Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s most recent book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, takes a hard look at the science and intellectual history of extinction as well as the human role in this current mass extinction. Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, recently spoke with Tricycle contributing editor Sam Mowe about writing on extinction, geological and evolutionary history, and how humans have changed the face of the planet as no other animal has done.
Why should we care about extinction? I get asked that question a lot, and I have to say that at first I was surprised by it. But I’m not anymore.
I’d say there are two answers to this question. The first is this: What we are really talking about here is the fabric of life itself—the beauty and diversity of life on this planet. We are unraveling that fabric very, very quickly. If you don’t care about life on earth, what do you care about? It would be hard for me to imagine exactly what that would be.
If you’re asking, “Really, literally, what does extinction mean to me, sitting here in Manhattan”—or wherever one is sitting—the second, more practical answer is that there have been moments in the past where diversity has suddenly plummeted and cascade effects have taken place. And though we can’t predict what the outcome of those kinds of events is going to be for any particular species, the past has shown us that odds are it will be very, very bad for a lot of them. So if you want to look at it purely from a human-centered point of view, I’d say, “Well, if you were choosing a moment to be alive on earth, you would not choose a moment of mass extinction; it’s a very risky moment to be alive.”
One paleontologist I know speaks about the history of life on earth as “long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.” We seem to be in one of those panic moments now, and we don’t know what the outcome is going to be, including for ourselves.
Was writing about extinction a tactic so that you could write about the effects of climate change in a more concrete way? Was it a way to make it a story that was easier to connect to for readers? No, it was more that I came to see that climate change was part of an even bigger story. It was like the story just kept getting bigger and bigger. And the bigger story is all of these ways that we’re changing the planet on a permanent basis: climate change, ocean acidification, moving things around the planet, scrambling the biosphere, and changing the surface of the earth—all the ways in which we are permanently inscribing ourselves on the history of the planet. The side effect of all of these turns out to be extinction.
You are one of the environmental writers who use the term “Anthropocene.” What is it? The Anthropocene is a term that’s been given for the current geological epoch. Geological time is divided into all sorts of periods. Some are big, massive lengths of time, which are called eras. Others are really long, but not as long as eras, and those are called periods. And then there are somewhat smaller times, which are called epochs.
Officially, we live in what’s called the Holocene, the epoch since the end of the last glaciation. We’re about twelve thousand years into it at this point. The question before geologists now is whether we are living in a new epoch of geological time that should be called the Anthropocene because it’s going to be defined by human impact on the planet. On the one hand, that’s a formal question in geology that is being looked at by the people who look at those questions. On the other hand, it’s a more informal question, and informally the term has already been adopted. You see it all the time now in the scientific literature.
Related: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
The subtitle of The Sixth Extinction is An Unnatural History. How would you respond to the statement “Humans are nature, so everything we do is natural”? Regarding the Anthropocene, on some level that’s neither here nor there. You could say that a meteor strike is natural in the sense that it’s part of the cosmos or whatever. But a meteor strike is unusual, and its effect is an unusual and devastating one for many other species. So I don’t think whether we are “natural” or not is the issue. Obviously, we’re having a very dramatic impact on the planet and on other species. And if you want to say that’s natural, fine. And if you want to say it’s unnatural, fine. We need to decide whether we like the impact we’re having, not whether we’re natural or not.
Isn’t it unusual for one species to have such a great impact on their ecosystem? What is it about humans as a species that makes us so different from other species? The simple answer to that is that we don’t obey the rules of evolution as they’ve been established for the last several billion years: We don’t wait for random advantageous genetic mutations before we come up with a new way of doing things. Instead, we change the way we do things really, really fast, by thinking about it, by culture, by inventing a new tool. And when that comes up against virtually every other species in the world, which can only change as fast as the speed of evolution, you get a mismatch in terms of timescales, and that’s exactly why we see such high extinction rates right now—because humans are very good at changing the world very rapidly, and most organisms are very slow to adapt.
Is this what you were referring to when you wrote, “It might be nice to imagine that there was once a time when man lived in harmony with nature. It’s not clear that he ever really did”? As soon as we left Africa—and some people would say even before we left Africa—humans started to have an impact on other species, especially large animals, driving some of them to an extinction that otherwise would have happened only very rarely in the ordinary course of evolutionary history. That there was a wave of extinctions wherever humans arrived is quite well established at this point.
