[Marxism] The Sixth Extinction

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 3 20:08:54 MST 2014

NY Times Feb. 3, 2014
Cataclysm Has Arrived: Man’s Inhumanity to Nature
‘The Sixth Extinction,’ on Endangered and Departed Species

An Unnatural History
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Illustrated. 319 pages. Henry Holt and Company. $28.

The plight of doomed, extinct or nearly extinct animals is embodied in 
Elizabeth Kolbert’s arresting new book, “The Sixth Extinction,” by two 
touching creatures.

Suci, a 10-year-old Sumatran rhino who lives at the Cincinnati Zoo, is 
one of the few of her endangered species to be “born anywhere over the 
past three decades.” Efforts by her caregivers to get her pregnant 
through artificial insemination, Ms. Kolbert reports, have been 
complicated because female Sumatrans are “induced ovulators”: “They 
won’t release an egg unless they sense there’s an eligible male around,” 
and “in Suci’s case, the nearest eligible male is ten thousand miles away.”

A Hawaiian crow (or alala) named Kinohi, one of maybe a hundred of his 
kind alive today, was born at a captive breeding facility more than 20 
years ago and now lives at the San Diego Zoo. He is described as an odd, 
solitary bird, who does not identify with other alala, and has refused 
to mate with other captive crows, despite his human caregivers’ hope 
that he will contribute to his species’ limited gene pool. “He’s in a 
world all to himself,” the zoo’s director of reproductive physiology 
said of Kinohi. “He once fell in love with a spoonbill.”

In these pages, Ms. Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a 
former reporter for The New York Times, uses Kinohi and Suci and the 
stories of other imperiled or already vanished species vividly to 
illustrate the fallout of what some scientists have called the sixth 
extinction — caused not by some unstoppable force of nature (like a 
falling asteroid or plummeting temperatures) but by mankind’s 
transformation of the ecological landscape.)

Ms. Kolbert wrote a lucid, chilling 2006 book about global warming 
(“Field Notes From a Catastrophe”), and in “The Sixth Extinction,” she 
employs a similar methodology, mixing reporting trips to far-flung parts 
of the globe with interviews with scientists and researchers. Her 
writing here is the very model of explanatory journalism, making highly 
complex theories and hypotheses accessible to even the most 
science-challenged of readers, while providing a wonderfully tactile 
sense of endangered (or already departed) species and their shrinking 
habitats.  She writes as a popularizer — or interpreter — of material 
that has been excavated by an army of scientists over the years and, in 
many cases, mapped by earlier writers.

Her book covers some ground that will be familiar to readers of books 
like “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen, “The Ghost With Trembling 
Wings” by Scott Weidensaul and the writings of the biologist Edward O. 
Wilson. It even borrows the title of a 1995 book by Richard Leakey and 
Roger Lewin, which also addressed the story of the previous five mass 
extinction events and the human role in the so-called sixth.

The tireless Ms. Kolbert hikes through a Peruvian forest, where “the 
trees were not just trees; they were more like botanical gardens, 
covered with ferns and orchids and bromeliads and strung with lianas.” 
Here, her guide is a forest ecologist named Miles Silman, who’s been 
looking at how global warming restructures ecological communities. She 
meets with the atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, known for his 
pioneering work in ocean acidification (changing pH levels in seawater 
brought about by the absorption of growing levels of carbon dioxide), on 
the Great Barrier Reef off Australia and gives us a succinct — and scary 
— assessment of the deadly effect that growing acidity and rising 
temperatures are having on coral reefs (which, in turn, help support 
“thousands — perhaps millions — of species” directly or indirectly).

In another chapter, about the spread of invasive species (hastened by 
human travel and commerce), she investigates the case of a sudden bat 
die-off in New York and New England, brought about a cold-loving fungus 
that was “accidentally imported to the U.S., probably from Europe.” 
Accompanying wildlife and conservation experts on a hike into the chilly 
depths of Aeolus Cave in Vermont, she sees there a kind of bat hell — 
thousands of dead and dying bats littering the frozen ground, many of 
them crushed and bleeding underfoot.

Ms. Kolbert is nimble at using such dramatic scenes to make sense of 
larger ideas. In the course of this volume, she traces the history of 
human understanding of the concept of extinction (which first developed 
thanks largely to the animal now known as the American mastodon and the 
work of the naturalist Georges Cuvier in revolutionary France), and she 
describes how the understanding of annihilation by catastrophe modified

Whether it was the giant asteroid that took out the dinosaurs at the end 
of the Cretaceous period (one geologist says, “Basically, if you were a 
triceratops in Alberta, you had about two minutes before you got 
vaporized”) or the glaciation believed to have brought an end to the 
Ordovician period, catastrophes have the effect of fundamentally 
altering the rules of the survival game. “Traits that for many millions 
of years were advantageous all of a sudden become lethal,” Ms. Kolbert 
writes, adding that it may be “the very freakishness of the events” that 
made them so deadly, forcing organisms to contend with conditions for 
which they were “evolutionarily, completely unprepared.”

Today’s deadly change agent, Ms. Kolbert observes, is man himself. And 
by the end of this book, she’s left us with a harrowing appreciation of 
the ways in which human beings have been altering the planet: hunting to 
death big mammals (like the mammoth or giant sloth or, more recently, 
elephants and big cats); introducing alien (sometimes invasive) species 
to regions where they disrupt a delicate ecological balance; and 
altering the geologic surface of the earth (damming major rivers, mowing 
down forests and cutting up habitats in ways that impede migration).

Most significant, she says, has been mankind’s effect on the atmosphere. 
By one estimate cited by Ms. Kolbert, the combination of fossil fuel use 
and deforestation has caused the concentration of carbon dioxide in the 
air to rise “by 40 percent over the last two centuries,” while making 
the concentration of methane (“an even more potent greenhouse gas”) more 
than double.

Over the years, Ms. Kolbert writes, “a number of different names have 
been suggested for the new age that humans have ushered in”: including 
the “Catastrophozoic era,” the “Homogenocene,” the “Myxocene” (from the 
Greek word for “slime”) and the “Anthropocene.”

Human-driven change is happening faster than ever — “warming today is 
taking place at least 10 times faster than it did at the end of the last 
glaciation,” she writes — and its fallout looks to be devastating. “It 
is estimated,” Ms. Kolbert says, “that one third of all reef-building 
corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, 
a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all 
birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in 
the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the 
Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.”

Ms. Kolbert shows in these pages that she can write with elegiac poetry 
about the vanishing creatures of this planet, but the real power of her 
book resides in the hard science and historical context she delivers 
here, documenting the mounting losses that human beings are leaving in 
their wake.

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