A book that will transform your thinking about the world: The Sixth Extinction

 In Books, Conservation, Environment
The Great Auk by John James Audubon, 1800s

The Great Auk by John James Audubon, 1800s. This North Atlantic bird became extinct in 1844.

A few years ago, I led presentations featuring “wildlife ambassadors” for a diversity of public school students. While showing the kids a desert tortoise, a reptile protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, I was astonished that even the youngest groups, kindergartners, oftentimes had a definition for “endangered.” When I asked, they replied, “It means they are going away.” “They are almost gone.”

Because I am an advocate for protecting the earth’s wild places and animals, I eagerly attended an event to hear Elizabeth Kolbert speak about her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker with a talent for bringing science to the masses with vivid and elegant prose. Berkeley Arts & Letters hosted Kolbert’s sold-out talk on February 19.

We are changing the world and very, very fast

With a photo of an odd-looking jet-black bird looming over us from a large screen on the stage, Kolbert told us the story of an ‘alala, a Hawaiian crow featured in her book that lives in a research center in San Diego, California. The approximately 100 ‘alala that exist today all live in captivity. The last two living in the wild vanished in 2002. What we learned in the vignette about the crow is that some humans will go to extremes to save a species from extinction.

Over the last half a billion years, five mass extinctions have dramatically changed life on earth. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert takes us on adventures around the globe to visit scientists, charismatic species and some of the most beautiful parts of the world. We also learn that we are changing the world at an alarming pace.

A strong case suggests that we have entered a new epoch in geologic time defined by a sixth mass extinction happening right now. This extinction event differs from all that came before: it is human-caused. We might be saying goodbye to the Holocene and hello to the Anthropocene, and “every geology textbook in the world immediately will become obsolete,” writes Kolbert.

An asteroid that smashed into the Yucatan Peninsula about sixty-five million years ago caused the last mass extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs. This discovery was made by Luis and Walter Alvarez, a father and son team from Berkeley, whose “Impact Hypothesis” was published by Science in June 1980.

In the book Kolbert also takes us to Iceland to tell the harrowing yet riveting story of a large penguin-like seabird of the North Atlantic called the great auk. In 1844, this flightless and slow-reproducing bird went the way of another flightless bird — “the way of the dodo.” The last known pair of great auks, which lived on a small island named Eldey off the coast of Iceland, was literally “strangled.” The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles now holds the skin of the last female auk.

As you travel with Kolbert to the rocky waters off the tiny island of Eldey, you learn about the great auk’s “last stand,” an event that motivated a British naturalist Alfred Newton to fight to stop the mass killing of seabirds along the British coast. Newton’s efforts led to “one of the first laws aimed at what today would be called wildlife protection: the Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds,” writes Kolbert.

Island of Eldey in Iceland, site of the Great Auk's "last stand"

Island of Eldey in Iceland, site of the Great Auk’s “last stand”

Multiple causes for the Sixth Extinction

Today, several human activities are bombarding wild creatures at an unnatural pace and taking them to the brink of existence.

“Humans are changing the planet in multiple, severe ways,” said Kolbert at the Berkeley talk. In her book she describes other major factors for biodiversity loss and extinction caused by humans including habitat loss and the movement of animals around the world, intentionally or unintentionally. By reading about an endangered frog in Panama and bats in North America, we learn how fast exotic species can wipe out native ones, sometimes with grisly results.

The Panamanian golden frog is now extinct in the wild

The Panamanian golden frog is now extinct in the wild

Climate change and ocean acidification

While humans have been capable of decimating whole species in very short periods of time, directly or indirectly, one of the major culprits of the sixth mass extinction event is climate change and its “equally evil twin” known as ocean acidification. Oceans are absorbing about one-third of the carbon dioxide that is being pumped into the atmosphere, primarily from burning fossil fuels, and the consequences for marine ecosystems look grim.

A Blue Starfish (Linckia laevigata) resting on hard Acropora coral, Great Barrier Reef by Richard Ling

A Blue Starfish (Linckia laevigata) resting on hard Acropora coral, Great Barrier Reef by Richard Ling

To illuminate the possibilities, Kolbert takes us to experiments underway on opposite sides of the planet. She swims in frigid waters near a small island off the coast of Italy and snorkels by headlamp to witness the spawning corals of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia – where one researcher predicts, “if current trends continue, then by around 2050 visitors to the Great Barrier Reef will arrive to find ‘rapidly eroding rubble banks.’”

What is the Call to Action?

Kolbert makes it clear that we need to act, but she avoids prescribing specific actions. She writes:

“Having been alerted to the ways in which we’re imperiling other species, can’t we take action to protect them? Isn’t the whole point of trying to peer into the future so that, seeing dangers ahead, we can change course to avoid them?”

How can we as individuals fight a global catastrophe like mass extinction? We can have more influence than we realize.

Kolbert gives the example of how John Muir wrote about the damage being done in the mountains of California, which ultimately led to the creation of Yosemite National Park (I wrote about this subject here and here).

Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring exposed the dangers of synthetic pesticides, leading to a ban on DDT and the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

People have used the Endangered Species Act to save hundreds of species. Kolbert cites the remarkable comeback of the California condor, which hovered on the edge of extinction with only 22 individuals left in 1982. (In September 2013, the Ventana Wilderness Society reported that 217 condors live in the wild and 203 live in captivity.)

California condors hovered on the edge of extinction with only 22 individuals left in 1982. Photo by Kim Valverde/USFWS

California condors hovered on the edge of extinction with only 22 individuals left in 1982. Photo by Kim Valverde/USFWS

Kolbert also points out that, indirectly, millions of people are also helping to save endangered species worldwide by joining the efforts of nonprofit conservation organizations. Examples she gives include the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

The challenge ahead is to reach the people who aren’t listening. In an interview with Mark Tercek, President & CEO, The Nature Conservancy, Kolbert says, “The challenge for groups like The Nature Conservancy and for journalists like me to is to try to raise awareness before species disappear. You have to stay at it. You have to try to speak to people’s hearts and also to their minds.”

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