The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Drought picture

“The current extinction event began all the way back in the middle of the last ice age. [It] means that man was a killer… an “overkiller” right from the start” (Kolbert, 2014: 229).

It may not feel like it, but Kolbert’s research finds that we are experiencing an extinction of life on earth in real time. Humans will be responsible for the end of life on earth because destruction is in our evolutionary DNA.6th

That we are entering an age which may be the end of time for humanity is taken seriously by scientists. The International Union of Geological Sciences has struck a ‘Working Group on The ‘Anthropocene” through the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy to weigh the evidence for a formally defined geological unit. The group has formally proposed that the Anthropocene began about 1950, defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, but also other debris such as plastic pollution, pollution from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken (The Guardian, August 29, 2016).

The evidence and experts consulted by Elizabeth Colbert support the theory that homo sapiens have initiated the next great extinction.  Kolbert writes, “The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption but ‘one weedy species” (p. 266). We humans are the weeds, equipped with what we call ‘intelligence’. This unique capacity may be a mutation with the capacity to wipe out all or most forms of life on earth.

Our tendency to destroy other plant and animal species is not an artifact of industrialization. This insatiable quest to dominate life forms began early in the Holocene era (9700 BC) and coincided with the expanding numbers of humans and their activities. Starting with the largest and slowest moving mammals (such as the American mastodon some 13,000 years ago), the disappearance of animals since the last ice age follows the path of human migration.

The brutality of our existence is underscored by the current status of large primates.

“Having cut down our sister species ‘ the Neanderthals and the Denisovan ‘ many generations ago, we’re now working on our first and second cousins. By the time we’re done, it’s quite possible that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left, except, that is, for us.’ (p. 225).

We wiped out our Neanderthal competitors, but not before reproducing with them and leaving vestiges of their DNA in the human genome.

Evolutionary theory holds that humanity has no special status, something which our cultural anthropocentrism denies. Although philosophy and religion fantasize that humankind is existentially unique, man’s impact on the world’s biodiversity is an outcome of a particular mutation: the selfish desire to transform the natural habitat for reasons which go beyond satisfying survival needs. Unlike other mammals, we destroy the habitats of other plants and animals, a practice that will wipe out the conditions for our own survival.

Just you may be ready to concede that we are indeed living in the end of times, and our children will witness an environmental apocalypse, Kolbert abruptly turns optimistic and quotes a conservation expert from Alaska: “People have to have hope. I have to have hope. It’s what keeps us going.”

Regrettably, the evidence from our history of rapacious destruction weighs heavily against her final words. Perhaps she felt a need to end the book on a positive note, however, the current spectre of climate denialists occupying key government positions in the United States and elsewhere in the world leaves little room for optimism.

The value in her narrative is how the concept of the Anthropocene may be used by a broad range of environmental activists to dramatize the urgency of the need for immediate and far-reaching changes about how we live and consume. That would take a revolution against the legal status of the corporatism (especially ‘limited liability’), capitalist values and practices, the influence of elites in crafting legislation which facilitate profiteering from resource extraction, and the media which is powerfully influenced by those with money and power.

While I can’t blame the author for not delving into the enablers and facilitators of the impending Anthropocene, we are not told about the larger structural, global forces which cause the conditions which she describes. For that type of analysis and critique, readers would benefit from Ian Angus’s (2016) book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014. Henry Holt and Company, New York.


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