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.
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