The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Sat, 04/11/2015 - 9:30am
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The nightly national news usually ends with a feel-good story, one that often involves nature, often along the lines of “saving the wild.” One night it may be rhinos, another elephants. Pandas are always popular. Recently it was reported in the Huffington Post that turtle eggs had hatched for the first time in a hundred years on an island in the Galapagos. But all of these minor triumphs are at odds with what Elizabeth Kolbert writes about in her book, "The Sixth Extinction." (Henry Holt, 2014)

Kolbert — you may recognize her name if you are a reader of The New Yorker — writes that five periods of massive extinction have been identified by scientists, and the sixth is happening right now. 

There’s nothing uplifting about this book, and at times it all seems futile. And yet the “story” Kolbert tells is fascinating — at times, even fun. (Through it all the author seems to maintain a healthy sense of humor.) If you’re going to watch a train wreck, you might as well have a good seat. Kolbert gives us one as she travels around the world spotlighting scientists and the research they are doing in forests, on mountaintops, and in the sea. Sometimes she is eerily close to home, with a chapter on the vanishing bats in New England and another with the vulnerable situations of islands.

Kolbert first takes us back to the 1800s when ancient, huge and unknown bones were discovered in America and shipped back to Europe for investigation by scientists of the time. The theories of science are ever-changing, as Kolbert shows us. What did all these archaeological discoveries mean?  What can be gleaned from the remnants of hundreds, thousands, even millions of years ago?

Back in the 1800s scientists often, as they do now, refute each other. There were those on opposite ends of the interpretation-of-evidence-department. It’s an interesting history of thought, and thoughts are always changing.  Nothing is set in stone.

Or is it?

Let’s look at the fossils, for evidently they can tell scientists, who can then tell us, a lot about what has happening, and happened, a very long time ago. I admit to being very much a “newbie” in the area of plate tectonics, glaciers, and all things “fossil.” It is only with reading this book that I can now differentiate the Cenozoic,  Mesozoic and  Paleozoic periods as old, older, and oldest. (I admit to having been fast-tracked in high school, thereby skipping entirely over “Earth Science.”) 

Interestingly, Block Island is one of only two sites in the Northeast United States that can offer a glimpse, via fossils in lignite of what was present  90 million years ago. The other is in New Jersey. Just a year ago, scientists from the Yale Peabody Museum came out to look for some to augment the collection.

But I digress. After all I am trying to tell you about a book without actually telling you anything about it, other than that you should read it. 

Alas, there is one exception I feel I must make. As interesting as the book is, the most compelling chapters, for me, were those on ocean acidification. This is an issue that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, and seems to have been filed in the recesses of my mind under “probably not good.”

An awful lot of the excess carbon our modern society sends into the air ends up being absorbed into the oceans, where it is increasing the overall acidity of the water. The rate at which this has been happening is astounding, and has far-reaching implications for ocean life, especially those that rely on utilizing calcium to build exoskeletons, or shells. (Witness the ever-shrinking coral reefs.) 

Kolbert goes diving with a team off the coast of Italy to examine the situation. There, scientists are studying areas around ocean vents where the water is always slightly more acidic than the surrounding water. It gives a glimpse of what will happen in the future if we stay on our present, carbon emissions happy, course.

When one ponders the decline of shellfish, so important to our New England life, bells start going off. In recent years the commercial harvest of clams in Rhode Island has fallen dramatically. And what about the waters of Block Island’s own Great Salt Pond, in which the Shellfish Commission has had to manually seed shellfish in order to satisfy demand? We may think of our local environment as relatively pristine, but no open body of water is exempt. Carbon travels the world, despite where it originates. Although the Shellfish Commission is trying to come up with a long-range plan to make the Great Salt Pond self sustainable, it may, I hate to say, be an impossible dream.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Kolbert’s final chapter: “The Thing With Feathers,” explains why such things as turtles hatching in the Galapagos give us hope, and why each such seemingly insignificant gain, in the dire face of things seems like such a triumph. On the other hand, even if one is feeling smug about owning an energy efficient car, buying organic food, installing energy efficient lighting, or planting trees – baby steps we all can and should make, Kolbert delivers a sucker punch in her final pages, for overall, this sixth extinction is largely man made:

“If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book. You should.

“The Sixth Extinction,” now out in paperback, is available at Island Bound Bookstore and at the Island Free Library.