By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Elizabeth Kolbert
Narration by: Anne Twomey
Homo sapiens are the only species that has the capacity to change events to conform to plan. Elizabeth Kolbert argues that the fate of life on earth is subject to nature and human volition; i.e. the randomness of nature’s cataclysmic events and the will of society. “The Sixth Extinction” recounts the history of five worldwide extinctions. In recounting that history, Kolbert and most scientists suggest there is a pending “…Sixth Extinction”. The difference between the first five and a presumed sixth is the birth and maturity of humankind.
To some listeners, this story is tiresome. It is considered tiresome because the future seems far away. Species have become extinct ever since science began to understand evolution. The story of extinction offers no sense of urgency. Numerous futurists dwell on the extinction of wildlife that is either part of the natural order of existence, a cataclysm of human-caused origin, or part of “God’s” plan. Some believe science will provide an escape hatch for human beings to avoid extinction. History and Kolbert’s book suggest a “…Sixth Extinction” is inevitable, regardless of one’s belief.
The reason Kolbert’s book is popular and is awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction is because she writes well and has a point of view that offers hope for the future of humanity. On the one hand, Kolbert decries the death of bat species, the acidification of earth’s oceans, and the loss of coral reefs, but Kolbert infers human life prevails because it has shown the capacity to change.
The real fear that Kolbert, and many other journalists, scientists, and politicians talk about, is that society will not respond to man-made degradation of earth’s environment soon enough to delay an inevitable “…Sixth Extinction”. Kolbert infers artificial preservation of endangered species is a fool’s errand in the face of habitat destruction. After all, what is the point of preserving a species in a zoo or in a frozen state of animation if natural habitats are destroyed?
A way of interpreting Kolbert’s theme is to argue that loss of life’s diversity is a consequence of earth becoming an island of sameness; i.e. an island where the environment is degraded and species are introduced to the same bacteria, the same pollutants, and the same adaptive needs to survive. Biodiversity becomes less possible because of the interconnections of continents, consequent to international travel and species introduction to all the continents of the world.
One may argue this is the fault of human civilization but that is wasted intellectualization. The advance of civilization naturally induces loss of biodiversity. Part of Kolbert’s theme suggests interconnectedness is the proximate cause of loss of biodiversity but it does not have to be the cause for a “…Sixth Extinction”.
Kolbert’s argument reminds one of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
“The Sixth Extinction” notes that human beings are the only species that shows the capacity to change events to conform to plan. What the world’s people need is the political will to mitigate the causes of human environmental pollution. It is not that “The Sixth Extinction” will not occur but that human beings need not be the proximate cause.