BOOKS Humans making planet lethal to other life forms
Author explores extinction in new book
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.
Amphibians are hardy survivors, having lasted through five major extinction events.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History