Another thing that has come out is that there were a lot of our very close cousins—I shouldn’t say a lot, but there were probably several of them—around fifty thousand or one hundred thousand years ago, like the Neanderthals. And now they’re gone. The fact that we’re alone on the planet is probably our own fault on some level. I think that’s a very key fact to know about us.
What is? Well, that we did in some of our nearest relatives.
Was that something that we knew we were doing, do you think? Quite possibly not. And it’s possible, some people would argue, that we just absorbed these other people. I don’t know how credible that is, to be honest. There used to be a weird scientific theory that only one human species could be alive at any given time. But now we know that’s not true; there have definitely been times very recently where there were several human species alive at one time. So the question of what happened to them—it’s increasingly clear what happened to them was us. They couldn’t survive alongside us.
This is all a little distressing to hear, and likewise, The Sixth Extinction is distressing to read. You write about climate change, ocean acidification, and the loss of biodiversity, but you don’t tell us what we should do about it. Was that on purpose? Not giving prescriptions for political action was something that I thought about a lot. It’s certainly what’s expected at the end of an environmental book. Generally, there’s an arc environmental writers tend to take of laying out the problem and then saying, “But there’s something we can do.” That’s the payoff for having read the book.
I decided pretty early on that what I was laying out wasn’t just one major earth-changing problem or phenomenon; it was several. There wasn’t any way to say at the end of all that, “Okay, but here’s what we’re going to do.” It just seemed incommensurate. This isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of things you can do—but I don’t have the way to change the globe back to how it used to be.
I outline all the ways that we’re changing the world— many, unprecedented ways—and I don’t have an answer to how we’re going to stop doing that. I’m sure that some people were disappointed in that, and felt that they’d been cheated in some way. But I felt that I had an obligation to the material to not give any easy answers at the end, because there are no easy answers.
One could interpret your decision not to give answers to these problems as not being very hopeful. How optimistic about the future are you? I mean, I don’t think you write a book called The Sixth Extinction because you’re a wide-eyed optimist. But the book lays out a trajectory of human history, with chapters that go back fifty thousand years. Humans have been at this world-altering project—and this project of causing other species to go extinct—for quite a long time now. It’s not the sort of project that, with 7.3 billion of us on the planet, is suddenly going to end.
We’re ratcheting up our impact in just about every imaginable way right now, and there are a lot of decisions we’re going to be making, consciously or unconsciously, that are going to impact other species, and a lot of choices for us to make that will maximize or minimize that impact. I’m trying to bring those choices into consciousness, because right now we are simply making them unconsciously; we are making them by not making them. And I think that’s a pretty bad way to go about it.
In the future, we can’t just say, “Well, we didn’t know.” We do know. And even if we decide just to sort of muddle along, that represents a choice.
Do you think it’s responsible for people who deeply care about the earth to have children? That is a really good question. I think that a very persuasive moral argument can be made that it’s not. I myself, however, have three children—although two of them are twins, I want to point out—so obviously I wasn’t persuaded enough by that argument not to have children. But if someone tells me, “I decided not to have children because the world really doesn’t need more people,” I think that’s a very defensible ethical choice, and though it’s not the choice I made, I certainly have a lot of respect for people who have.
Did you grapple with that when you were deciding to have children? Absolutely. I found out that I was having twins for my second child, which was supposed to be my second and last child and ended up being my second and third child. So it was definitely something that I grappled with. But here they are, 15 years later.
I think about it a lot. In my head, the ethical decision is probably not to add more people to an overpopulated planet. But at the same time, I probably will anyway. Welcome to three billion years of evolution. Why are we all here? Because someone decided, as it were, to have children. That’s hardwired into us. There’s that famous line—“Nothing makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” Your position makes perfect sense in the light of evolution.
Unfortunately, we’re faced right now with this knowledge, this rather terrible knowledge, that what we really devote our lives to—not reproducing in some mindless way but having children—is in conflict, to a certain extent, with what we know about the world. It’s perhaps the starkest example of how our knowledge of what we’re doing to the planet is in conflict with what we have evolved to do.
