is to fall into a pre-Dar­winian du­al­ism that sees hu­mans as be­ing sep­a­rate and apart from na­ture. But as Dar­win taught us, hu­mans are an­i­mals. When you look into a mir­ror, you are see­ing na­ture.

Kol­bert should have pon­dered the words she quotes in the epi­gram of her book from the great naturalist E.O. Wil­son, who notes the irony that “in the in­stant of achiev­ing self-un­der­stand­ing through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beau­ti­ful cre­ations.”

If hu­man­ity is na­ture come to self-con­scious­ness, then our in­tel­li­gence can be­come a tool whereby na­ture learns to save her­self.

The eco­log­i­cal cri­sis we face is so se­vere that we can’t af­ford the lux­ury of mis­an­thropy. Through­out the book Kol­bert is too dis­mis­sive of ef­forts at con­ser­va­tion, which are surely in­ad­e­quate but still worth sup­port­ing.

Rather than brow­beat­ing our­selves about the in­her­ent wicked­ness of our species, we need to use one of the great­est gifts of na­ture, our in­tel­li­gence, to learn to live at peace with our fel­low crea­tures.

The vi­o­lence that hu­mans have done to the planet will not heal eas­ily, and count­less species have al­ready died or are doomed. But think­ing of hu­mans as be­ing any­thing other than an an­i­mal is a false path that takes us away from real so­lu­tions.

Reva Seth be­gan her ca­reer as a lawyer and then spent more than a decade work­ing in Canada and the U.K. in strate­gic and cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­fore fo­cus­ing on jour­nal­ism. Seth lives in Toronto with her hus­band and three young sons. Q: Tell us about the book. A: The MomShift show­cases the real-life ex­pe­ri­ences of work­ing moth­ers who have all achieved greater suc­cess af­ter hav­ing their chil­dren — but how they did it varies widely. The book is based on over 500 of in­ter­views, and each story in the book il­lus­trates the va­ri­ety of choices and op­tions that women to­day have when it comes to cre­at­ing the ca­reers and fam­ily lives they want, and pro­vides tem­plates for women on how they can nav­i­gate their own ca­reer and fam­ily suc­cess story.

These are women that we don’t hear enough about but whose ex­pe­ri­ences pro­vide a broader range of tem­plates for the dif­fer­ent ways that work­ing moth­ers can set up suc­cess­ful ca­reers. I write about moth­ers who have spent time con­sult­ing be­fore mi­grat­ing back to the work­force, oth­ers who de­layed seek­ing pro­mo­tions, and in­clude ex­am­ples of how to use ma­ter­nity leave more strate­gi­cally. Q: Why did you write this book? A: Right now, we tend to push the idea that a “suc­cess­ful” work­ing mother has to look like Sh­eryl Sand­berg (COO of Face­book) or Marissa Mayer (pres­i­dent and CEO of Ya­hoo).

These women are, of course, im­pres­sive but not re­ally all that re­lat­able for most of us. I wanted to ex­pand how we see suc­cess and re­ally cel­e­brate that in ac­tu­al­ity lots of women have great ca­reers and fam­i­lies, we just tend not to hear much about their sto­ries. And yet these are the sto­ries that can help more of us find new ways of ap­proach­ing our work and fam­ily lives.

I also think ul­ti­mately what this book is about is show­ing that fam­ily and work — two of the most com­mon ways that most of us try and live a happy and ful­fill­ing day-to-day life — don’t have to be in con­flict with each other. That is one of the rea­sons we have so much anx­i­ety on this is­sue.

Q: Is there an op­ti­mal pe­riod in a women’s ca­reer to start a fam­ily?

A: No, it is a very per­sonal de­ci­sion. In the book, I have women who were teen moth­ers, to those who had their first child in their late 40s, The MomShift shows how there are so many ways to cre­ate the fam­ily and work life you want. I re­ally want to get away from this idea that there is a “right” way or time to do this.

Q: What was the most com­mon ad­vice that the women you in­ter­viewed would of­fer to other women?

A: I would say that it was to get sup­port — whether that was build­ing a closer net­work of friends, reach­ing out to ex­tended fam­ily or view­ing qual­ity child care as a long-term in­vest­ment in yourself and your ca­reer.

The As­so­ci­ated Press/Files

Am­phib­ians are hardy sur­vivors, hav­ing lasted through five ma­jor extinction events.

The Sixth Extinction: An Un­nat­u­ral His­tory

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