Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, is a disturbing but important book about the radical turns the earth has taken over its history, leading to mass extinctions of animals and plants.  There have been five, and it is postulated that we are on the verge of the sixth.

This extinction will be caused by the colonization of the planet by modern humans; our widespread success at reproducing, our deft use and abuse of natural resources, have or are transforming the nearly every niche in the planet.

I think Kolbert makes excellent points about this topic.  There may just be a sixth extinction event on the horizon, and we may go down with it; we caused it, and we will fall with it.  Yet there have been five other major events, which happened well before the rise of human beings.  This cycle of extinctions is an important concept to think of, as it makes us confront our very notions of natural and unnatural causes of extinction. 

Kolbert always rightly point out that modern humans have been causing extinctions on a massive scale soon after groups of people departed from Africa at least 60,000 years ago.  Everywhere prehistoric modern humans arrived, large scale extinction of mega-fauna occurred shortly thereafter.  In Australia, giant marsupials disappeared a few thousand years after human settlement.  Modern Humans encountered other beings from the genus homo in their wanderings.  All of these disappeared after they came into contact with Modern Humans, leaving only fossil remains and their light imprint in our DNA.

What does this say?  We have been a high impact species for a long time.  Even in our hunter/gatherer stages, often depicted as a time when people lived in harmony with nature, we destroyed ecosystems.  The only hope we have, Kolbert explains, is that we harness our tremendous power to mend the earth, rather than further damage it.  She leaves room for hope that this will happen, but also concedes that it is too late to save many animals and plants from doom.

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