Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so

When I was in college, I took a class called "Natural Disasters and Catastrophes". It was a class almost everyone ended up taking cos it was a 101 science class that fulfilled one of the core requirements and was more interesting than some of the other offerings. I assume so. I assume there were other options but I also don't know anyone that skipped it. The class was pretty much "Look at all of the ways we're going to die. It's going to be horrible."

When I first picked up this book I thought of that class, although this book is about how humans are going to kill us all. So it's the same sense of dread only this time it's mixed with guilt because at least with "Natural Disasters" humans weren't (always) responsible for the stuff that was going to get us. And I don't mean this is a negative for the book, which I really enjoyed.
When the chronology of extinction is critically set against the chronology of human's arrival emerges as the only reasonable answer to the megafauna's disappearance.
Kolbert looks at extinction that humans are directly responsible for, through things like introduction of invasive species and overhunting (something even our cavemen ancestors are responsible for so apparently this has always been our problem) and climate change. Each chapter starts with different animal that's probably going to be gone forever in a couple decades (if they make it that long) and then expands the focus to look at the larger picture. Of how we're destroying everything. BUT she doesn't attack, she doesn't place blame. She just says "Hey, by doing XYZ people have caused these changes which are killing these creatures." and then you get to be like "Well...shit. Now I feel terrible" all on your own.

The title refers to the past five big extinction events (Ordovician-Silurian, Late Devonian, Permian-Triassic, Triassic-Jurassic, and Cretaceous-Paleogene) that luckily we can say people had nothing to do with. This latest extinction event (i.e., a mass extinction or widespread and rapid decrease in life on Earth) which isn't an official extinction event (yet) but one that is happening much faster than any of those previous events.
One of Crutzen's fellow Nobelists reportedly came home from his lab one night and told his wife, "The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world."
When taxonomy was a new thing, the idea of extinction was ludicrous. How can a whole species go from existing to just...not? Now of course we know extinctions are a very real thing. It's a concept it's easy to take for granted. Though now we're in a similar situation with climate change (How can one species really change the ecology of an entire planet so much?). So maybe don't be so closed off to these ideas lest future generations will think you dumb. You know, if future generations...umm exist.

Gif rating:
Title quote from page 265

Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Picador, 2014.