“The Sixth Extinction – an Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, 2015
Spreading like ants, humans have occupied the whole world, and in the process, they have changed it. This most successful species – up to this point – is in the process of so altering the world as to endanger all other life on the planet, and itself in the bargain. Kolbert has taken a journalistic tour of this ‘sixth’ extinction in the new ‘anthropocene’ age, traveling across the globe to bring these stories to life. Short on solutions or even a clearer identification of the problem, she hints that we need some kind of ‘change.’ But given writers for the New Yorker magazine are not in the habit of revolutionary or even disruptive solutions, that is to be expected.
|The Red Frog. Amphibians - the most endangered species.|
Amphibians are the most endangered class of animals, crashing across the globe. According to Kolbert, one-third of all corals, freshwater mollusks, saltwater sharks and rays; a quarter of all mammals; a fifth of all reptiles; a sixth of all birds are headed for oblivion too. Many insects and other kinds of life- too many to count - are also on the list. This exceeds the normal ‘background extinction rate’ by many times, due to the unprecedented high speed of environmental change brought on by humans and human-induced climate change.
Kolbert begins her tour in central Panama, examining the disappearance of amphibians like the golden frog. She identifies the problem as the spread of a fungus, chrytid, on frog skin, which eventually gives frogs a heart attack. She hints that the problem is that this fungus has been transported around the world by humans, thus reducing the ocean barriers which separate continents to nothing. This has been called a ‘new Pangaea’ by scientists – Pangaea being the original single continent before the advent of continental drift. We now have a virtual Pangaea. After a visit to upstate New York, Kolbert discovers that "white nose" disease as destroyed bat populations across the world - also transmitted quickly across continents by humans, cargo ships and airplanes. According to Kolbert, there are now more 'invasive' species than native species.
Kobert includes a history of the idea of animal or plant ‘extinction,’ which was finally theorized by Jean Leopold Cuvier in 1796, after examining mastodon bones from Kentucky. (Cuvier was also a racist who believed black people to be a 'missing link' to apes. He did not know that humans in Europe interbred with Neaderthals, but Africans never did.) Before then no one thought a species could go extinct. Darwin then wrote in “Origin of the Species’ about human-caused extinction, as he had observed it from the destruction of the Gallapagos tortoise by ship-board hunters.
It wasn’t until Walter Alvarez in 1980 that this theory was supplemented - that change (and by correlation, extinction) was not always slow and ‘gradual’ (per Darwin and Cuvier) but could happen suddenly. This happened after Alvarez studied marine ‘ammonites’ in a strata in Gubbio, Italy, then later subjected the strata to chemical analysis, which showed that meteorite iridium debris in the strata was off the charts. He finally located a massive meteor crater on the coast of Yucatan. This is what most scientists now think caused the dinosaur extinction after the Cretaceous period. Kolbert points out that 3.5 of the previous 5 mass extinctions were caused by rapid climate change – once by glaciation, 2.5 times by global warming - and the human-induced one now going on would be the 4th related to climate change. The animals had little time to adapt. These discoveries conform with the dialectical property of nature – that quantity eventually turns into quality. Nature is not static, circular or always gradual.
Kolbert visits Iceland to look at the place where the last auk, a large, slow moving penguin-like seabird, was killed for food in 1821. Kolbert notes that 6,000 years ago, the ‘mega-fauna’ extinction’ occurred, which correlated to the spread of hunter-gatherer humans to every continent. At that point, massive animals like mammoths, mastodons and sloths were slaughtered for meat and disappeared. Today large mammals like lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos and hippos are on the way out too. So human-induced change started long before the present onslaught of global warming.
She goes to Italy and to a tiny island off New Zealand to look at ocean acidification. She examines a methane leak in the sea floor near Naples which indicates that increasing acidification will kill most everything in the seas, especially shellfish. The pH level of the oceans is changing due to the absorption of carbon dioxide, as ocean acidification is the nasty watery cousin of global warming. A scientist studying ‘Biosphere 2” discovered ocean acidification by looking at the carbon-heavy, acidic water at Biosphere 2. Coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef has already declined by 50%, which endangers all marine life that live on reefs.
Kolbert points to the role of human-run fertilizer plants, river dams, agriculture and cities, fisheries, fresh water usage and carbon changes in the atmosphere in changing the world’s chemistry and biology. The ‘anthropocene’ age is upon us – a name that has not been officially declared but will soon be. ‘Anthro’ is Greek for human. As usual ahead of the curve, Soviet scientists in the 1960s first used the term. If things don’t change, by 2050 when our children will still be alive – and by 2100, when their children will still be alive – the present environment will be at two certain points of collapse.
Kolbert travels to the Amazon and Peru to look at isolated tree projects, which measure the movement of tree species up slopes or the number of animals living in them. The Amazon has 1,000s of tree species, more than anywhere else on the globe, which is common in areas along the Equator. Northern latitudes in Canada only have about 20 trees, while areas in between slowly increase. The Amazon and Peruvian tests reveal that both trees and animal varieties are declining even there.
Kolbert has praise for zoos or scientists studying these trends, or trying to preserve dying species. In the process she sometimes misses the forest for the trees. At one point she praises scientists for convincing the Brazilian government to set aside land for study – even though the Brazilian government has decreed that the other 50% of the Amazonian land should become grazing or agricultural land! She knows – kind of – that efforts to preserve a single species like the California condor or the Sumatran rhino miss the point if the animal die-off is affecting thousands and millions of species. She ignores the fact that getting animals for zoo displays disrupts small wild populations, leading to premature death, and helps lead to extinction. Meat eating, which seems to play a large role in the death of animals, is not mentioned. In short, she is a middle-class environmentalist who endorses all the Big Green organizations. This book describes the dead body on the sidewalk, not who shot them or what to do about other shootings.
Naomi Klein, in her book “This Changes Everything,” has a better tack on the issue, directly pointing at capitalism as the main culprit behind global warming, ocean acidification and species extinction. While Klein thinks capital can be tamed and controlled, eco-socialists think that it won’t happen, nor is there time to expect it to happen. Only a revolutionary change in society, from the ground-up, leading beyond small revolutionary groups, Occupy or Black Lives Matter organizations will work. A mass Populist-Labor movement that extends across the globe is the only force that can ultimately change this situation.
“This Change Everything,” reviewed below. Many books on environmental issues are also reviewed below, including “Animal Planet,” “Born Under a Bad Sky,” “Collapse,” “Ecological Revolution,” “Gaia,” “Garbage Land,” “Green is the New Red,” “The Party’s Over” and “Tar Sands.”
And I bought it at Mayday Books.
January 3, 2016