Yes, human-caused extinction is upon us in full force. As science journalist extraordinaire Elizabeth Kolbert tells it, we humans have been killing whatever we could whenever we could since the beginning of our tenure here on earth. First the mastodons, the giant sloths, the great flightless birds, the woolly rhino, then the whales, the gorillas, the tigers, the buffalo, etc. The first cause was ignorance. Primitive humans just didn’t know that they were destroying the source of their subsistence until they had to move on. Today we know the truth.
And that truth is there is nowhere to move on to. This book is a detailed and fascinating delineation of just what we are doing to the planet and how. From the fishes in the sea to the polar bears on the ice: all fall down. Why? Willful ignorance, stupidity, and the devil take tomorrow.
(But it might be said, so what if we kill off all sorts of creatures great and small? We don’t need them. We have our pigs and cows and chickens. We grow corn and soy. Yes, the little foxes are cute and the lions magnificent. But we have zoos and preserves. After you’ve seen a few elephants you don’t need to see vast herds of them.)
This is the view of many people in high places in government and at the helms of giant corporations whose main concern is staying in power and improving the bottom line. But here’s the rub: with the extraordinary rate of the current extinction what we might be left with is nearly sterile oceans, stunted scrub forests, destroyed ecologies and starving humans at one another’s throats. Combine that with global warming and desperate leaders flinging nuclear bombs around, and yes, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
Okay, rant over with. Let me say a few things about this splendid book that is so readable and so full of information, humor and the kind of passion that lights up the pages. Kolbert combines research, interviews and fieldwork into a very readable, vivid and informative narrative that is so good that…well, she won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2015.
Some notes and quotes:
“The reason this book is being written by a hairy biped, rather than a scaly one, has more to do with dinosaurian misfortune than with any particular mammalian virtue.” (p. 91)
“Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly.” (p. 162)
Kolbert notes that during the Pleistocene (2.5 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago) “…temperatures were significantly lower than they are now…,” mainly because the glacial periods tended to be longer than the interglacial periods. What this means is that most life forms are probably not going to be able to deal with the heat “...since temperatures never got much warmer than they are right now.” In other words, we are experiencing an accelerated catastrophe. (p.171)
Kolbert describes the red-legged honeycreeper as “the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.” (p. 178) So naturally I had to Google it. It is indeed beautiful. The reader might want to take a look. It’s very blue with some neat black trim and those incongruous red legs!
Kolbert observes that we are creating a New Pangaea because our global transport systems are sending plants and animals all around the globe. Instead of the continents moving closer together the plants and animals are moving closer together as on a single continent. (p. 208)
A joke: after the journal “Nature” published proof of the existence of the Denisovan hominids because of a DNA-rich finger found in southern Siberia, there came a newspaper headline: “Giving Accepted Prehistoric History the Finger.” (p. 253)
As to the “controversy” over what killed off the megafauna in e.g., North and South America, in Siberia, in Australia, Kolbert minces no words and comes down strong on the likely suspect—us. And as for the Neanderthal, ditto. See chapters XI and XII.
She writes: “Before humans finally did in the Neanderthals, they had sex with them.” She notes that “most people today are slightly—up to four percent—Neanderthal.” (p. 238) Personally, according to “23 and Me,” I am 3.8% Neanderthal.
Review undertaken by Dennis Littrell