We Are the First Species to Manage Its Own Extinction - WhoWhatWhy

We Are the First Species to Manage Its Own Extinction

extinction, skull, humans, dinosaurs
Reading Time: 12 minutes

When the nuclear age dawned, people spoke of being “present at the creation.” Man suddenly had the ability to completely remake the world — or to destroy it.

Today, the environmental crises we face, driven by the pillars of climate change, altering our geography, population growth, technology, and short-term thinking, are destroying the planet. 

Some of the destruction is underway already, and it may be too late to reverse it. We may be entering what Elizabeth Kolbert calls The Sixth Extinction, which is also the title of her book.

Kolbert, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast and a Pulitzer Prize winner, explains that, for all the talk about climate change, it’s just the beginning of the problems we face. We are, she says, permanently altering the surface of the planet on a large geographical scale. 

We are combining and moving species around the world that have long been separated. We are creating barriers and roadblocks to the natural movement of species. We are making changes far too fast for most species to keep up with.

Kolbert further points out that we are putting carbon not just into the air but also into the water, which acidifies our oceans and reefs. The changes that we leave behind are permanent, even as we watch it happen in real time.

Kolbert explains that the overriding common theme to all of this is the inevitable extinction of species. Even as we tell ourselves that technology will save us, or that, with 7.2 billion people on the planet, someone will have an answer.

She calmly reminds us that we are losing major parts of our ecosystem, that part of it may cease to function by the middle of the century. It seems, she says, that we are operating as if we have stone age brains coupled with god-like technology.

What it all means is that we may be the first species in the history of the planet to manage our own extinction, or, as the saying goes, we are either at the table, or we are on the menu. 

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. When the nuclear age dawned people spoke of being present at the creation, man suddenly had the ability to completely remake the world anew or even destroy it. Today, our environmental crisis gives us the same power. The existential crisis we face driven by the pillars of population growth, technology, short-term thinking, and denial of science also give us the power to destroy the world. In fact, much of the destruction may already be underway and it may even be too late to reverse some of it.

We may be entering what my guest, Elizabeth Kolbert, calls the sixth extinction. Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of Under the White Sky: Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. She’s a staff writer at the New Yorker where she’s received two national magazine awards. It is my pleasure to welcome Elizabeth Kolbert here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Elizabeth, thanks so much for joining us.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Thanks for having me.

Jeff: It’s great to have you here. We talk a lot about climate change and the impact that that’s having. This really goes beyond that. Talk a little bit about the issues that you’re focusing on in The Sixth Extinction.

Elizabeth: It’s a tale that grew out of climate change and my reporting on that, which was a book that I published almost a decade ago about climate change. I was looking for, in a lot of ways, a follow-up. I was going to do this book, I was going to maybe tell people how to solve climate change or something like that. I kept bumping up against this idea or fact, to put it better, that climate change is really just one of the ways that people are altering the planet on a planetary global scale and on a geological scale. In a way that is going to still be discernible many, many millions of years from now. That’s a thought that certainly changed the way I look at the world and I hope I convey it in a way that changes the way that everyone looks at it.

Among the other ways that we’re altering the planet on a permanent basis, we’re putting a lot of carbon — when we put carbon into the air, we’re also putting it into the water, into the oceans. When CO2 dissolves in water it forms an acid so you’re acidifying the oceans. That’s a very, very serious thing to be doing. We’re moving species all around the world. We’re bringing together these evolutionary lineages that have been separated for, in many cases, 10 of millions of years. That can have very, very serious effects.

We’re just altering the surface of the earth. I think everybody realizes that we’ve altered at least 50 percent of the land surface of the earth so that obviously has a huge impact on species. These are all traces that we’re going to leave, that it will be, for all intents and purposes, permanent. Unfortunately, one of the unifying themes of all this is extinction. All of these changes are happening very rapidly and too rapidly for many creatures to keep up with.

Jeff: As you look back at this, as you look in your reporting at this collision between civilization and the ecosystem of the planet, what do we find to have been the tipping point when all of this really started to take hold, when we started to see even the beginnings of this extinction?

Elizabeth: I think that one of the interesting revelations of the last — even just decade or even just years a lot of important papers have been published — is that this process of altering the planet is really quite old. Human beings had been altering the planet on a pretty significant scale for a pretty long time. For example, people arrived in Australia, modern humans arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago, which is quite an amazing fact. It was not easy to get to Australia 50,000 years ago. When they got there, they encountered this extraordinary array of very large animals. These huge marsupials that are called rhinoceros wombats that seemed to have looked like giant Guinea pigs, huge kangaroos, huge birds, ostrich-like birds but not related to ostriches.