What’s your stance on the de-extinction projects that I’ve been hearing so much about, where we would use biotechnology to revive extinct species? Like everyone else, I think it’s a cool idea. But there are also two things I’d like to say about it. First, the more you look at the actual mechanics of it, the harder it becomes. I was just talking to people at the American Museum of Natural History, for example, and they made the point that even if we could bring back a mammoth, we would not be bringing back the bacteria that lived in the mammoth’s gut that allowed it to digest whatever it was that mammoths ate. So we already don’t have a complete mammoth.
And we’re not going to have a mammoth that had mammoth parents who taught it how to be a mammoth. So we would just have this weird, pathetic, kind of freakish animal, even if we could get something that genetically resembled a mammoth. We really have to think about what we would actually end up with, even if we were as successful as we could possibly imagine being. So that’s one set of problems.
And then another, even more profound problem is: If you’re in an age where things are going extinct all the time, all around you, de-extinction projects are really a sideshow. They have nothing to do with the problem at hand, which is that we’re losing species and their habitats at a very rapid rate. So even if we could bring back a handful of species in some interesting and cool way, it wouldn’t amount to much in the face of what’s happening.
De-extinction could pretty easily be used as an excuse for people not to worry about driving animals to extinction in the first place. Yes. It’s one of these “technology will save us” ideas. But when you look at it closely, it dissolves on contact. De-extinction would be another incredibly laborious, intensive way of bringing back a small number of organisms. We would spend a lot of money and energy doing that, and meanwhile, we let the world go to hell.
In humanity’s history, there have been moments where new ways of understanding the natural world suddenly broke open and previous ways of understanding the world were discarded, like when the “blue marble” photograph of the earth was taken from space in 1972. Do you think that that might happen now? Or is it too late to collectively get our act together? Obviously, it’s too late for the many creatures that have gone extinct or are on the edge of extinction. But there are still a lot of decisions that are going to be made by mankind collectively, and perhaps unconsciously, that are going to determine the future of life for a very long time to come. We could make those decisions worse or better. And definitely one of the motives for writing The Sixth Extinction was to try to help us make them better. That being said, at this point there’s no way we can avoid a lot of serious impacts to the planet and to other species. They’re already taking place.
It seems like some environmentalists are afraid of being honest about the damage that is unavoidable at this point. Like they’re afraid of it being used as ammo for us not doing anything. Right. It’s really important that people grow up. We have to be able to acknowledge that there’s a lot of bad shit happening, and also that we have a responsibility to try to minimize that. Those are not logically inconsistent. But we seem to have this somewhat infantile view that it’s either all going to end well, like a Disney movie, or else I don’t want to have anything to do with it. That’s just not really a useful approach to have at this point.
Nurturing What We Have Been Given
The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje
What is a seed? A seed is something that has the potential of growth inside of it. It offers limitless possibilities for life. In Buddhism, we often talk about the seed of bodhicitta, the potential for an awakened mind that resides in all sentient beings. This seed is the basis of Buddhist practice—the generation of wisdom and compassion toward all sentient beings. Without bodhicitta, there can be no enlightenment. And all of us—no matter who we are and what we have done—hold this seed of bodhicitta within ourselves.
It seems to me that the earth is the very embodiment of bodhicitta—she unconditionally provides the grounds for life and no matter who we are or what we have done, we equally receive compassion from her. It is quite amazing when one thinks about it— that there is oxygen which we can breathe, that there is water which we can drink, and that there is soil on which plants can grow to feed us. Aren’t these miracles that we should feel some awe toward? Instead, we are very busy trying to claim the earth’s bounty for ourselves and deprive others in the act. We behave in the exact opposite way to her! And we are very shocked when there are consequences to our collective actions such as natural disasters, climate change, and wars. Because we spend so little time nurturing the bodhicitta seed, we even lack the ability to acknowledge that our actions have brought these troubles to the world.
It is very important that we emulate the earth’s attitude of generosity toward us. Just as we would do when receiving a precious gift from someone we love, we need to nurture what we have been given. This includes the earth’s many wonders and biodiversity, as well as our relationship with all sentient beings. It also includes our own minds and our own bodhicitta seed. We should nurture this precious seed of compassion and give it all the light and nourishment it needs to grow. If we are able to do this, we will no longer simply be a burden upon the earth but will be a source of relief.
From The Seed of Compassion. Reprinted with permission of The Golden Sufi Center Publishing.
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