Huge tortoises with horns growing out of their heads. Pretty rapidly within a couple of thousand years, all of those animals were gone. That almost certainly had to do with the arrival of people — that was no coincidence. We see that over and over again, that when people arrived in a new place, the big animals, the slow to reproduce animals, went out and I think that on some level, this goes back way, way further than we might like to even think.

Jeff: One of the questions though is — and I think one of the things that people don’t follow all the way through to its logical conclusion — is the way this potentially will impact us at this point, that it’s not just a question of altering and eliminating these species, but it circles back to have a direct impact on our lives.

Elizabeth: I think that’s one of the great, great questions, of course, how is this going to impact us? Unfortunately, it’s a very, very risky business that we’ve embarked upon. Our impacts are ratcheting up just extraordinarily at an amazing rate, for example the amount of CO2 that we’re putting in the air continues to increase every single year. What the impact of that is going to be on humanity, on human society, which has been founded on a lot of stability when you think about it, is hard to predict. We are very, very unpredictable creatures, but it’s not the kind of gamble that I think smart money would make, let’s put it that way.

Jeff: But in fact, it is the kind of gamble we seem to be taking at the moment.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I guess I would say, we’re taking an uninformed risk. We’re just blithely marching along as if there were no risks. I think it’s really, really important, and many, many people have made this point — I’m certainly not the only person out there making it — but we better make more informed choices. Climate change is a really key and obvious example. We know there are huge risks that we are taking; you would think that for our own sake and certainly for the sake of our kids and our grandchildren, we would try to minimize those risks.

We don’t seem to be doing that. We seem to be denying that there are those risks, but just by denying them doesn’t make them go away.

Jeff: In many ways, even beyond denying them, we also believe sometimes blindly, I suppose, in technology that somehow before the risk actually happens, we will figure out a technological fix.

Elizabeth: Right. Exactly. We love that thought. The fact that there are 7.2 billion of us on the planet seems to support this idea that whatever happens, we just blithely go on. So far human population has kept increasing. Yes, you would have to say that that’s true. That trajectory has so far been ever upward. It’s possible that that will continue. I use the line that you get on a mutual fund perspective in a book: Past performance is no guarantee of future success. The history of life teaches us that many very, very dominant groups of animals, animals that were around for a lot longer than human beings or even primates have been around, are now gone and something did them in.

It wasn’t their own action in general. There are no guarantees in this business. This business is just life.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the species that have disappeared thus far and what impact that’s had in places like the Great Barrier Reef and the Andes and the rainforest.

Elizabeth: The reefs are really interesting and a haunting story. Reefs are a major ecosystem. They’re home to probably millions of species, they are quite amazing places. One of the things I got to do in the process of reporting is to get to go to the Great Barrier Reef, which is, I would say one of the most spectacular places on earth. It stretches over 1,500 miles. When you look down on a reef, you see just this amazing array of life. There’s really this shimmering of crowded, almost city of life let’s say, underwater, incredibly beautiful fish and sharks and rays and turtles and giant clams and things beyond your imagination.

There’s really no analog on land. You never see that much life on land, even in the rainforest. Reefs are being very, very severely affected by a lot of different things. The Great Barrier Reef has lost about half of its coral cover just in the last 30 years, which is very, very alarming. There are pretty robust predictions that if we continue on our merry way, owing to a combination of climate change and ocean acidification, reefs are just going to cease to be able to function by around the middle of this century. Then you would lose this major ecosystem. What the ripple effects of that would be are hard to predict. There have been times in earth history where there’s, what are known as reef gaps, where there have been no reefs and they tend to be associated with very, very severe crises in the history of life.

Jeff: One of the things you’ve talked about is that we don’t really have experience with what we’re going through right now that we’ve never been in a situation where we’ve been both responsible for the extinction of species and had to manage it at the same time.

Elizabeth: To go back to this example of Australia, of humans reaching Australia, and then over the course of many generations probably wiping out the large fauna, the megafauna, they were probably completely unconscious of what they were doing. It was something that took place over many generations. People really didn’t realize presumably what was going on. They didn’t have written records that they handed down at that point. We are in this very, very unusual, I’d say unique position, really where we have such sophisticated science that we have very good predictive powers.

We’re watching these things happen, we occupy all the continents. We have very good data on a lot of species. We’re watching this happen in real time. We are aware of it and we have to, I guess my point would be, we need to really bring this to the top of our awareness and make some choices as opposed to just blindly blundering into a potentially very disastrous future.

Jeff: What do you think is the primary thing that prevents us from facing up to this and making the choices that we might have to make?

Elizabeth: Well, I don’t have a complete psychological profile. I think that one of the interesting things is humans are a product of evolution just like all other organisms. I don’t think it’s one of the fascinating facts about us that while we’re extremely clever, we’re capable of these amazing technologies. We’re not very good. It doesn’t seem like we’re very good at planning very far in the future. Even though we’re capable of doing things that have impact that will last, for all intents and purposes, forever. Ed Wilson has this line about how we have Stone Age brains and godlike technologies. When you bring those together, it’s not necessarily a good outcome.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about previous extinctions and what, in fact, we might learn from looking at the historical record in that regard.

Elizabeth: Well, there’s a lot of work going on right now, looking at the previous five major mass extinctions, which are sometimes known as the big five, and the most recent, the fifth — the one that did in the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago — there’s a pretty broad consensus that that was caused by an asteroid impact. When that was discovered, which was not very long ago, it was only 20-30 years ago, people went back and they felt well, that would be very elegant if each of these extinctions was caused by an asteroid impact.

They went back and they looked for signs of asteroid impact at each one of these moments and they did not find them. Right now, there is no one cause that we can identify for mass extinctions. What seems to unite them is that they’re actually very, very freakish events. The world changes fast in a way that many organisms do not have the capacity to adapt to, they have never encountered this in their evolutionary history. In that sense, we are a logical agent of mass extinction because we are also new to evolutionary history, intelligent creatures like humans, who are really very different in many ways from some other forms of life.

While technologies change the world very, very rapidly and in ways that you can imagine many, many creatures can’t keep up with.

Jeff: In that sense, we really don’t know what the consequence will be from a partial extinction. In other words, 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent of species disappearing — we really don’t know what the tipping point might be in terms of its larger consequences.

Elizabeth: No, exactly. Obviously, none of us have been around through these mass extinctions. In the past I quoted a British paleontologist who said, he says that one of the things that seems to happen during these moments of very rapid change is that the rules of the survival game change. That groups of very dominant organisms such as the dinosaurs were around for quite a long time and doing very, very well are suddenly gone. There’s some reason for that every species of dinosaurs was done in, in that last extinction event.

We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what made them particularly vulnerable and allowed a few mammals who were our evolutionary ancestors to creep through that extinction. When the rules of the survival game change you don’t really know exactly what’s going to come out at the other end. That is another reason why it’s just a very, very big gamble.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about climate change itself and the ways in which the climate change is exacerbating some of these other dangers.

Elizabeth: Well, climate change is occurring very, very rapidly. It’s pretty much everywhere. What happens, what we can very, very clearly see is that many, many species are on a move right. They’re migrating. They’re migrating towards the poles, they’re migrating upslope. This goes for plants as well as animals, goes for things that can’t even move, but can now seed themselves, they spread their seeds. Those seeds now germinate at higher and higher elevations or higher and higher latitudes. When you have everything, you need to migrate to track this climate.

It’s been estimated that to track the climate species would have to move something like 30 feet a day. Incredibly everything on the march at a pretty rapid rate, then what happens when you reach a barrier? Species are capable of tremendous amounts of migration. We know that by looking at, for example, the last ice age was a major climatic change and pretty much, most things made it through that transition by moving. We know they are capable of moving quite long distances, even tiny little organisms, but when you put up these barriers as we have — what about the city of San Francisco, the city of New York, the city of LA, what about a road even, a lot of species don’t even want to cross a road. What happens when you reach a cornfield where there’s nothing for many, many species to eat? We don’t really know what’s going to happen as we create the situation where many, many species are on the move, but also where we have put up these roadblocks. That’s another situation where the rules of the game have just really been altered.

Jeff: Elizabeth Kolbert. Elizabeth, I thank you so much for spending time with us today on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Elizabeth: Thanks for having me.

Jeff: Thank you for listening and for joining us here on the Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


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2 responses to “We Are the First Species to Manage Its Own Extinction”

  1. Avatar Martin says:

    This is a fairly bizarre interview, because Schectman seems to interview Kolbert about her book of 8 years ago (The Sixth Extinction) rather than her current book (Under a White Sky), but Kolbert is too polite to point this out.
    Kolbert’s reporting may be excellent, but she makes banal-to-ludicrous ameliorative observations about the Climatastrophe:

    “Absolutely. I guess I would say, we’re taking an uninformed risk. We’re just blithely marching along as if there were no risks. I think it’s really, really important, and many, many people have made this point — I’m certainly not the only person out there making it — but we better make more informed choices. Climate change is a really key and obvious example. We know there are huge risks that we are taking…”

    What “choices” could “we”make, in reality? Kolbert cannot publicly become a doomer, lest her career and purpose go down in ignominy, so she dances around with greenwashing balderdash.
    Humans have collectively assaulted, plundered, and irreparably destroyed any and all forms and bases of life in the biosphere. Whatever minor alterations that this species can make in this historical imperative will never undo the undeniable effects 0f this plainly evident process.

  2. Avatar Tony Snyder says:

    ‘Cmon. It’s all part of god’s plan. Mankind’s purpose is the destruction of the planet and all the living things upon it. Sit back and enjoy it.